Sharon Olds | Critical Review by Harold Beaver

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Sharon Olds.
This section contains 738 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Harold Beaver

Critical Review by Harold Beaver

SOURCE: "Snapshots and Artworks," in The New York Times Book Review, March 18, 1984, p. 30.

Beaver is a German-born English critic, novelist, educator, and editor. In the following excerpt from a review of The Dead and the Living, he commends Olds on the intimacy and realism of her family portraits.

[The Dead and the Living] is a family album prefaced by snapshots of the century's agonies—images of executions, race riots and gory death from Tulsa, Okla., to Chile and from Rhodesia to Iran. O.K., we can take it. At this theatrical distance we are not touched to the core.

        The blazing white shirts of the white men
        are blanks on the page, looking at them is like
        looking at the sun, you could go blind.

But we do not go blind. Such horrors are thawed by the rhythm of words. They remain static conundrums to be puzzled out with a meditative gaze. Only when this photographic technique of intimate exposure is transferred to her family does Sharon Olds come into her own. It is the private scrutiny that shocks—the day of her mother's divorce, her first period, sex after childbirth, a 6-year-old boy's erection on the back seat of a car. Nothing is too personal, too intimate for such scrutiny.

The confidence of the best of these family portraits is astonishing. Only rarely does Miss Olds fall into cliché or sentimentality. Patterns are traced from grandfather to father to son—a family curse of "cruelty and oblivion" as relentless as that of the house of Atreus. Not that Miss Olds would make such gestures. She is consumed wholly by the present:

       Hitler entered Paris the way my
       sister entered my room at night,
       sat astride me, squeezed me with her knees,
       held her thumbnails to the skin of my wrists and
       peed on me, knowing Mother would
       never believe my story.

That is the tone. Confidences are made without a trace of embarrassment but with a hint of sacrificial pride. Each family, as it were, harbors it own little Dachau. (Here a macabre form of modern self-regard creeps in.) The poet might dream of a perfect father in place of the real one with "his bad breath, / his slumped posture of failure," but the female is as ugly as the male: "Finally I just gave up and became my father."

This identification evolved into the brilliant "Poem to My Husband From My Father's Daughter," beginning:

      I have always admired your courage. As I see you
      embracing me, in the mirror, I see I am
      my father as a woman, I see you bravely
      embrace him in me, putting your life in his
      hands as mine….
           You are fearless, you
      enter him as a woman, my sex like a
      wound in his body, you flood your seed in his
      life as me.

Even her 6-year-old son is a killer:

      Whenever there's a lull in the action, my son
      sights along his invisible sights and
      picks things off….
       Everything becomes a target—
      cops topple, a whole populace
      falls as he aims, yet I know this boy,
      kind and tender. He whirls and lets them
      have it.

Leaving an arms exhibit at a museum,

      he can't resist,
      and before my eyes, down the stairs,
      over and over, clutching his delicate
      unprotected chest, Gabriel
      dies, and dies.

So the theme spills over from the public to the private and so to the children themselves. It corrodes the century. Yet Sharon Olds is no Sylvia Plath. Her "bad grandfather" who "wouldn't feed us" and her Hitler entering Paris are the stuff of very private, generous ruminations. They are not the cries of a soul in torment. What lingers is not horror, but laughter—her grandmother's cackling crack-corn laugh when taken on an outing from her nursing home or the poet's own amused celebration of her son's birthday party, which he and his friends transform into something between a bankers' conference and a war game:

      I could beat you
      up, a seven says to a six,
      the dark cake, round and heavy as a
      turret, behind them on the table. My son,
      freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks,
      chest narrow as the balsa keel of a
      model boat, long hands
      cool and thin as the day they guided him
      out of me, speaks up as a host
      for the sake of the group.
      We could easily kill a two-year-old,
      he says in his clear voice. The other
      men agree, they clear their throats
      like Generals, they relax and get down to
      playing war, celebrating my son's life.

When the confessional drive is tamed to such life studies, it is not the agony we are likely to remember but the persistent comedy of human love.

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This section contains 738 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Harold Beaver
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