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Reviews of Blood, Tin, Straw

Adam Kirsch

To overturn a repressive regime--philosophical, religious, political--usually means just that: to turn it over, so that what was the most base becomes the most lofty. Society declares that sex is sinful, and so Blake, or Shelley, or Lawrence, declares that sex is sacred; and the attraction of these poets resides largely in the passion of their revolt, the conviction with which they attempt to right a wrong. For this very reason, however, such poets remain trapped within the old categories. They represent an antithesis, not a new synthesis; and they are condemned to the dispensability of all merely partial and polemical views.

If you are ensnared by sexual repression, Blake's simple certainty is a valuable step towards a greater freedom, and even toward wholeness:

The soul of sweet delight can never be 
The head sublime, the heart pathos, the 
genitals beauty, the hands and feet 
Exuberance is beauty.
Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than 
nurse unacted desires.

It is gratifying to hear these things once. But it would become tedious if one never heard anything else about the relations between men and women, the darker and more complicated truths that other poets tell. Edmund Wilson touched on this dilemma of partiality in his essay on Oliver Wendell Holmes, noting that the judge believed in "a beardless universe ... it is one of his recurring contentions that it is foolish to revolt against this universe--in the manner of the angry romantics--because man is a part of this universe and cannot differentiate himself from it in such a way as to create an issue between himself and it." The mistake of all radicalism is to embrace such a differentiation, itself conventional and received, for the sake of transvaluing the conventional values. And whenever we find sexual radicalism--the kind which declares sex the highest human activity, and the seat of enlightenment--we are certain to find someone still thrashing in repression's grip.

Sharon Olds believes, unshakably, in a bearded universe. In Blood, Tin, Straw, her sixth book, she writes of her "Calvinist lips"; and the major subject--almost the only subject--of Olds's poetry is the fierce and unrelenting fight with a childhood Calvinism, often hinted at in her poems and her occasional interviews. In 1996, she told Salon that "I grew up in what I now call a hellfire Episcopalian religion--I think that communicates the atmosphere," and those burns are everywhere evident in her poetry. Does religion say that sex is evil, that the body will return to dust, that the soul is our only noble element? Then Olds will insist that sex is glorious, that the body is the only reality, that the soul can be endlessly defiled.

Olds's poems are about the war of biology against theology, about the "central meanings" of her poem "Prayer" (from her first book, Satan Says, which appeared in 1980):

Let me be faithful to the central meanings:

the waters breaking in the birth-room which 
smelled like the sea;
that first time
he took his body like a saw to me and
cut through to my inner sex,
the blood on his penis and balls and thighs
sticky as fruit juice;
the terrible fear
as the child's head moves down into the 
vagina ...

No one who really believed in the sheer corporeality of sex and birth, out of a pre-Christian paganism or a post-Christian materialism, would write about them with such pointed prurience. Olds's aim is not clarity, but blasphemy. She makes this clear in the childish title poem of Satan Says:

comes to me in the locked box
and says, I'll get you out. Say
My father is a shit
. I say
my father is a shit and Satan
laughs and says, It's opening.
Say your mother is a pimp...
Say shit, say death, say fuck the father,

Satan says, down my ear.

Olds warms to the role of the naughty child, and tries by increase of naughtiness to bring on some cataclysm in which either she or the god-like enemy would be destroyed. That enemy is a whole cluster of political, social, and religious attitudes that devalues sexuality and oppresses women, often represented by her own alcoholic father, the demon of her unhappy childhood.

The most naughty thing, of course, is sex; and in contemporary American culture, the only thing naughtier than sex is sex with one's parents or one's children. Across her six books, every permutation of this sin is played out: Olds imagines her parents having sex, and she imagines having sex with her parents, and she imagines her children sexually. Thus "Saturn," in which Olds's drunken, stuporous father is imagined eating her little brother:

He took
my brother's head between his lips
and snapped it like a cherry off the stem.
   You would have seen
only a large, handsome man
heavily asleep, unconscious. And yet
somewhere in his head his soil-colored eyes
were open, the circles of the whites glittering
as he crunched the torso of his child between his jaws,
crushed the bones like the soft shells of crabs
and the delicacies of the genitals
rolled back along his tongue...
he could not
stop himself, like orgasm...

Or, again, in "The Source," where the performance of fellatio ("to grasp that band of muscle on the male/haunch and help guide the massed/heavy nerve down my throat...") is quickly transmogrified into a fantasy about the father:

myself the glass of sourmash
my father lifted to his mouth.
   Ah, I am in him,
I slide all the way down to the
   beginning, the
curved chamber of the balls...

