Sharon Olds | Critical Essay by Suzanne Matson

This literature criticism consists of approximately 9 pages of analysis & critique of Sharon Olds.
This section contains 2,603 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Suzanne Matson

SOURCE: "Talking to Our Father. The Political and Mythical Appropriations of Adrienne Rich and Sharon Olds," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 18, No. 6, November-December, 1989, pp. 35-41.

Matson is a poet and educator. In the following excerpt, she discusses Olds's use of metaphor as a means of articulating her painful and ambivalent feelings towards her father and as a strategy for healing and empowering the divided self of the poet/narrator.

When I first composed the title of this essay, I was unconscious of the grammatical—and hence sematic—blur I had built into my project's announcement. Accustomed to viewing the writers under discussion as powerful originators, I had used the word "of" in the title as belonging to the possessive case: that is, the claims to ownership were Rich's and Olds's. A colleague glanced at my title and saw the slippage immediately: whose appropriations? Uneasily I watched as my agents of appropriation were threatened by the engulfing objective case; claiming and being claimed suddenly seemed dangerously inextricable.

I have grown to appreciate the duplicities of "of" for they seem to be, after all, most to the point in a discussion of the poetry of Rich and Olds. These poets have as a central project scrutiny of the intricacies of belonging, not only in language but in their lives; and not only in their lives but in the cultural givens they live with and would revise. Where, their work asks again and again, does the site of my origination become the predicate of my difference? At what point does the parent, a locus of generation, become a principle of decisive limitation, if not potential danger to the self? Our Father, who art at home as well as in heaven, is yours the only name? And the only power to name?

In Adrienne Rich's volume of poetry, Your Native Land, Your Life, and Sharon Olds's book, The Gold Cell, the Father represents a central figure of opposition, control, and fascination. What initially surprised me about the Father's centrality in these volumes is that both of these poets, each as well established in her career, feel the continuing imperative of dialogue with a controlling male force. It is almost as if these female voices had to come this far in their own development to address Our Father in their own terms, rather than His.

I deliberately blur the distinction between the figure of domestic patriarchy and that of theological/historical/social patriarchy because the poets do. Rich addresses a personal father who then becomes inseparably identified with the ideologies of the religion, class, and politics of the male-controlled group. Olds also addresses a personal father, but his specter becomes so gargantuan in her own memory—the only available medium for re-collecting him—that he becomes mythic.

The dialogic structure is then grotesquely unbalanced. In the poetry of both Olds and Rich the lyric "I" insists on taking a kind of total responsibility for itself: it generates its own identity through a continual probing and analysis of its responses to what it remembers. The Father, on the other hand, remains obdurately silent in the text because he has been magnified by his membership in the political or mythic collective. This serves not so much to un-voice him as to make most of the available voices his. The names, laws, and prophecies are imbedded in his body, his corpus. Within this unbalanced dialogic the poet must seek a strategy that licenses her voice, hence her identity, against this penetrating silence.

As Alicia Ostriker points out in her comprehensive study Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America, poets from Anne Bradstreet to Emily Dickinson have exploited the tension between what they felt they could and could not say in address or answer to a male-controlled literary establishment and culture. Like subversives everywhere they developed double voices to encode the realities of their desires, ambitions, and disaffections within a publically acceptable discourse. Bradstreet's penultimate stanza of "The Prologue" is a flagrant example:

       Let Greeks be Greeks, and women what they are;
       Men have precedency and still excel,
       It is but vain unjustly to wage war;
       Men can do best, and women know it well.
       Preeminence in all and each is yours;
       Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours.

Whether this is read to be as acidly ironic as it seems to a modern audience, or merely as the demurral of a wifely Puritan conscience against the outwardly directed energies of her own talent, the point remains the same: the safety of the female artist-self depends upon disguise and indirection. Ostriker writes: "to be a creative woman in a gender-polarized culture is to be a divided self … both the structure of the split self in women's poems, and the characteristically acerbic voice used by many women poets to articulate their dilemma, compose a reflection and critique of cultural dualism."

