Sharon Olds | Critical Review by Christian McEwen

This literature criticism consists of approximately 10 pages of analysis & critique of Sharon Olds.
This section contains 2,932 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Christian McEwen

SOURCE: "Soul Substance," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 244, No. 14, April 11, 1987, pp. 472-75.

In the following mixed review of The Gold Cell, McEwen offers general praise for Olds's poetry, yet questions her fascination with voyeurism and her reliance on techniques employed in her previous books.

"I will tell," says Sharon Olds in her poem "I Go Back to May 1937"—and she does tell. She tells all the cruel stories of her rich and complicated childhood, and her readers love it. Here is the father again with his coal-black hair and his cereal-bowl forehead, here is the mother starving herself over an ounce of cottage cheese, here is the older sister who gave her child away, here is the lost brother; and now, in the thank-God of the comfortable and comforting present, here is Sharon Olds herself, her lover-husband and her marvelous and much-regarded children.

We love Sharon Olds because she has survived such terrible things, and because, like the heroine of her poem "The Girl" (who "knew" what it was like to be shot five times and slaughtered like a pig), we think that means she "knows" in some other, more ultimate sense. "Look, I have come through," she cries, and we cannot envy her "the life of ease and faithfulness," the champagne or the fur coat, because we hear the thrum of that survival in everything she writes. It gives—or until now has given—an extra edge to all her poems: a watchfulness, a sharp anxiety, a sense of "only just."

The Gold Cell is a new venture because here, for the first time, that anxiety is a little assuaged. Olds is, for one whose work has been so risky and experimental, on extraordinarily safe ground. Her family, her children, her sexual self, politics seen through the filter of the media: these are subjects she has approached before, and in very much the same manner. There are new stories in The Gold Cell, but the voice, the tone, the attitude remain unchanged. Olds the nervy groundbreaker has settled down. She has become a brilliant rhetorician of her own past.

The few exceptions to this are to be found among the political poems, grouped together at the beginning of the book. Painstaking and careful, thrilling with imaginative sympathy, Olds has pieced together the salient facts from newspaper reports, photographs, television, radio. Many western poets, some with far bolder politics than she, have attempted to make poems in this way. None, I would say, has managed it so well. As readers, we are left with a curious double vision, as if we could see the familiar media version, and through or underneath it, the agonized synthesis which is the poem. I feel this especially strongly about "The Food Thief" and "The Girl," rare poems in their courage and authority.

Nonetheless, the first section of The Gold Cell does have its problems. Olds's writing has always had a lush, slightly voyeuristic streak, and while that can deepen and intensify what she describes, it can also lead to distance in the reader, the feeling that a story is being told only (or primarily) for its aesthetic effect. See, for example, her description of the black boy in "On the Subway":

                                He has the
       casual cold look of a mugger,
       alert under hooded lids. He is wearing
       red, like the inside of the body
       exposed. I am wearing dark fur, the
       whole skin of an animal taken and
       used. I look at his raw face,
       he looks at my fur coat, and I don't
       know if I am in his power
       he could take my coat so easily, my
       briefcase, my life—
       or if he is in my power, the way I am
       living off his life, eating the steak
       he does not eat …

I can imagine a reading of this poem that would duck the aestheticizing and move directly to the support of Olds's "politically correct" interpretation, that she is "living off his life, eating the steak / he does not eat." But to my mind, that would not be sufficient. For one thing, that politically correct conclusion is hardly a conclusion at all. It comes right in the middle of the poem, and Olds gives it no more weight than any of the other contrasts and comparisons she draws. The entire poem is in fact constructed on the maintenance of a false equilibirum: "He is wearing red…. I am wearing dark fur." Such descriptions are provided without affect, as if they were simply so, but their defensive bias soon appears. The boy has a "raw face," "the casual cold look of a mugger." No equivalent account is made of Olds. Instead, she protests in all-too-familiar terms:

                                 There is
       no way to know how easy this
       white skin makes my life, this
       life he could take so easily and
       break across his knee …

There is a laziness here, a failure to imagine and to take responsibility. As readers we feel cheated. We expect Olds to understand this the way she understands the other subjects that are important to her: sex, for instance, or the moment when a child enters the world.

In trying to explain why Olds might not take on this subject more fully, I found myself back where I had started, with the sense of her as tremendously accomplished, but also limited (for now) by that accomplishment. It is as if she had taken stock of her position in the world, and of the subject matter which is rightly hers, and then kept very close to home. One result of this is that she begins to be in danger of self-parody—almost, at times, of self-plagiarism. For a couple of poems that brush the edge of this difficulty, see her quirky little parable "Outside the Operating Room of the Sex-Change Doctor," and the poem "The Pope's Penis," which reads as follows:

      It hangs deep in his robes, a delicate
      clapper at the center of a bell.
      It moves when he moves, a ghostly
               fish in a
      halo of silver seaweed, the hair
      swaying in the dark and the heat—and
               at night,
      while his eyes sleep, it stands up
      in praise of God.