Everything bodily, everything sexual, is hurled at the Father-God, with the fury of a tongue-tied infant's insult. But, as Wilson hinted, the tragedy of Satanic rebellion is a step away from comedy, once we realize that the all-powerful tyrant is a Wizard of Oz--that the rebellion is as unnecessary as the tyranny is imaginary. (The title of Blood, Tin, Straw comes from a poem that explicitly connects the Passion story with the story of the Wizard of Oz, but without drawing this damaging conclusion.) The comedy can be seen in the very title of the poem "A Woman in Heat Wiping Herself," from The Gold Cell, which appeared in 1987; and such a poem ("the gold grease of the floss/flows through the follicle, beading and rippling back and/curving forward in solemn spillage") suggests that even the most trivial bodily fact can be enlisted in the struggle, which itself trivializes the struggle.

But the most significant problem with Olds's single-minded revolt is that it breeds a disfiguring self-love in the rebel. Her foe seems to her so all-powerful that she does not need to consider whether her aggression is logical or dignified. Her personal struggle is as important a struggle as the world can show. And this all-out attack implicitly confirms her enemy in the power that she would deny it: it is as though the father, or the patriarchy, or religion, is so strong that no weapon can really harm it, so that all weapons can be fairly used.

Olds's rhetoric is pitched at the highest possible level:

It had happened to others.
There was a word for us. I was: a Jew.
It had happened to six million.
And there was another word that was not
for the six million, but was a word for me
and for many others. I was:
a survivor.

Only a perfect narcissist would casually annex the Holocaust as a symbol for her antipathy to her father. These lines come from her first book, and in her new book there is no such exaggeration; but Olds's narcissism shows itself in other ways, most signally in the unembarrassed use of trivial autobiographical facts, as though anything that happens to the poet should automatically be interesting to other people:

I knew, all day, that when night came,
at the sleepover, at Dinny Craviotto's,
I would challenge Shelly Ashby to a fight
for picking on Betty Jean Hadden.

When we took the acid, his wife was off
with someone else, there was a hole in their bedroom
wall where the Steuben wedding owl
had flown from one room right into another....

Whenever I see large breasts
on a small woman, these days, my mouth
drops open, slightly.

Olds has no interest in abstracting from the contingent details of her life to a larger, more universally valid idea or symbol. And she does not see this as a deficiency. It is, rather, a kind of principle, as she told Salon: "...just being an ordinary observer and liver and feeler and letting the experience get through you onto the notebook with the pen, through the arm, out of the body, onto the page, without distortion. And there are so many ways I could distort. If I wrote in a sonnet form, I would be distorting.... It's kind of like ego in a way, egotism or narcissism."

This attitude amounts to an exemption of oneself from the difficult dialectic of all art, indeed of all thought--the dialectic that places every mind always already in the midst of assumptions and distortions, and requires that we exchange one set of distortions, not for perfect clarity or perfect honesty, but for another, better set of assumptions and distortions. The belief that one need not engage in this tortuous process is the greatest and most limiting egotism; and of course Olds, so far from being free from distortion, has such a predetermined vision that everything she sees looks the same. The remarkable uniformity of Olds's poems through six books is not due to an uninterrupted intercourse with "reality," but to a narrow and fixed set of premises. Everything hinges on sex; and so, in the new book, we find "The Promise":

...we are also in our
bed, fitted, naked, closely
along each other, half passed out,
after love, drifting back
and forth across the border of consciousness, our bodies buoyant, clasped.

And "Animal Music":

I love resting on him,
dark rest, on the staff line, then I
love to feel it mount, again,
as if from the base of matter. My eyes
were closed, I was in the flesh...

And "Dear Heart":

I was
floating out there, splayed, facing
away, fucked, fucked, my face,
glistening and distorted, pressed against the inner
caul of the world. I was almost beyond
pleasure, in a region of icy, absolute sensing...

There is a reason why there have been so many poems about love and so few about sex, I mean the act of sex; and these examples demonstrate it. Rhapsodies about sex are as little faithful to the phenomenological reality as are clinical descriptions of it. It is only when sex is made to serve as a metaphorical focus for more elaborate and entangled feelings that it rings true, and becomes poetically alive. And since Olds has only one simple and finally unsurprising feeling about sex--that its bodily goodness refutes its social or religious badness--the varied descriptions of sex in her poetry are monotonous. They are also self-infatuated, almost a variety of bragging, as though having good sex is proof of the poet's intimacy with the highest things.

s those hymns to sex suggest, in Blood, Tin, Straw Olds is pursuing her old themes in a new emotional climate. The turning point in her career came with her best book, The Father, which appeared in 1992. It is a gruesome account of her father's slow death from cancer, offering many opportunities for the disturbing portrayal of corporeal facts:

The tumor
is growing fast in his throat these days,
and as it grows it sends out pus
like the sun sending out flares, those pouring
tongues. So my father has to gargle, cough,
spit a mouthful of thick stuff
into the glass every ten minutes or so...