Certainly the skillful manipulation of two meanings at once is at the heart of metaphor and so part of the poet's province and power, be the poet male or female. The difference lies, of course, in the nature of the impulse to duplicity—is it a socially determined necessity, or an aesthetic and epistomological testing of language's expressive force? The female poet who is at once constrained by the former necessity and, through her artistry, achieves the latter stage of superability, writes against large odds indeed. She may, thereby, prove genius. But only when she frees herself from the defensive barriers between hidden and social selves, will she be whole. And with a whole self comes the fullest power to act.

This is not the place to trace the large pattern of emergent whole selves in twentieth-century women's poetry. Ostriker argues that the steely control of Marianne Moore and even the sour brilliance of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton are still evidence of the problem of divided selfhood. She writes:

To approach the strategy of this style from another angle, we need look no further than Laing's observation that an ontologically uneasy person may adopt, to the point of caricature, the personality of his oppressor. Control, impersonality, and dispassionateness are supposedly normative masculine virtues in any case, and are favored by the contemporary literary climate. The cooler the voice, the warmer the reception, is a good rule of thumb. An intelligent woman poet may have every reason in the world to construct, as her fortress, a perversely exaggerated version of an acceptable style.

What interests me about the recent books of Adrienne Rich and Sharon Olds is how little their relationship to their audience—both the audience consisting of the addressee in the poems as well as the wider circle of readers—depends upon the kind of rhetorical fortress Ostriker identifies. And yet, as I mentioned earlier, a crucial area of focus in each of these works remains the dialogic relation to the Father.

Both Rich and Olds seem to have found formal approaches that are no longer dictated by inherited tropes. They have found ways of unleashing poetic energies and freedoms that are no longer purely defensive. They have decided to call some of the shots….

Instead of manipulating prosody, Sharon Olds used dramatically prolific and unapologetic metaphors as a crucial means of empowering the self. She will tell her stories as exactly as she can, and exactitudes of rage, of tyranny, of abuse, and of overwhelming desire demand conferring likenesses that will leap across the distance of repressed memory and pain. When the speaker's soul will slip "from between my ribs like a tiny hotel soap" she is compressing information both about the soul and about the startling apprehension of things in the world. The power of saying, of making connections between the world's things and the life of the soul, fills the speaker with energy and control.

The short, humorous poem "The Pope's Penis," is wholly fueled by metaphor:

       It hangs deep in his robes, a delicate
       clapper at the center of a bell.
       It moves when he moves, a ghostly fish in a
       halo of silver seaweed, the hair
       swaying in the dark and the heat—and at night,
       while his eyes sleep, it stands up
       in praise of God.

The speaker implicitly acknowledges that she is discussing the unmentionable by her metaphorical indirection; at the same time, such indirection allows her to find analogous names that have a demystifying power over the sacred, hidden penis. By making the penis first into "a delicate clapper," she transforms it into the Pope's articulate organ, more central than the tongue and the tongue's abstract power to the world. Next, as the fish that "moves when he moves" she emphasizes the Pope's inescapable physical nature, though the mitigating words "ghostly" and "halo" try unsuccessfully to render the penis insubstantial. The battle that the Pope loses with his physical nature in the last two lines is cleverly couched in religious language, just as the earlier metaphors partook of the iconography of the church. Though the Pope might wish to transcend or deny the body, the poet's metaphors fuse body to spirituality, thus allowing him no sterile separation of the two.

It is interesting to note how baldly unmetaphorical the title is. I think the point here is that the poet will not shirk the direct confrontation with the body; indeed, Olds often names the body and its parts with an explicitness far beyond any decorous concern with the reader's sense of modesty. But by doing so she disarms the words as inherited metaphors themselves, metaphors that have phallocentrically created special "dirty" vocabularies for the private use of men, or just as exclusively, clinical vocabularies for the use of controlling medical figures. Both special languages have to do with the tradition of articulate male power over the mute female body; Olds reclaims both the power to speak for her own body and, with a delightful voluptuous arrogance, usurps the descriptive role as well. She traces bodies slowly and deliberately with her tongue: it is a gesture in which one feels the generosity of a lover, the inner necessity of a mother animal, and the conscious aestheticism of the artist.