For anyone who knows Olds's earlier work, even the mention of a penis will produce a wry smile of recognition. Just as she bends the natural world toward the human, using it as metaphor and illustration, so, time and again, she has bent the human toward the genital. Here, finally, with "The Pope's Penis," the genital gets its utter comeuppance. What could be funnier, or more thoroughly triumphant?

It is the images one remembers: the "clapper at the center of a bell," the "ghostly fish," the penis standing up in praise of God. But if you read more slowly, you discover other virtues: the quiet, unassuming beginning, the internal rhymes, the repetition ("moves when he moves," with that Yeatsian echo), the skill with which things are brought to a close, the last line underlined just slightly, so that the point is made and taken. This is a tiny poem, one of Olds's shortest, but it is a good example nonetheless of what she has mastered so thoroughly over the past five or six years. Those same basic qualities can be found in almost all the poems in the book.

The second section is essentially made up of family history poems, telling all the ugly stories we hadn't heard before: Olds's mother raping her as a little girl, her father driving her terrified up the steepest streets of San Francisco, or lowering her and the other children down the dark shaft of the laundry chute. Here again, there is fierce rhetorical skill, though its impact is diminished somewhat by Olds's peculiar relationship with her audience. She writes in the knowledge of her earlier poems, and she assumes that we will read her work in the same way, that we will catch the cross-references and be as interested as Olds herself in making moral sense of difficult events. She also takes it for granted that, her case being made, the audience will accept her point of view. Thus she ends her poem "The Chute" by explaining:

       and yet, you know, he never
           dropped us
       or meant to, he only liked
           to say he would,
       so although it's a story with some
           cruelty in it,
       finally it's a story of love
       and release …

As readers and as human beings, we may not agree with her; we may have other, happier versions of "love / and release." But Olds allows no room for such defection. The stories are hers, and they must be understood in her terms only. I have long been an admirer of her poems, and it was a surprise to find how much I balked at some of these. When Olds insisted that she knew her father was not perfect, "but my / body thinks his body is perfect…. it likes to / slip the leash of my mind and go and / look at him, like an animal / looking at water," I did not want to accompany her. When she wrote about the dress her father was supposed to have given her after her parents' divorce ("The Blue Dress"), or the pleasure that her own existence gave her mother ("Why My Mother Made Me"), I did not want to listen. Clear and moving though the poems were, I felt that the satisfaction to be found in them was more psychological than literary—that for all their skill they were confessions or arguments rather than realized poems.

There is, however, an exception: the poem "Saturn," in which Olds once again describes her father. He is lying on the couch in the darkness, and he is eating his children:

       My brother's arm went in up to the
           shoulder
       and he bit it off, and he sucked at the
           wound
       as one sucks at the sockets of
           lobster …
       crushed the bones like the soft shells
           of crabs
       and the delicacies of the genitals
       rolled back along his tongue….

In comparison with her usual mode of writing, such implacable surrealism has a powerful effect. There is no need for explanations or addenda; the images themselves are quite enough.

Olds is, on the whole, a memorable image-maker. But in one poem, "The Meal," where she describes her mother at the breakfast table, "facing that plate with the one scoop of cottage cheese on it / forcing [herself] to eat, though [she] did not want to live"—her extraordinary facility deserts her. Olds has told us elsewhere that she is "The Shrink's Wife," and when she compares the cottage cheese to a "mound rounded as a breast," to a "cock runny with milk gone sour," and ends by seeing it "curdled like the breast of the mother," one begins to feel that it is the shrink, not she who is speaking. The metaphors are part of some far larger argument. They are no longer hers.

This surrender to another person's language appears again in the third section of the book, which is given over to love and sex and passionate sensuality. Here, in the poem "First Boyfriend," Olds uses painterly words like "umber," "ochre" and "amber," and later, "chrome," "brass" and "gilt" to provide the atmosphere. They are all favored words in a deliberately limited vocabulary, chosen because they sound good together: yellowy-brown words, metallic words, words Olds has used before to great effect. But this time that effect does not come off. The words do not clash or resonate or intensity. Instead, the poem melts under their increasing vagueness.

