Body and soul
The power of Sharon Olds
by Vicky Feaver
The power to ‘tell’
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.
(‘I Go Back To May 1937)
Old’s declaration of a poet’s power to speak out, to bear witness, comes at the end of a poem which she described in an interview as ‘a little manifesto (womanifesto)’ and the poem, up to that date, by which she would most want to be known. Initially, I was puzzled as to why she considered it so significant. It was only as I read her poems over and over that I realised how central to her work is the power of that threat - ‘I will tell about it’. It is why totalitarian states lock up dissident writers and ban publication of their works. It is why Tereus tore out the tongue of Philomena - so she couldn’t tell her sister that he had raped her. It is why the abusers of children - parents mostly - terrify them, or blackmail them, or shame them into silence.
In poem after poem Olds ‘tells’ about the abuse of power. Like Anna Akhmatova, or other poets of post-war Eastern and Central Europe collected in The Poetry of Survival, an anthology to which Olds contributed some translations, she is a poet of witness: to state terror, to the terror inflicted on his victims by the rapist, but above all to family terror. At the core of her work are poems that testify to the experience of being ‘the one survivor’ of an abusive family. That this is Olds’ experience seems to be confirmed by the fact that the narrator of the poems is variously addressed as ‘Sharon’, or ‘Shar’, or ‘Sharry’. The father of the poems is an alcoholic, both wounded - ‘a stuck/ buffalo, baffled, stunned, dragging/arrows in his hide’ - and wounding: in a repeated image he is the god Saturn who ‘unconscious on the couch every night’ was ‘eating his children’. The mother is revealed as emotionally and sexually abuse. However, Olds is not the poet as victim, exhibiting her wounds ‘to the peanut crunching crowd’, but the poet as survivor. She is more interested in describing extreme sensations of the body - in childbirth, in the ecstasy of sex - than in morbid states of mind. The poems about abuse in her childhood family are juxtaposed with poems in which she celebrates her capacity in her own family to love and nurture. She speaks out about what was done to her not to show how damaged she is but to demonstrate her power to confront the past.
Writing about the survivors of political terror in his introduction to The Poetry of Survival, Daniel Weissbort argues that ‘to say nothing may, in effect, be to collude with the forces of destruction. To speak out, on the other hand is not only proof in itself, evidence of a kind of survival, but also a vindication of it.’ Olds makes a similar connection between silence and compliance in an article she wrote on the ‘silenced voices’ of Turkish dissidents, revealing that ‘as a child I had seen wrong things and wanted to stop them, and I hadn’t’. Again and again in her poems, as if the power of her voice as a poet depended on it, or as if telling was evidence of her survival, she refers to the ‘silenced voice’ of her childhood. Even in her latest book, The Wellspring(1996), there is a poem about her silence and passivity in the house where ‘there was required silence,/ twenty-four hours of silence for a child/or silence at the table for a mother and three children’, where she stood in the corner in silence and lay across her mother’s legs in silence (‘as I grew bigger and bigger over the years/I began to hang over the ends of her lap/in massive shame’). She would only be asked to speak to provide entertainment at Sunday Lunch (‘the membrane of the pig/crackling in the skillet, the knots of fat/undoing’ in an echo of that other famous poem that connects Sunday lunch and torture, Plath’s ‘Mary’s Song’), to repeat the phrase chosen for her by her father to demonstrate her lisp, ‘Sharon sswallowss ssaussagess’.
The significance of ‘I Go Back To 1937’ is that it is the poem in which Olds gives herself retrospective permission to end her silence, to transform herself from dumb and passive victim into the powerful narrator of her own story. The ‘you’ she threatens with exposure - ‘Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it’ - are her parents, just before they were married, before she was even conceived. Viewed separately outside the gates of their colleges, as if in graduation photographs, her father ‘strolling out’, her mother standing with ‘a few light books at her hip’, they are presented as innocents, Adam and Eve figures in the garden before the Fall, carefree, careless, unaware of the unhappiness that will follow. The poet-daughter in the role of seer, she transfers her prescience of what the future holds for them to their portent-loaded backgrounds - ‘the red tiles glinting like bent plates of blood’ behind her father’s head, the ‘wrought iron gate still open’ behind her mother, ‘its sword-tips black in the May air’. Seeing what her parents are unable to see - the damage they will do and, at that point, the possibility of avoiding it, the gate ‘still open’ - she wants to go up to them and stop them, to tell them
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die.
