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Physical Experience and the Body in the Poetry of Sharon Olds

Roland Flint
"A Way of Knowing"

What is Sharon Olds but our gifted and startling poet of the body? Her audacious intimacies are not to shock, but to make reconciling metaphors out of confrontations with the harsh facts of a physical life. And rarely has the body been observed with such absorbing attention to its physical acts and details. I’m reminded, reading Olds, of Roethke’s saying that to a metaphysical poet an idea is like a blow on the head. These are physical metaphors which, full of reflection themselves, cause us to think- and they also unsettle us with their sexual daring. And though everywhere resonating with a seriousness which denies it as an intention, the poetry does shock. . . .

This is a poetry which implicitly insists that all we know is the body, and our only reliable way of knowing is the body’s way of knowing, whether that is a maternal knowledge and love or a daughter’s compulsive love of a cruel father’s long-shanked frame, or the gum-line tartar, its scent and texture, on a lover’s teeth. It is a poetry insisting that to know the body is a little to crack the world’s mysteries, but it is a knowledge hard to come by: "Most things are done with no reference to the human/ even if they happen inside us, in our/ body that is far beyond our powers, that we could never invent" (from "A Woman in Heat Wiping Herself," The Gold Cell).

. . . So, in her new book Sharon Olds has given us again a powerful meditation on the epistemology of touch, in all its forms. She is one of several simply extraordinary younger women poets now at work in America: Mary Oliver, Rita Dove, Pamela Hadas, and (the lesser known) Carole Oles and Susan Williams are others to be grateful for.

Let’s recall what John Donne wrote of Elizabeth Drury in "The Second Anniversary":

We understood
Her by her sight; her pure, and eloquent blood
Spoke in her cheeks, and so distinctly wrought
That one might almost say her body thought.

As if her were describing the naked poem itself, Donne teaches us here how to be thankful for Sharon Olds.

From Roland Flint. "A Way of Knowing." Poet Lore 83.1 (Spring 1988): 39-44.

Suzanne Matson

. . . the point here is that the poet will not shirk the direct confrontation with the body; indeed, Olds often names the body and its parts with an explicitness far beyond any decorous concern with the reader’s sense of modesty. But by doing so she disarms the words as inherited metaphors themselves, metaphors that have phallocentrically created special "dirty" vocabularies for the private use of men, or just as exclusively, clinical vocabularies for the use of controlling medical figures. Both special languages have to do with the tradition of articulate male power over the mute female body; Olds reclaims both the power to speak for her own body and, with a delightful voluptuous arrogance, usurps the descriptive role as well. She traces bodies slowly and deliberately with her tongue: it is a gesture in which one feels the generosity of a lover, the inner necessity of a mother animal, and the conscious aestheticism of the artist.

From Suzanne Matson. "Talking to Our Father: The Political and Mythical Appropriation of Adrienne Rich and Sharon Olds." The American Poetry Review 18 (Nov./Dec. 1989): 35-41.

Jonathan Holden

The confessional poems which comprise the strongest half of the book [The Dead and the Living], poems replete with gritty journalistic detail, expose almost relentlessly the links between Olds’s ostensibly safe, comfortable bourgeois life as a mother on the one hand and various unpleasant historical facts--the Holocaust, wars waged by male governments, imperialism, and oppression--on the other. The book is energized by Olds’s agonized sense of responsibility at her female role as a bearer of children into a world in which, all too easily, they could find themselves being either victims or oppressors. By alternating between public events and poems about domestic, private life, Olds dramatizes how her own body--exemplary of the female body in its potentiality for birth--is located at the very nexus of history, of past and future, of public and private, of the dead and of the living, how as a mother one is drawn not just theoretically into history but into it bodily-- that there is no shelter from it or from one’s responsibility in it. Thus, in "Rite of Passage," Olds is able to be horrified by her own son as a first grader:


As the guests arrive at my son’s party
they gather in the living room-
short men in first grade
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
They clear their
throats a lot, a room of small bankers,
they fold their arms and frown. I could beat you
up, a seven says to a six,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
We could easily kill a two year old,
he [Olds’s son] says in his clear voice. The other
men agree, they clear their throats
like Generals, they relax and get down to
playing war, celebrating my son’s life.

From Jonathan Holden. "American Poetry: 1970-1990." A Profile of 20th Century American Poetry. Ed. Josh Myers and David Abjohn. Carbondale: SIU Press, 1991. 254-74.

Alicia Ostriker

. . . the self in Olds is never represented in isolation but always in relation, penetrated and penetrating, glued by memory and gaze to others. She scandalously eroticizes the bodies of children and parents, genitals and all, describes the sex act with explicit attention to a variety of orifices, is obsessed with the foodlike and procreative possibilities of human bodies, loves images of animals, soil, blood, and eggs, represents her sexually greedy body as a tiger’s, an anteater’s, that which "takes him in as anyone in summer will / open their throat to the hose held up / hot on the edge of the sandlot," and insists "I am this, this " (GC 63).* Cross-gendered imagery recurs through her work, as she invokes "My Father’s Breasts" (DL 43), or speculates that her mother made her deliberately in the image of the powerful father: "I feel her looking down into me the way the / maker of a sword gazes at his face in the / steel of the blade" (GC 33). Sperm is recurrently described as milk, sexual gratification as eating and drinking, sex as power: "The center of your body / will tear open, as a woman will rip the / seam of her skirt so she can run," she tells her daughter (DL 65). Olds’s sacralizing of the sexual and procreative body is sometimes explicit, sometimes textually hinted, as when the daughter’s maturing body is described as rising bread in a way that half represents the girl as Christ ("Bread," DL 77).

* GC = The Gold Cell; DL = The Dead and the Living

From Alicia Ostriker. "I Am (Not) This: Erotic Discourse in Bishop, Olds, and Stevens." The Wallace Stevens Journal 19.2 (Fall 1995): 234-54.

Lucy McDiarmid

It is not easy to sustain without sentimentality a vision that could turn into a paean to family values. The Wellspring sustains it for many reasons, among them the chanting rhythms of the line that make each poem a miniature somatic ritual. And like Whitman, Ms. Olds sings the body in celebration of a power stronger than political oppression. To Whitman, the slave at auction was "the father of those who shall be fathers in their turns, / In him the start of populous states and rich republics." In poems from The Dead and the Living Ms. Olds made a lament of that trope, mourning the starving Russian girl in a 1921 photograph by imagining that "Deep in her body / the ovaries let out her first eggs," and seeing in the penis of a murdered Armenian boy "the source / of the children he would have had."

In the new poem "May 1968," a revisiting of the famous student protest at Columbia, Ms. Olds’s own body lying on the street becomes a site of resistance:

The mounted police moved, near us,
while we sang, and then I began to count,
12, 13, 14, 15,
I counted again, 15, 16, one
month since the day on that deserted beach,
17, 18, my mouth fell open,
my hair on the street,
if my period did not come tonight
I was pregnant . . .

Give me this one
night, I thought, and I’ll give this child
the rest of my life, the horses’ heads,
this time, drooping, dipping, until
they slept in a circle around my
body and my daughter.

As "May 1968" moves from the confrontational politics of the campus to the ultrasonic vision of the protester’s womb, the occasional poem turns into a lullaby. It is a sign of the complexity of Sharon Olds’s vision that the pregnant body, all that domestic future of cribs and birthday parties latent within it, can still be the body militant.

From Lucy McDiarmid. "Private Parts." The New York Times Book Review 15 May 1996: 15.

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