But at the same time this illness is a kind of liberation. The father figure, always associated in her poems with a stifling guilt and a drunken cruelty, is finally killed: he is revealed to be vulnerable after all, not a demon but a man. And with his disappearance, the motive for rebellion also largely disappears. In her work since The Father--in The Wellspring, which appeared in 1996, and now in Blood, Tin, Straw--Olds's tone is less often blasphemous (though there are still moments: "And sexual love, what if it/is mostly sex, the cunt wanting/to swallow, swallow, fiercely sing all/day all night, what if I'm a selfish/fucker feeding on his pleasure"). More and more she insists on the holiness of sex, as the ultimate rebuke to those who call it unholy. The result is a sentimentality that might seem at odds with the anger of her earlier poetry, but is in fact the inevitable complement to it:

an embryo
in the belly of a woman whom recent loving has made
musical, the body's harmony
audible, as if matter itself were merciful.

we see the blood pour slowly from our sex,
as if the earth sighed, slightly,
and we felt it, and saw it,
as if life moaned a little, in joy...

His eyelid lifts--
justice, mercy.

This is how Olds has arrived at the fetishism of the ordinary that is so widespread in poetry today. For most poets who engage in it, the detailed praise of the simple is a posture of philosophical integrity, a secular creed: stripped of faith in any ideal or idea, they fall back on the mere facticity of the world, and try to make the facts into a source of joy. Olds's angle is somewhat different. In a positively metaphysical way, she is declaring facts, especially bodily facts, to be good because for so long she was told that they were evil. An eyelid, menstrual blood, an embryo--also semen, sweat, the genitals--become signs of the justice, the harmony, and the joy that pervades all matter. Olds writes pantheistic porn.

But this hymning of the facts is simply another way of bearding the universe, of arbitrarily investing certain precincts of experience with transcendent value. Instead of a Calvinist hellfire world in which Satan tempts you to say that your mother is a pimp, there is a sex-paradise, "the world as heaven, your body at the edge of it"; but both these worlds are unsubtle, monotonous, the heroes and the villains clearly marked. Beneath all the surface agitation, all the vulgar language, the programmatically unfeminine sexual bravado, there is a deadening certainty that makes each poem unsurprising.

And therefore ultimately consoling: Olds has a devoted and comparatively large following because no reader will ever be brought by any of her poems to question himself. The reader will congratulate himself on the magnitude of his sensitivity, his openness to the holy in the profane. It makes sense that whenever Olds ventures into political poetry, she exhibits the sanctimony of a certain segment of the left: it is the political equivalent to her poetic self-congratulation, the assurance that one is superior because one can feel an exquisite guilt at society's wrongdoings.

The narrowness of Olds's sensibility extends to Olds's style, which never varies. Long sentences roll down the page in a narrow column; the emphasis not on lines but on phrases, which accumulate breathlessly until the poem finishes with an affirming exhalation. And it is here, at the level of style, that Olds diverges from Sylvia Plath, the much better poet with whom she has some similarities. Olds's blasphemies and affirmations are always in deadly earnest, which is why they are devoid of two of the most appealing qualities of Plath's verse: wit and artifice.

Plath is a much more various poet, but even where her themes are closest to Olds's--when she is attacking her father (infamously using the same Nazi analogy as Olds) or mythologizing herself--she has the power of black comedy in reserve:

What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot--
The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.

Plath has also the excess of artifice, that margin of language beyond the subject, that defines true poetry. In "Edge," her last poem, she is not emitting a cry of agony; she is doing something uncannier and more terrible:

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

It is terrible because, in the moment of greatest agony the poet is still turned outward to the music and the meaning of language, making metaphors and assonances for their own sake.

Metaphor is the one device that Olds does employ, though in the current book there is less of it than in her earlier work. She is at her best when the breathless, ragged pace of the verse coincides with a surfeit of little metaphors, of seemingly dashed-off conceits, to give a real sense of fertility. She sees menstrual blood as an egg "winged with massive uneven pennons of blood"; the buttermilk her father made her drink was "a joke on milk, and a joke on butter." In Blood, Tin, Straw, however, there is less metaphor than baroque description, of the sort that in its prodigality tries to endow the most ordinary things with a spurious richness. Taking a shower has never been more elaborately described:

just step on this
slatted rack, pull the iron
handle of the forged world toward you.
The sluice courses, down your body,
in a swirling motion, milk smoke, the
silky rush of fresh water, supple and alkaline.
Eyes shut, you reach for the small
oil torso of soap...

This glitters, but it is not gold: it is devoid of imaginative surprise or linguistic tension. It is just fancy verbiage.