Momentarily the poem fills with a child’s illusory omnipotence, as if the poet really is powerful enough to prevent the coming together of this couple whose tragedy she can see written in the disparity between their flawed human faces and ‘beautiful’, innocent bodies (‘her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,/her pitiful beautiful untouched body,/his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me,/his pitiful beautiful untouched body’). Then the adult’s reasoning takes over, not in the obvious form of her acceptance of her powerlessness to change what happened before she was born but in a witty recognition of the logical implications of doing so. She doesn’t do it because, as she says, ‘I want to live’. Instead, in a pantomimic, Punch and Judy-style image that reverses the usual situation of parents battering their children she describes how, in a kind of kangaroo court in her head,
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips like chips of flint as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.
As a poet, Olds has the imaginative power to reduce the towering, all-powerful parents of childhood to the size and substance of harmless cut out paper dolls. But, characteristically, almost as soon as this image is formed, it is metamorphosed to get closer to the truth. As she bangs the paper figures together - how could parents ever permanently be reduced to something so flimsy? - they become ‘like flints’, indestructible. But this truer perception, instead of rendering her powerless, becomes a source of renewed power. As the chiming, one-syllable, harshly consonant-stopped words, ‘hips’, ‘chips’, ‘flint’, strike off each other, they articulate, in the allusion to the creation of fire, the sense that in the mimetic enactment of her anger she creates the spark that will fire her creation. Her actual power, as the last line of the poem bears out, consists not in the ability to destroy her parents but to save herself, through her testimony, through the power of her writing.
It is interesting to compare ‘I Go Back To 1937’ with the title and opening poem of Olds’ first collection Satan Says (1980) which is also concerned with confronting her parents but which ends with her back in the position of abused child, silent and powerless. Shut in a little cedar wood jewellery box with a ruby-eyed ballerina pin and ‘the pain of the locked past’, she is tempted by Satan with the promise that if she repeats a series of shocking and forbidden phrases - ‘My father is a shit’, ‘ My mother is a pimp’, ‘fuck the father’, ‘torture’, ‘the father’s cock, the mother’s cunt’ he will get her out. At first, she complies and the lid begins to open. But suddenly, struck with the realisation that ‘the exit is through Satan’s mouth’, her courage fails. ‘Oh no, I loved/ them, too,’ she pleads. At this point, Satan loses patience with her. ‘It’s your coffin now’, he says, and the poem ends with her still locked in the box, describing, unconvincingly, how she is left ‘warming my cold/ hands at the dancer’s ruby eye -/ the fire, the suddenly discovered knowledge of love’.
Although the jewellery box makes an apt analogy both for the ‘prison’ of the abused child’s house as well as for the imprisonment of the adult with ‘the pain of the locked past’, Olds has not included ‘Satan Says’ in subsequent selections of her work. Its allegorical drama evoked the isolation and powerlessness of a child of abusing parents. It unstoppered some of her suppressed anger. But it is too staged, too cosily closed, and as her strategy ‘to write my way out of the closed box’, or to escape ‘the pain of the locked past’, it didn’t work. The poem’s central premise that any threat to parental authority on the part of a child must be instigated by the devil was a denial of her valid anger. As the psychoanalyst Alice Miller points out in Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society’s Betrayal of The Child, the taboos against survivors of child abuse ‘telling’ on parents are reinforced by the fact that for the child, especially the abused child, idealisation of the parent is ‘essential to survival’. This would explain why the mechanism by which the box begins to open - the voicing of a stream of parentally-directed obscenities - is counteracted by the stronger, because more familiar, mechanism of replacing the critical, ‘cold’, angry feelings by the ‘warmer’, more comfortable and silencing feelings of love. The cause of the poet’s anger that nearly slipped out in the almost buried word ‘torture’ remains untold. The only resistance remaining is in her body that betrays the truth her mind suppresses. The words ‘I loved them, too’ are immediately followed by a description of physical tension: ‘I brace my body tight in the cedar house’. Earlier in the poem, she described how, as her anger is released, ‘her spine uncurls’. In her subsequent work, Olds’ method is almost always to rely on the power of the body to tell the story.
