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An Excerpt from An Essay on Sharon Olds' Poetry by Kenneth Lincoln

Kenneth Lincoln

[Note: Lincoln's essay opens with a discussion of Old's performance at a reading.]

She speaks with an ironic naiveté, a tremendous trust in the oddball ordering beauty of what-her-art-is: the poem as bald artifact, the poet as slant storyteller. Her innocence hangs as an underbite that drags on, after the flat lyric voice stops speaking its talk-lines.

I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don't do it—she's the wrong woman,
he's the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,
you are going to want to die.

Olds's candor is terrifyingly simplistic—a childlike assertion that wags as loose underclothing on a frayed clothesline. Her aesthetics hang throw-away—the everyday glimpse of a deeper life, the Williamsesque pirouette of the heart, in spite of it all. And the little performance tip of the bead, the pert orchestrations, fall like a school teacher's assenting nods and warning shakes—to make sense of absurdity, to relieve the pressure of cruelty, to let us know it's just . . . a poem. This is, after all, a little daily quip, only a woman's life. The audience doesn't know where to clap or laugh, how to respond to the quaint humor that so disturbs, cloaked and soaked as it is, apparently, in such personally rich terror and fey confessional. Hers are the American fruits of childhood masochism, we are told, and parental sadism, all narrated with postmodernist rue and roughage.

A sinister innocence colors Sharon Olds's work. She draws on the pubescent voice of a young, postholocaustal America, refusing to grow up, something like Alice in Wonderland crossed with Heart of Darkness. The poet goes in witness of a world wickedly askew, twisted in "natural" ways with naive grotesquerie. Her voice is that of the idiomatic commonplace, liltingly in the presence of "the horror." With puberty staring wide-eyed at evil, her wicked similes use like tongue-in-cheek for the unspeakable. Marianne Moore's poetic it swells through the personal pronoun into a phallic phoneme, a poem titled "It." Risking what Williams called "the bastardry of the simile" for the all-inclusive sexual generalization, it slides consciously off its referent into wonder and terror:

Sometimes we fit together like the creamy
speckled three-section body of the banana, that
joke fruit, as sex was a joke when we were kids,
and sometimes it is like a jagged blue comb of grass across my skin,
and sometimes you have me bent over as thick paper can be
folded, on the rug in the center of the room
far from the soft bed, my knuckles,
pressed against the grit in the grain of the rug's
                    braiding where they
laid the rags tight and sewed them together,
my ass in the air like a lily with a wound on it

The twisted similes of sex always prove slant, not a comfortable or set metaphor, but a bastard likeness for what is unspeakably like what it isn't: her bare ass exposed "like a lily with a wound on it." This woman is stunned beyond words, silenced by the hyper-lingual power of it:

and I feel you going down into me as
if my own tongue is your cock sticking
out of my mouth like a stamen, the making and
breaking of the world at the same moment,
and sometimes it is sweet as the children we had
thought were dead being brought to the shore in the
narrow boats, boatload after boatload.
Always I am 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.

In bemused arousal, a sexy nightmare of America, the poet's thin-skinned callowness opens a bathroom door on candid bliss and sensual terror, the native Eve as pubescent Lolita or bewitched celluloid Carrie. Olds sees through her vaginal "slit" to another world of golden threads, in "A Woman in Heat Wiping Herself," another reality within and beyond her, somewhere else, where her children come from: she sees through a "body that is far beyond our powers, that we could / never invent." Think of Andrew Wyeth, the girl crawling in the wild grasses, or Grant Wood's "American Gothic" pitchfork farmer and wife, mixed up with Gustav J, Klimt's decadent glitter and scrimmed vaginal drains. Imagine a contemporary Pocahontas, just graduated from Bluebirds, off to YWCA camp tomorrow, standing naked before a cracked mirror, with a doorway shadow behind her. Think of Plath’s outrage low-spoken by Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz: unsettling mixtures, shifts in attention, surprises, kinks, quirks. There's always a worm under the apple's polished red skin. Puritan idealism comes up against a wild New World in the late twentieth century. Olds’s poetic grist is generated from a savage purism, as Yeats said, "a radical innocence." Hers is a combination of repression and obsession, a fear of the untamed and a fixation on the good-with-bad. "We need to know how bad we are," she corrects an interviewer about the family values blather of politicians and the religious right, "and how good we are, what we are really like, how destructive we are, and that all this often shows up in families." Olds questions convention: the morality of majority terrorism, mob psychic rule in America—the tension of nature and nurture, the given and the chosen, country and city—what is "there" and what the civilized sort out and select. Philip Larkin put it more baldly in High Windows, "They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do."

