Sharon Olds | Critical Review by Lisa Zeidner

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Sharon Olds.
This section contains 607 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Lisa Zeidner

Critical Review by Lisa Zeidner

SOURCE: "Empty Beds, Empty Nests, Empty Cities," in The New York Times Book Review, March 21, 1993, pp. 14, 16.

Zeidner is an American novelist, poet, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, she offers a mixed review of The Father.

William Butler Yeats declared that "only two topics can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mood—sex and the dead." Sharon Olds has set out to prove his point, writing with ferocious clarity about the body and "the world / of the nerves," site of all delight and despair. While the message is hardly new, what has catapulted Ms. Olds to the forefront of American poets is her fearless, gritty celebration of a woman's physical nature, not just in lovemaking but in menstruation, childbirth and motherhood. There's refreshingly little mist in her mysticism.

Her fourth collection, The Father, is a series of poems about a daughter's bedside vigil for a father dying of cancer, and her grief after his death. Despite the archetypal sound of the title's pater, we have met this particular man before, in past poems. In previous books, Ms. Olds has written with un-self-conscious candor about the entangled feelings of awe and anger that the tall, strong, cold, cigar-smoking man evoked in her.

But now the tumor had reduced him to his disease, and Ms. Olds observes its progress unflinchingly. Whole poems revolve around the grim mechanics of the intravenous drip, the glass of mucus on the night stand ("my father has to gargle, cough, / spit a mouthful of thick stuff / into the glass every ten minutes or so") and the smell of his sweat, "like wet cement."

Ms. Olds's style is breathless, with simple observations tumbling her forward until she seems almost to collide with insight; most of her best poems thus resist excerpting. In "His Smell," she somehow moves us from the pungent smell of sweat to her father's death and her reaction to it:

       After his last breath, he lay there
       tilted on his side, not moving,
       not breathing, making no sound,
       but he smelled the same….
       I had thought the last thing between us
       would be a word, a look, a pressure
       of touch, not that he would be dead
       and I would be bending over him
       smelling him, breathing him in
       as you would breathe the air, deeply, before
       going into

For a cycle of poems, The Father is unusually narrow in focus. Though a stepmother is mentioned, we learn nothing about the narrator's feelings toward her. There are no visiting siblings, no nurses, no lore about the man in his prime—no world at all beyond the hospital bed. Like a miner's lamp, Ms. Olds's attention is fixed on one thing, the man's wasted body. Several poems in sequence will approach one moment from almost identical angles, as if the poet were an action photographer desperately clicking away.

The deliberate tunnel vision is the book's originality and its liability. Ms. Olds has written more polished poems about both death and her father in past collections. Those poems have a different kind of power when juxtaposed with explorations of her tenderness for her children or her unbridled pleasure in sex. Here, without that context, Ms. Olds often seems to be reprising her own themes and images too doggedly.

Yet the poems allow her to examine grief with new depth and surprising delicacy. Pointedly, there is no grand moment of release. Rather, we see the painstaking process of letting go, as the world beyond illness creeps back and the narrator confronts the impossibility of understanding her father's fate—any man's fate—in any definitive way:

            I think of you daily
       but it isn't even you, a dead
       man of ground bone, it wasn't
       you even alive.

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This section contains 607 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Lisa Zeidner
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