The power of the body
The body on earth is all we have got
(‘I wanted To Be There When My Father Died’)
The body as text
The focus of almost every Olds’ poem is a body or bodies: her own body - abused in childhood, or with her lover’s body (a series of poems that in their erotic variety constitute a rival female Kama Sutra), her daughter’s ripening body, her son’s sick or injured body, her father’s body as his cancer progresses, or bodies connected to her only in the evidence they provide of the abuse of power - for example, the rope-swaddled bodies of young dissidents about to be executed in Iran. Her characteristic poetic method consists of ‘reading’ a body, or bodies, in
a language that is both sensual and exploratory, that discovers meaning by making connections with other bodies and other discourses and texts. For instance, the human body is often read in relation to the body of nature (to plants and animals, or the body of the earth) or vice versa, as in ‘The Connoisseuse of Slugs’:
When I was a connoisseuse of slugs
I would part the ivy leaves, and look for the
naked jelly of those gold bodies,
translucent strangers glistening along
the stones, slowly, their gelatinous bodies
at my mercy. Made mostly of water, they would shrivel
to nothing if they were sprinkled with salt,
but I was not interested in that. What I liked
was to draw aside the ivy, breathe the
odour of the wall, and stand there in silence
until the slug forgot I was there
and sent its antennae up out of its
head, the glimmering umber horns
rising like telescopes, until finally the
sensitive knobs would pop out the ends,
delicate and intimate. Years later,
when I first saw a naked man,
I gasped with pleasure to see that quiet
mystery re-enacted, the slow
elegant being coming out of hiding and
gleaming in the dark air, eager and so
trusting you could weep.
The poem’s wit, signalled in the title by the deliberate misappropriation of the word ‘connoisseuse’ (signalling works of art) to slugs (initially signalling disgust), is to read the slugs in a way that doesn’t spoil our astonishment at the surprising shift from slug to penis and yet has all the time prepared us for it, leading to the words ‘delicate and intimate’ that are applicable to both. It is also contained in the playful juxtaposition of readings of slugs and penises that emphasise the striking likeness of their physical characteristics and physiological mechanisms. But the readings uncover more than just superficial similarities. In both experiences - discovering slugs and sex - there is a revelation: something hidden is revealed. In both, there is a sense of wonder: both explicit (‘I stand there in silence’ and ‘I gasped with pleasure’) but also implicit in a discourse that mixes factual scientific language (‘gelatinous’, ‘telescope’) with the language of aesthetics (‘gold bodies’, ‘umber horns’) and religion (the ‘quiet mystery re-enacted’). In both, there is a reversal of the received female response: disgust at slimy slugs and a reaction ranging from disgust to a reticence at revealing any kind of response, and certainly one that betrays the woman’s pleasure, except in crude, women-can-be-as-filthy-as-men-style jokes, to the exposed male organ. In both, the poet is aware of having discovered something totally ‘other’ than herself (‘translucent strangers’, ‘the slow elegant being coming out of hiding’) and - an example of the way nearly all Olds’ poems are at some level political - of her power to reverence or destroy it. The risky cliché at the end, ‘so trusting you could weep’, succeeds because it clinches the poem’s discovery that the penis is as much at her mercy as the slugs.
Slug and penis are also, of course ‘at the mercy’ of Olds’ readings of them. Her power as a poet could be to ‘shrivel’ them; or, as she does, to inscribe them with value, literally to let them grow. Reading the body is a means of both discovering meaning and manipulating meaning. Even an abstraction as problematic as the love between her and her father comes under her control when it is embodied (literally ‘the Word made flesh’) in a being she has created. Described first as ‘a stillborn hung by the feet’, it evolves in the course of the poem to become a creature, loaded with ambivalent associations of horror and nurture, that ‘Like a bat opens its leather cloak/ and wraps it again around itself,/... that feeds itself, swerves around things,/ and nurses its young’. The abstract word ‘torture’ that slipped out, emotively but meaninglessly, in ‘Satan Says’, is, in subsequent poems, both personal and political, given substance through the reading of specific bodies. In ‘Ideographs’, for instance, the body of a man ‘twisted’ on a scaffold as he awaits execution, is read as a combination of crucified Christ and angel: ‘the spikes through his ankles/ holding them up off the ground,/ his knees cocked, the fold of his robe flowing/ sideways as if he were suspended in the air in flight, his naked legs bared’.