There are, however, in that same section, poems in which line breaks and word choice are no longer so self-conscious and the thought forms clearly, aching across the page. Among them are the two slightly awkward, ragged Cambridge elegies ("First Love" and "Cambridge Elegy"), and, despite my qualms about them, the curious poems of self-regard: "Still Life," "It," "A Woman in Heat Wiping Herself," "I Cannot Forget the Woman in the Mirror" and "This." "Still Life" is a self-portrait after making love, "scene of destruction, scene of perfect peace." It has something of the quality of a nineteenth-century painting, perhaps by Ingres (this century it would be Balthus): something rich and luscious, but at the same time dead. In Olds's poem there is a "dead pheasant all / maroon neck feathers and deep body wounds, / and on the center of my forehead a drop of water / round and opalescent, and in it / the self-portrait of the artist, upside down."

It is a strange portrait, hurt and wordy, and yet also mute. In "It," Olds writes that sometimes after making love she is stunned to remember it: "as if I have been to Saturn or the bottom of a trench in the sea floor, I / sit on my bed the next day with my mouth open and think of it." Some of the numbness / dumbness of that open mouth is in "Still Life," and also in "This":

                                I have this,
        so this is who I am, this body
        white as yellowish dough brushed
               with dry flour
        pressed to his body. I am these
               breasts that
        crush against him like collapsible silver
        travel cups that telescope into
               themselves,
        and the nipples that float in the center
               like hard
        raspberries in bright sunlight …

"This" too, for a poem of self-celebration, is oddly flat, unjoyous, even, at times, mechanical. Olds is claiming her identity as a sexual being: she is, she tells us, one who desires, one who makes love. But in the poem one feels only the stress, the pull, the hard drag of want, not an inkling of the satisfaction.

Yet this cold, flattened hunger for sensual fulfillment is not the only version Olds has of herself. She also believes that in the face of tremendous obstacles she has learned to pay attention to small beauties, and that it is in part through noticing these things and loving them ("the raised dot of amber sugar" on the breakfast table, the tiny pile of her son's sunburn peelings) that she has managed to survive. It seems to me very obvious that Olds is right about this: she does indeed love "little things" passionately, exhaustively. But it is also important to say that she does not love them for themselves alone. Everything she writes builds toward a climax, and the "little things," however odd and unlikely in their juxtaposition, are always offered up to that moment when Olds comes into her own: that moment of grandeur, of completion, that she yearns for, and that she is utterly unable to resist.

It is because Olds adores that moment that her poems for her children's pets, "Gerbil Funeral" and "Mouse Elegy," are at bottom so embarrassing. The problem is not that a strong poem could not be written on such a subject, but that Olds can only write it in one way. She is incapable of a small-scale thought, fitted to a small-scale happening. Even for a gerbil, even for a mouse, the red carpet is unrolled, the glittering chandelier is lowered from the ceiling.

Still, it is Olds's passion for grandeur, for important thought, that makes her poems as powerful as they are. You may feel (as I do) slightly rebuffed by her authoritativeness on the subject of her children ("When love comes to me and says / What do you know, I say This girl, this boy"), but even through the barrier of that superior tenderness you have to respect the poetry (see, particularly, "The Quest," "Liddy's Orange" and "Looking at Them Asleep"). It is in "The Quest" that the "gold cell" appears, a metaphor, it seems, for all the tiny precious things, in this case every small live molecule of her daughter's body. This gold reappears throughout the book, showing itself in all its different facets: the gold cell, the gold door, the gold yolk, the gold sphere, the gold ball, the gold grease, the gold wall. It acts as a unifying force, both metaphysical and literary, a sort of DNA soul substance, which humankind can use or abuse as we wish. It is worth nothing that the "gold ball" in "When" is the first sign of nuclear disaster.

For Olds herself, however, the triumph of the good cannot be quite as serendipitous. Having grown up as she did, the need for personal morality is strong. In "After 37 Years My Mother Apologizes for My Childhood" she writes of the mixed feelings that that apology aroused: "I could not see what my / days would be with you sorry, with / you wishing you had not done it." The fact is that her identity has been so tied up with the surviving and describing of the brutal past that apology (requiring in its train forgiveness) comes very near to annihilation: "I hardly knew what I / said or who I would be now that I had forgiven you." Nonetheless, she does manage to forgive her mother (at least in the poem), and in "Late Poem to My Father" she reaches out to him as well:

       always thought the
       point was what you did to us
       as a grown man, but then I
            remembered that
       child being formed in front of the fire,
            the
       tiny bones inside his soul
       twisted in greenstick fractures …

She imagines herself back into what the boy endured, and in doing so, finds a way to love him. "When I love you now," she writes, "I like to think I am giving my love / directly to that boy in the firey room."

There is no way to complete that forgiveness, no way on this earth that the boy-father can be reached, but in writing the poem, telling the story, Olds does something that is perhaps equally important. She shows the way to other children of other parents: the way through hatred, resentment and self-pity, through obsession and out the other side. Because she does this, we in turn forgive her almost everything.

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This section contains 2,932 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Christian McEwen
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