The large extension of metaphor is myth, and Olds employs the old stories much as Rich employs the old forms: she will selectively reuse them, but their use is predicated on her transforming powers of narration. In the poem "Saturn," the speaker writes "no one knew / my father was eating his children." It requires the double vision of the poet, the one who sees both pattern and particular, to read the mythic archetype in the picture of her drunken father sprawled and snoring on the couch. "You would have seen / only a large, handsome man / heavily asleep, unconscious," she goes on to say, metaphorically interpreting the devouring of her brother by her father as a series of gourmand snacks ("sucked at the wound / as one sucks at the sockets of lobster. He took / my brother's head between his lips and snapped it like a cherry off the stem.") The feeding off his boy is described in almost loving detail, as though there is a kind of sympathy for the paternal appetite, and the poem closes:

       […] This is what he wanted,
       to take that life into his mouth
       and show what a man could do—show his son
       what a man's life was.

This poem magnifies her father and makes him into a kind of primal, irrepressible force, but I do not think it either forgives or condemns him. Rather, it seems to me to expose the self-destructiveness of the father: to eat one's son—one's image, as it were—is to commit a suicide. The "man's life," which comes to nothing at the mercy of its unconscious and uncontrolled drives, is swallowed by itself.

In "Late Poem to My Father" the poet comments on the cruelty her father's parents presumably practiced on him:

       […] And what they did to you
       you did not do to me. When I love you now,
       I like to think I am giving my love
       directly to that boy in the fiery room,
       as if it could reach him in time.

By collapsing the generations so that the speaker becomes a potential protective force for her own father as a child, she imaginatively short-circuits the violent cycle of abuse and range. Her new configuration involves the forgiveness, compassion, and impulse to protect which are traditional female virtues, and yet this is not the voice of a coerced dependent. Rather it is the artist-voice, one who has taken over the responsibility for examining and defining her relations. In the closing lines of "After 37 Years My Mother Apologizes for My Childhood," the speaker says "I

        took you in my arms, I said It's all right,
        don't cry, it's all right, the air filled with
        flying glass, I hardly knew what I
        said or who I would be now that I had forgiven you.

In this moment when the pattern of abuser and victim is shattered, the daughter realizes in the moment of saying, that forgiveness implies new responsibilities toward the self. The paradigm that has just been exploded was one that locked both participants into the stasis of a death-grip. Now, the speaker is like the writer with a blank page: it is a precipice of power, fluid possibilities of creation, and frightening autonomy. The writer at this point can face the true and genderless existential crisis of the artist.

Olds dramatically fuses this existential dilemma with her own revisionist mythmaking. In another mother-daughter poem entitled "What if God," she talks about the mother's hot misery rolled over her "like a / tongue of lava from the top of a mountain." She wonders:

       what was He doing as He saw her weep in my
       hair and slip my soul from between my
       ribs like a tiny hotel soap, did He
       wash His hands of me as I washed my
       hands of Him? Is there a God in the house?
       Is there a God in the house? Then reach down and
       take that woman off that child's body,
       take that woman by the nape of the neck like a young cat and
       lift her up and deliver her over to me …

[Rhetorically, Olds] uses a language reminiscent of Plath or Sexton when she combines the cry to doctor/God in "Is there a God in the house?" But she does not stop at the point of insisting on the God's distorted position of power. Rather, if there is a God, the poet issues both a smart reproof on behalf of the victimized child and a brisk command to turn over the business of vengeance to the speaker, since He has botched the whole affair so badly. Notice that the vengeance itself is couched in the animal figure of a mother cat. Therefore the return of power to the female speaker is an escape from the Old Testament Law of eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth, to some corrective of the mother's aggressive drive which will be applied by nature. If there is, on the other hand, no God, as seems likely by the unanswered cry, it really amounts to the same consequence, since the poet has, by virtue of reimagining this scene with herself in final control, usurped his role while redefining it, through the mother-cat image….

In Olds's poem "I Go Back to May 1937," the speaker contemplates a photograph of her parents before they were married. Rather than wish them apart and herself unborn, she ends the poem by reconciling their future guilt with her own rhetorical power to absolve it: "Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it." This is again a godlike status she ends up claiming for herself, and the Jovian Father who usurped her early imagination with his hugeness, his hairiness, and the mystery of his phallus, must now wrestle with the independent voice, a maker of her own myths.

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This section contains 2,603 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Suzanne Matson
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