In ‘Burn Centre’ the tortured body is the poet’s as a child. In the first four lines the poem shifts from literal anecdote to a shocking, because sudden and totally unexpected, metaphorical image that draws its terrible analogy directly from the anecdote:
When my mother talks about the Burn Centre
she’s given to the local hospital
my hair lifts and wavers like smoke
in the air around my head.
The literal abuse of the mother’s physical assault on the child in bed, interpreted so powerfully in a later poem, ‘What if God’, as an eruption of the earth’s body (‘her long adult body rolled on me like a tongue of lava from the top of the mountain’), is here converted into a metaphor of being burned that both establishes what was done to her as ‘torture’ and, by locating the pain in her body, shockingly identifies the source of pain as the person a child normally turns to for comfort in pain:
I would stick to doorways I
tried to walk through, stick to chairs as I
tried to rise, pieces of my flesh
tearing off easily as
well-done pork, and no one had
a strip of gauze, or a pat of butter to
melt on my crackling side, but when I would
cry out she would hold me to her
hot griddle, when my scorched head stank she would
draw me deeper into the burning room of her life.
The horrific literal details - ‘well-done pork’ and ‘my scorched head stank’ - are so seamlessly interwoven with metaphors that derive from the same discourse of cooking and burning - ‘her hot griddle’ and ‘the burning room of her life’ - that the story of the body becomes the story, a narrative that by its controlling wit puts the poet in control of her own pain.
Overall, the story told by the poet’s body in the poems is one of liberation. The restrained, or abused, and always powerless body of the child (‘tied to a chair’, or ‘force fed’, or sexually assaulted by her mother) is replaced by an adult body that celebrates its freedom and sexual energy and powers of creation. It is a type of fairy tale, though one in which the happy ending is infinitely prolonged, in which a powerless and silenced girl, defeating the power of evil through the power of good (sexual love, as in fairy tales), is transformed into a powerful and powerfully-voiced woman. It is also, of course, if you define evil as phallocentrism, the story of the woman poet in history; and the laughing story of Cixous’ Medusa - ‘undoing the work of death’ through a writing that, proceeding from the female body and its sexuality, celebrates life.
In one of Olds’ earliest published poems ‘The Sisters Of Sexual Treasure’ the sexual act becomes the agent not only of the poet’s liberation but also a model for a reversal of the received myth about sexual power relations between male and female:
As soon as my sister and I got out of our
mother’s house, all we wanted to
do was fuck, obliterate
her tiny sparrow body and narrow
grasshopper legs. The men’s bodies
were like our father’s body! The massive
hocks, flanks, thighs, elegant
knees, long tapered calves -
we could have him there, the steep forbidden
buttocks, backs of the knees the cock
in our mouth, ah the cock in our mouth.
Like explorers who
discover a lost city, we went
nuts with joy, undressed the men
slowly and carefully, as if
uncovering buried artefacts that
proved our theory of the lost culture:
that if Mother said it wasn’t there,
it was there.
