Sharon Olds | Critical Review by Anthony Libby

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Sharon Olds.
This section contains 674 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Anthony Libby

SOURCE: "Fathers and Daughters and Mothers and Poets," in The New York Times Book Review, March 22, 1987, p. 23.

Libby is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, taken from a mixed review of The Gold Cell, he asserts that Olds's poems are hampered by a preoccupation with morbidity, physicality, and brutality.

Though it inhabits the same general psychic territory [as Carolyn Kizer's poetry], Sharon Olds's poetry is as raw as Carolyn Kizer's is cooked. The Gold Cell is also a collection about men and boys, fathers and sons. But it enters with an unusual savagery into the familiar arena of Oedipal strife that has been so central to American poetry since mid-century—since Lowell, Roethke, and Plath. Miss Olds's intentionally brutal tone is set early, in one of her few narratives of nonfamilial violence. In "In the Cell" her mind wanders almost arbitrarily from idle contemplation of the hair on her calf to the depiction of a slow castration in a torture cell. Her poems characteristically start slowly, almost in prose, then develop a wild and messy energy that builds into propulsive rhythms and lines that spill over onto each other so fast the reader risks missing words, connections. This slam-bang action usually culminates in something like a punch line that lifts the reader out of the poem.

The risk, of course, is that the reader will have been knocked out of the poem much earlier, maybe repelled by the brutality, but more likely exhausted out of intensity. Habitual shocks tend to deaden, and after we've read 20 or 30 poems with penises in them, functioning, detached or semidetached, we may grow insensitive to the extraordinary physicality of the poet's vision. But some of the emotional power is restored in Sharon Olds's poems of the father.

If Sylvia Plath's father occasionally appeared in her poems as a vampire out of an old, cheaply elegant horror movie, the father in The Gold Cell seems to have emerged from a contemporary splatter flick. "Saturn" slows Miss Olds's usual pell-mell pace to describe the father eating his son, part by detailed part. But the monster fascinates. In "Looking at My Father," the father is "obsessive, rigid, selfish, sentimental," but "my / body thinks his body is perfect."

              I even like to
       look in his mouth, stained brown with
       cigars and bourbon, my eyes sliding down the
       long amber roots of his teeth,
       right in there where Mother hated, and
       up the scorched satin of the sides.

Such description, with its chilling hints of coffin imagery and family rage, is both overwrought and irresistible. And Sharon Olds can turn out wildly fanciful metaphors like nobody's business.

But there is still the problem of response. Our awareness of genuine suffering here, however wildly exploited, goes badly with the tendency to enjoy the poetry as flamboyant shock. Perhaps unfortunately, it seems easier to listen to Miss Olds on sex, because we are a little more comfortable with the anarchic pleasure she offers here. Female genitals tend to be tritely described as wounds, but a poem like "Green and Aggression" is striking for its vision of brutal joy. Still the tone is uneven, and when they attempt affirmation, the love poems can fall into clichéd assertion: after sex marked by blood of a "real arterial red," she says baldly "I knew you were God / and I was God."

The final section of The Gold Cell completes the cycle with a mother's poetry about children. The power of Miss Old's physical imagination allows her a striking childbirth poem, "The Moment the Two Worlds Meet." But it seems to confine her to a vision of mothering as a confrontation not only with every human bodily fluid, but with sickness, grotesque injury, and the constant presence of a death. In "The Latest Injury," the shaved and mended head of a slashed son is "bluish as the epidermis of a monkey / drawn out of his mother dead." The image is memorable, but the final adjective says much about the general tendencies of Sharon Olds's macabre imagination in this book.

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This section contains 674 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Anthony Libby
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