The history of women speaking out, from Anne Bradstreet ( rewritten by John Berryman in Mistress Anne Bradstreet) and Dorothy Bradford (rewritten by Sophie Cabot-Black in The Misunderstanding of Nature) , to Gertrude Stein's dry wit and Erica Jong's "zipless fuck," gives Olds feminist lineage back through the underbelly of the American renaissance. the dark musings of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, say, on women. "When I grew up there were so few poems about women from a woman's point of view," Olds told a Hungry Mind Review interviewer, "so few poems about children from a child's point of view" (Fall 1996). Beyond vamp, her poems puckishly take off from how a suburban mother talks to children: simplify the diction, squish the complexity, coo the hurt away, insist on honor and goodness in the face of bad things, lullaby the devil to a "comfort zone" of reality. . . .

"What do I really see as American? . . ." Olds muses in her interview. "I see being born in war time, where the war wasn't, and where our neighbors who were Japanese were sent to camps. Being born in 1942, in San Francisco. That's American. Racism." This callow wonder registers the postwar shock of our twentieth century global Holocaust, that is, "the rainbow of pain" after Hiroshima, Julia Kristeva says, or the defoliating greenhouse effect; the delayed stress of Third World killing fields and soldiers come home psychically bleeding; the nuclear family under attack, our social shake-up, from Freud to Foucault to feminism; the implosion of institutions collapsing since the turn of the century, religion, state, nationalism, unmasked ideologies from capitalism to communism; the trash piles of advertising and crass materialism (junk bonds, forced buyouts, our national debt, taxpayer revolts, reversed racism and racial hatred like hemorrhaging arteries). Knee-jerk trashing of affirmative action, political correctness as ethnic revenge: you name it, we spoil it, the American Dream debunked, debased, desecrated.

So where does the poet turn? Back to the beginnings, to the first light of consciousness, where biology opens to psychology: primitive pubescence, the native child within, suburban enfant savage. The cops save a suicide from jumping, the longest day of the year in New York City—

then they all lit cigarettes, and the
red, glowing ends burned like the
tiny campfires we lit at night
back at the beginning of the world.

With adult nostalgia and childhood stamina, Sharon Olds goes wild, turns neoprimitive manqué, with the courage of the desperate, the hope of the damned, the cunning of the cornered. And we come upon the gilded given, the "gold" rat-hole of our present reality, the "cell" of our descent from animal nature. Is this gold cell a procreative biology, the physical world we live renewed in, or an enclosing penology, trapping us sexually in the body, in art, in the "word" cell? Everyday excremental riches stain our lives, from "the gold hole they say is in the top of the head," to golden urine during a water crisis, to saffron snot in elementary school, to teenage sex in the stained brass odor of a second-hand Chevy, to an amber hole in her father's bourbon-and-cigar-stained mouth, to the sepia shit of her constipated mother, to the "gold ball" of the mushroom cloud at the end of the world. Mirroring this gold-cell chaos theory, there is a ghastly beauty in our planned (scientifically and politically) apocalypse. How could things have gotten so hugely, so absurdly wrong? Is man, women ask, basely murderous, stupid, mad, or grotesquely naive? Are women victimized, shrewish, or passively complicitous? Could a mother's concern make a difference? We have come to live with cartooned horror, black wit, absurdist innocence in the face of Armageddon; through the power of comic hyperbole we become accustomed to dealing with an outrageous "reality." Have we, so come to love our flowers of evil, glittering brightly from the counting rooms of Midas to Baudelaire's Parisian sewers, that the gold cells galvanize us?

The poet speaks with the Voice of America to the Free World, a near cliché or commonplace. Our roughcut, workaday, oddly real lives—commuting, punching the time clock, lunching, napping, knocking off, kicking back, channel surfing, snoozing, pigging out some more—come back in kitchen kitsch, pop candor, fey art, all stuffed into the poetic line. We hear the unpoetic grit of Our Country, given back whole, with art and devilish spin. The silly grin of reality slides over hunger and lust, human need and drive. Olds's scene is an ordinary day seen through representative eyes, a mom with a daughter and son in the suburbs, recollecting the nightmare of her own childhood with a defeated mother and an alcoholic father, who tied her to a chair as punishment for not eating dinner. This is realism taken seriously, and then some, pushed to absurdist fantasy. Call it kitsch verite, the middle class in Polaroid snapshot: mom and pop, gerbil and mouse, menstruation and teenage fellatio, suicide and rape, mugger and mailman, son and daughter, as though left over from a teen-angel croon, "this boy, this girl." It's my special claim, says our Poet-for-a-Day, on "this" Virtually generic America.

