Sharon Olds | Critical Review by Alicia Ostriker

This literature criticism consists of approximately 2 pages of analysis & critique of Sharon Olds.
This section contains 571 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Alicia Ostriker

SOURCE: "The Tune of Crisis," in Poetry, Vol. CXLIX, No. 4, January, 1987, pp. 231-37.

Ostriker is an American poet, critic, editor, and educator. In the following excerpt, she praises Old's use of intimate autobiographical details and vivid imagery in The Gold Cell.

The opening section of Sharon Olds's The Gold Cell contains some of her most haunting poems. A white woman faces a black youth with the "casual cold look of a mugger" on the subway and considers how deeply they are in each other's power. Some policemen coax a suicide from his parapet on a hot night, and they light cigarettes whose "red, glowing ends burned like the / tiny campfires we lit at night / back at the beginning of the world." Some Ugandan villagers during a drought are beating to death a food-thief whose head-wounds are "ripe and wet as a / rich furrow cut back and cut back at / plough-time to farrow a trench for the seed." A 12-year-old girl who has been raped and has watched her best friend raped and stabbed to death lives on to go to high school where she works hard at math and becomes a cheerleader, "and she does a cartwheel, the splits, she shakes the / shredded pom-poms in her fists." Olds's characteristic note is a clear unsentimental compassion; her characteristic imagery is laid on thick, wet, and warm as bodies.

The book's three remaining sections return to themes powerfully treated in her earlier volumes, Satan Says and The Dead and the Living: father and mother, sexuality, son and daughter. In "I Go Back to May 1937," the poet pictures her parents on the brink of their marriage and is tempted to warn them to stop:

       but I don't do it. I want to live. I
       take them up like the male and female
       paper dolls and bang them together
       at the hips like chips of flint as if to
       strike sparks from them, I say
       Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

Tell she does, sparing neither parent—father another Saturn eating his young, mother rolling over daughter like a tongue of lava—while the stunningly awful details, by their very intimacy and physicality, make anger impossible. These people are the poet, she is they. When Olds writes of sex, she sinks into voluptuous metaphors of food, predatory animals, satiety, birth. Writing of her children, she concentrates on their living and imperilled flesh, which we see as it were suspended in the amber of the poet's locutions and her love. While she neither philosophizes nor moralizes explicitly, Olds's refusal to establish any conventional poetic distance from her subjects amounts to a tacit moral imperative: that we affirm as intensely as possible our biological existence and the attachments to others it implies, and that we hold life as absolutely precious. "The gold cell" as a figure for life's primary unit implies both entrapment (we cannot escape our parents, our children, our sexuality, our bodies) and pure treasure.

Olds's poems here are longer and slightly less taut than her earlier work. I'm puzzled at times by her lineation (e.g., many lines ending in "the" or "a" for no apparent reason other than a general preference for run-on). But the grace, the ease, the American casualness of her phrasing, along with the rich and precise tactility of her imagery, make a perfect combination. I found many of these poems no less than breathtaking.

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This section contains 571 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Alicia Ostriker
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