Sharon Olds | Critical Review by Claudia Keelan

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Sharon Olds.
This section contains 1,197 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Claudia Keelan

Critical Review by Claudia Keelan

SOURCE: "That Which Is Towards," in Poetry Flash, No. 247, October-November, 1993, pp. 1, 4-5, 14-15.

Keelan is an editor and poet. In the following excerpt, she offers a favorable assessment of The Father.

Though I have attempted to discard much of the dogma of my childhood Catholicism, I have never tried, or even desired, to expatriate myself from either the living or crucified image of Christ. I've been looking today at the colored pictures of the Stations of the Cross in an old St. Joseph's Missal I found in the garage. I never realized before how beyond morality the prayers for the Stations of the Cross are. By entering the ritual, one has already agreed on a fixed end, Station # 14, to be exact, where Christ is finally laid in the tomb. It's only three days later when he is resurrected that any real judgment occurs, and his later ascension leaves us alone to find him in ourselves. It's hard to love that God, the one who leaves, who has no body. But before he becomes simply an idea, he's entirely body, bearing his cross, falling, holding his mother, allowing himself to be helped, falling again, giving his image away, etc. It's only after he resurrects that He earns the capital 'H'. In my missal, he's watching as the nails go into his hand. It is probably the way in which we already understand the end that accounts for the visceral truth of the Stations of the Cross.

Partner in vigilance and scrutiny to the Stations dedicated to the dying God, Sharon Olds's collection The Father is a sequence of poems chronicling a father's illness and death. Unflinchingly unable to turn her eye away from the body of the dying father, Olds narrates, with an astonishing humility born from such scrutiny, each moment of his passage from the temporal world, constructing a vision of lasting humanity which does not fade when you turn the last page. [She writes in "The Pulling":]

       Every hour, now, he is changing,
       shedding some old ability.
       Knees up, body tin-colored,
       hair black and grey, thick with
       grease like ritual unguent, my father
       moves, hour by hour, head-first,
       toward death, I sense every inch of him moving
       through me toward it, the way each child
       moved, slowly, down through my body,
       as if I were God feeling the rivers
       pulling steadily through me, and the earth
       pressing through, the universe
       itself hauled through me heavily and easily,
       drawn through my body like a napkin through a ring—as if my father could live and die
       safely inside me.

The father's impending death is almost a physical birth for the poet who sees, in her own father's demise, a model for the creatíon myth:

       I would be there all day, watch him nap,
       be there when he woke, sit with him
       until the day ended, and he could get back into
       bed with his wife. Not until the next
       dawn would he be alone again, night-
       watchman of matter, sitting, facing
       the water—the earth without form, and void,
       darkness upon the face of it, as if
       waiting for his daughter.
                                (from "The Waiting")

Olds's father / god figure is silent, a man "lying as if dead on the flowered couch" of her childhood, a man whose "silence had mauled me …" ("I Wanted To Be There When My Father Died"). Though they both feel his inaccessibility, unlike [Louise] Gluck, the love Olds feels for her admittedly flawed father does not cripple her. Rather, his flaws link him to her: "He knows he will live in me after he is dead …" ("Nullipara"); "my father could live and die safely inside me …" ("The Pulling"); "at the end of his life his life began / to wake in me …" ("His Stillness"). Like the God who has resurrected and is no longer physically present, the father remains accessible only through his childrens' faith. In the way that prayer honors the literal body of Christ in the Stations of the Cross, Olds's ultimate acceptance of her father's life, comes from her reverent attention to his dying body.

       I saw how much his hips are like mine,
       the long, white angles, and then
       how much his pelvis is shaped like my daughter's,
       a chambered whelk-shell hollowed out,
       I saw the folds of skin like something
       poured, a thick batter, I saw
       his rueful smile, the cast-up eyes as he
       shows me his old body, he knows
       I will be interested, he knows I will find him
       appealing. If anyone had ever told me
       I would sit by him and he would pull up his nightie
       and I would look at him, at his naked body,
       at the thick bud of his penis in all that
       dark hair, look at him
       in affection and uneasy wonder
       I would not have believed it. But now I can still
       see the tiny snowflakes, white and
       night-blue, on the cotton of the gown as it
       rises the way we were promised at death it would rise,
       the veils would fall from our eyes, we would know everything.
                                (from "The Lifting")

The intensity of her need to know him as he dies accounts for the fervent, liturgical movement of the earlier poems in The Father. The poems that are written after his death, however urgent, are struggling with pastness, with memory, and as such, struggle with the filtering effect of time's passage. As she had learned to accept her father's life through the long elaboration of his death, the poet now struggles with the world disembodied from him.

       As the flu goes on, I get thinner and thinner,
       all winter, till my weight dips
       to my college weight, and then drops below it,
       drifts down through high school, and then
       down into junior high,
       down through the first blood,
       heading for my childhood weight,
       birth weight, conception. When I see myself naked
       in the mirror, I see I am flirting with my father,
       his cadaver the only body this thin
       I have seen …
                                    (from "The Pull")

Bereft of reason, of first model, the speaker's first impulse is towards death, towards the reunification of father and daughter. But the answer comes clearly in the final poem that the point of resemblance is to instruct here, in the living world:

       … when I touched your little
       anus I crossed wires with God for a moment.
       I never hated your shit—that was
       your mother. I love your navel, thistle
       seed fossil, even though
       it's her print on you. Of course I love
       your breasts—did you see me looking up
       from within your daughter's face, as she nursed?
       I love your bony shoulders and you know I
       love your hair, thick and live
       as earth. And I never hated your face.
       I hated its eruptions. You know what I love?
       I love your brain, its halves and silvery
       folds, like a woman's labia.
       I love in you
       even what comes
       from deep in your mother—your heart, that hard worker,
       and your womb, it is a heaven to me,
       I lie on its soft hills and gaze up
       at its rosy vault.
       I have been in a body without breath,
       I have been in the morgue, in fire, in the slagged
       chimney, in the air over the earth,
       and buried in the earth, and pulled down
       into the ocean—where I have been
       I understand this life, I am matter,
       your father, I made you, when I say now that I love you
       I mean look down at your hand, move it,
       that action is matter's love, for human
       love go elsewhere.
            (from "My Father Speaks to Me from the Dead")

Here is our task. This is our body.

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This section contains 1,197 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Claudia Keelan