There are always readers who want the kind of consolation that Olds provides, which is why she is one of the most fiercely beloved of living poets. Her poems are written directly out of the trivia of her life and can be directly assimilated by the reader; there is no abstraction and no surprise, only the videotape of life played back at full volume. Randall Jarrell once wrote that the poems he received from strangers in the mail were like torn-off limbs, with "this is a poem" written on them in lipstick: they were testimony, not art. Sharon Olds's poems are certainly everything that testimony should be: sincere, resounding, unambiguous, consolatory. But just as certainly they are not art.

from The New Republic Online. Online Source. Copyright 2000 by The New Republic.

Ken Tucker

Readers respond to the vulnerability on display in Sharon Olds's poems. She has spent the past two decades publishing verse chronicles of a bad childhood, the death of the father who made that childhood so unhappy, a fulfilling marriage along with a gratifyingly hectic motherhood. Olds's new book, ''Blood, Tin, Straw,'' finds her delving into the same subject matter, but after five collections of almost always identically shaped poems (vertically tilted chocolate bars, one to a page), these autobiographical themes, expressed in language alternately artless and ornate, are beginning to show some strain. 

The book takes its title from the poem ''Culture and Religion,'' which commingles the crucifixion of Christ with characters from ''The Wizard of Oz'': 

Her broom had been the stick 
on which they had stuck the vinegar sop. . . . 
the witch wanted to torture them to death, like Jesus 
-- blood, tin, straw -- what they 
were made of was to be used to kill them. 

Olds excels at this sort of juxtaposition, which forces fresh interpretations of familiar images and events. At her sharpest, she creates startlingly surreal images. When, in ''The Vision,'' someone chides the poet for ''that mean voice you have in- / corporated,'' Olds immediately imagines not merely a voice but two whole people inside her: 

a man 
on a summer porch, with a woman inside him - 
a harpy, entirely enclosed. It was both of them. 

The poems in Olds's 1992 book, ''The Father,'' cohered as one woeful rant about a cruel parent, and this Bad Daddy figure puts in a few appearances here (''he / did not love me, how he trained me not to be loved''). The new book also contains one of Olds's finest poems about this figure. ''My Father's Diary'' is a small triumph, for its rare attempt to describe and understand rather than vent her rage against him. Scanning his journal -- the pages / are sturdy with the beamwork of printedness'' -- she discovers:  

the self of the grown boy pouring 
out. . . . 
It was my father 
good, it was my father grateful, 
it was my father dead, who had left me 
these small structures of his young brain - 
he wanted me to know him, he wanted 
someone to know him. 

Too often in ''Blood, Tin, Straw,'' however, we find the poet struggling, like a sort of metrical Martha Stewart, to make the earthily mundane blossom into flowery profundity. The trouble begins early on. ''Aspic and Buttermilk'' (''two foods I hated to eat'') succeeds at first as a wry memory of unsavory meals, but then abruptly abandons its tart descriptions of taste, smell and texture to make an awkwardly grand, concluding leap:  

A family is a mystery,
the human a mystery -- beauty and cruelty, 
more passion for life on almost any 
terms than death. 

Forcing aspic and buttermilk to share a dinner plate with mystery and death results only in poetic indigestion. Olds's tendency toward overstatement also extends to the carnal. Though she has been justly praised in the past for the pleasure she takes in poeticizing sex, the encounters described in ''Blood, Tin, Straw'' are most often grinding chores phrased in emptily familiar four-letter words. Her philosophizing isn't much more enlightening: ''Maybe to know sex fully,'' she ventures in ''Know-Nothing,'' ''one has to risk being destroyed by it.'' Oh, dear. Did she learn this from the Marquis de Sade or the lead characters of HBO's ''Sex in the City''? 

There are repetitions that suggest thematic exhaustion. In ''You Kindly,'' her father's hair consists of ''oiled paths''; a page later, in ''Where Will Love Go?,'' his skin has ''oily, drink-darkened slopes.'' The poet also has a weakness for inserting fussily phrased lines into work that otherwise strives to be conversational (''the nerves lay easy / in their planched
grooves''; ''your legs on the wheelchaise / with their integrity, like pulled-up roots''). It's as if Wallace Stevens were ringing the doorbell to make a special guest appearance in a Patti Smith poem. 

For a writer whose best poems evince strong powers of observation, Olds spends too much time taking her own emotional temperature. Even in ''My Father's Diary,'' the focus is wrenched relentlessly back to the narrator. Everything must return to the poet -- her needs, her wants, her disappointments with the world and the people around her. When, in the poem that concludes this book, Olds praises a lover for ''his kindness without self-regard, almost without self,'' the reader immediately realizes that this is the missing quality from which ''Blood, Tin, Straw'' would benefit most.

from The New York Times on the Web. Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company. Page Source.

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