Sharon Olds | Critical Review by Diane Wakoski

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Sharon Olds.
This section contains 763 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Diane Wakoski

Critical Review by Diane Wakoski

SOURCE: A review of The Gold Cell, in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. IV, No. 12, September, 1987, pp. 6-7.

Wakoski is an American poet, essayist, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, she remarks that Olds's poems exhibit a fascination with destruction, suffering, and bestiality.

Reading The Gold Cell gives some of the same pleasures you get in the doctor's office reading issues of National Geographic. It makes the news of the world interesting with its award-winning photography and glossy pages filled with articles about esoteric aspects of this earth and our daily lives. Olds' language of physical image and metaphor is never illusory (seldom allusive); it is the perfect self-contained language that the New Critics talked about. Her subject-matter is always family, though it is finally "the family of man" which is her theme.

        The boy and I face each other.
        His feet are huge, in black sneakers
        laced with white in a complex pattern like a
        set of intentional scars. We are stuck on
        opposite sides of the car, a couple of
        molecules stuck in a rod of light
        rapidly moving through darkness.
                                ("On the Subway")

What is actually most intriguing about Sharon Olds' poetry is not her excellent grasp of how to translate the magazine and newspaper world into poetry, though that is no small skill. No, what makes me read and admire her poems is that behind the slick facade is an obsession which runs through every poem: destruction. There is not a single poem by Sharon Olds which does not intertwine destruction and creation. In fact, the poetry is often tricky and deceptive on this subject, seeming to affirm life and creation so widely. But it is really the root of death, the root of torture and pain which obsesses Olds. Her involvement with family also disguises a deeper concern: an almost nymphomaniacal obsession with sex. While she's talking about babies and children and conjugal love, she is always really relentlessly noticing the bestial.

In the most traditional sense, this is the poetry of guilt. Guilt for being white, for being alive in America, for being well-off, for being a parent, for being happily married, for being a successful poet. In the poem just quoted, she mediates on how much the young black must hate her simply because she is white and richer than he is. She automatically assumes that his blackness is a hell, and that even if he started with the same human potential as she, he couldn't win:

                              And he is black
        and I am white, and without meaning or
        trying to I must profit from his darkness,
        the way he absorbs the murderous beams of the
        nation's heart, as black cotton
        absorbs the heat of the sun and holds it. 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 like a stick the way his
        own back is being broken, the
        rod of his soul that at birth was dark and
        fluid and rich as the heart of a seedling
        ready to thrust up into available light.

Psychoanalytically speaking, the poems in The Gold Cell are poems displaying an Oedipal fascination for the handsome father, failed and drunken and behaving badly to the martyr mother, and the incredible guilt felt for loving the father so much more than the mother. The sexual energy in the life has been channeled towards creating, loving, towards wholesome sex and parental love, but underneath these poems pulses a Greek tragedy of passions, as tangled and dark as those of Medea. Watch out, readers, you may think you're just opening the pages of a nice middle-class National Geographic in the doctor's—no the pediatrician's—office when you crack this book, but unless you are a stupid or insensitive reader, you are in fact going to come away with infanticide, incest, matricide, rapacious desires for power.

There is a bestiality in the poems which is oddly fascinating. One of the most beautiful examples of this is "Liddy's Orange," a seemingly simple poem about the rind of an orange left on the table by her daughter.

        All here speaks of ceremony,
        the sheen of acrid juice, which is all that is
        left of the flesh, the pieces lying in
        profound order like natural order,
        as if this simply happened, the way her
        life at 13 looks like something that's just
        happening, unless you see her
        standing over it, delicately clawing it open.

These poems are tormented by the guilt of Olds' animal hungers, covered over with a thick veneer of densely packed language and imagery. She represents to me, above all, the civilization we are, which has come so far and yet will probably still obliterate itself.

(read more)

This section contains 763 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Diane Wakoski
Follow Us on Facebook