Olds sees common things from odd corners of refraction, where fantasy takes off from the given: her father, sodden with cigars and bourbon, as Saturn eating his son; her mother as a distraught child throwing the brute out, then weeping in her daughter's bed; their nasty divorce when Sherrie was thirteen. Hers is the incestuous psychic grief of postmodernist America, women who hate their men, for good reason, possibly, their children aghast. A daughter's wagging-blade tongue cuts through pain talking back, watching the old man snore his life away, then die (she documents the going in a book-full of poems, The Father). This poet-child is gifted with unblinking uncertainty and innocent courage, to see and tell all this—a certain purgative confessional, a suburban poetics of witness that duck Plath's suicidal grief or Forche's politics. If a father's love is a mixed blessing, what does a mother do about loving her own son? She gathers Gabriel's "sunburn peals like / insect wings, where I peeled his back the night before camp," self-reflecting:

I am doing something I learned early to do, I am
paying attention to small beauties,
whatever I have—as if it were our duty to
find things to love, to bind ourselves to this world.

But is it art? Don't be silly; the imagination is capable of anything, the poet suspects, the fantasy of fact, the terror of naiveté, the ranges of trust and distrust, in one big bubble of fear. Art is the given, plus what you make of it, within the forms or beyond them. Every poet for herself. "The loneliness of consciousness," she concludes her interview. "I believe that we're very far apart from each other and that there's no way to know very much about each other at all."

This may be a poetry never heard before: a cartoon requiem, comically parodic, of the fallen, the unredeemed, the ordinary, the unforgivable, the petty, the boring. It dares not to be poetic. It's what we do, daily, put up with, survive, and go on doing horribly or charitably to others. . . . In Olds's breakaway New World, poetry comes on as graffiti, offbeat, off-color, off-putting street hieroglyphics. Her lines are coarse and curious as public bathroom scribblings, not designed to last as icons, but to string out as daily actions noted, then passed on. "First Sex" breaks down all the barriers, transcends what the adult liars hid of a lifelong contract with the life force. It's more than a girl can imagine:

        under my
hand he gathered and shook and the actual
flood like milk came out of his body, I
saw it glow on his belly, all they had
said and more, I rubbed it into my
hands like lotion, I signed on for the duration.

This is "The American Way," as another poem has it, in our minds to be Fucked Senseless—our primal obsession, passively lethal, with the advertised wild in us and out there, essentially ignored as we are being violated. The "Singles problem" gets sorted out in "The Solution," creating a gym where people stand in lines answering one another's needs. Nobody stands in in the I Want to Fuck Senseless line, just a pile of guns, but the I Want to Be Fucked Senseless line gets so long, they add portable toilets and a minister for births, deaths, and marriages. Finally the line snakes out the door into the fields and "across the nation in a huge wide belt like the Milky Way, and since they had to name it they named it, they called it the American Way." A pornographic joke balloons into the off-color image for today's virtual America, as the real pushes over into a Simpsons cartoon of itself, finally a sleazy metaphor beyond sex, beyond rage or censor, for our postmodernist abdication of freedom. Ours is an innocent vulnerability to exploitation, coupled with a wily propensity to take advantage of others (The Long Walk to Desert Storm) and survive the fucking around—an odd mix of cynicism and faith, resistance and belief in a fallen country, not unrelated to Ted Hughes's wild antics of Crow, only more nicely masked.

How is it to grow up blue-eyed American, all-in-the-family? the poems ask us to ask. They work in the art of shadowed casual allusion, the unraveling line: "Oh, by the way, Harry just lost his . . . ," a neighbor muffles the fatal news across our fence. What makes this suburban cartoon more poetic, a cynic snarls, than "Beavis and Butt-head"? Daring not to be Poetry, it challenges our assumptions about everything, family paradigms to the pope's penis. Its parodic realism gets right to it, tries to get it right, admits wrong, and turns the screw one turn, beyond mastery, to pedestrian mystery. The surprise catches us with insight, when we're least expecting it. Olds’s expose of lies grips us with the truth of our lives, mirrored. . . .

Excerpted from a longer essay in Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by the Regents of the Unviersity of California

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