By reducing the abusing mother to a frail bird, and reading the men - whose bodies ‘were like our father’s body’ - as massive cattle, and herself and her sister as the controllers of these huge beasts (it is they who perform the active sexual function, who take ‘the cock in our mouth’, not the men who penetrate them, they who undress the men almost like dolls), the poet assumes all the power. The analogy of the women as explorers of men’s bodies that follows is an exuberantly witty, twentieth century feminist appropriation and reversal of Donne’s tongue in cheek but still shamelessly colonising seventeenth century male’s reading of his mistress as ‘O my America, my new found land’. Donne’s poem could be the archetype for a male writing about sexuality that, as summarised by Cixous, stems from ‘the power relation between a fantasized obligatory virility meant to invade, to colonize, and the consequential phantasm of woman as a “dark continent” to penetrate and to “pacify”’. But Olds’ poem, although deriving much of its imaginative energy and wit from subverting Donne’s argument, is as much about discovering a sexuality that has been lost to women, denied them by their mothers, as it is about reversing a male myth. As in ‘Connoisseuse of Slugs’, along with the humour there is a serious reverence for men’s bodies. The female act ‘to fuck’ is represented not as an act of penetration and plunder but one of oral pleasure (taking the ‘cock in our mouth’) and, after the initial excitement (going ‘nuts with joy’), of slow and admiring discovery.
In later poems Olds’ project of reading the body becomes a serious quest to discover existential meaning. In ‘I cannot Forget the Woman In the Mirror’, for instance, the poet studies the reflection of her naked body as she approaches her lover: ‘the flanks and ass narrow and pale as a deer’s’ and ‘her tongue long and black as an anteater’s going towards his body’. What she sees initially is ‘a human animal’. Then, as she raids the body of her knowledge and language (in this case the history of the American Indian) to get closer to the truth of what she perceives, she discovers, in ‘an Iroquois scout creeping naked and noiseless’, an even better image for a human body crawling on hands and feet and possessed of the acute senses of an animal. It reminds me both of Coleridge’s demand, in a definition that privileges ‘Tact’ over ‘logical coherence’, that the great poet should possess ‘the eye of a North American Indian tracing the footsteps of an enemy upon the Leaves that strew the Forest’, and of Irigaray’s account of women’s language as ‘a process of weaving itself, at the same time ceaselessly embracing words and yet casting them off to avoid becoming fixed, immobilised’, of ‘touching (upon).’ There is a sense of the poet feeling her way, of using what touchstones she has, of approaching closer and closer, until, in a moment of illumination and self-affirmation that could only have been arrived at through the patient readings of the text of her body, she observes:
when I looked at her
she looked at me so directly, her eyes so
dark, her stare said to me I
belong here, this is mine, I am living out my
true life on this earth.
Body and soul
Although Olds frequently employs the language and imagery of the Bible in her work, it is made clear that she doesn’t believe either in the Christian God or in the Christian concept of an eternal soul. Describing the moment after her father’s death in ‘The Feelings’, for instance, the poet states: ‘Everyone else in the room believed in the Christian God,/they called my father the shell on the bed, I was the/only one there who knew/ he was entirely gone, the only one/there to say goodbye to his body/that was all he was... ’. There are no ‘out of body’ experiences in Olds’ poems. The ‘central meanings’ of ‘Prayer’ are found in childbirth and sex. The ‘still waters’, the calm pond/silent as if eternal’, and the other world of ‘Ecstasy’ (‘we did not know where we were, we could not speak the language’, ‘we were far beyond what we knew’, in ‘a place from which no one has ever come back’), are arrived at through sexual acts of the body. ‘If I had a God’, she declares to her lover in ‘Greed and Aggression’, a poem in which she ‘reads’ her body, in an apparently deliberate allusion to Blake, as being like a tiger eating an eland, ‘it would renew itself the/ way you live and live while I take you as if/ consuming you while you take me as if/ consuming me, it would be a God of/ love as complete satiety, greed and fullness, aggression and fullness.’ In other words, it would be a paradoxically devouring and renewing God of sexual love, created in the image of their lovemaking - almost the complete opposite of the Christian God of Agape (spiritual love) who creates man in His image.
This Blakeian concept of the divinity of the body and sex is developed further in ‘Love In Blood Time’. During an act of simultaneous cunnilingus and fellatio (‘the large hard bud of your glans in my mouth, the dark petals of my sex in your mouth’), the poet experiences first a sense of immortality (‘I could feel death going farther and farther away, forgetting me, losing my address his/palm forgetting the curve of my cheek in his hand’). Then, as she ‘reads’ her lover’s body in the ‘small glow of the lamp’, his ‘lower lip/glazed with light like liquid fire’, (the spread of alliteration and assonance creating a verbal equivalent of the circles of light in a Rembrandt or de la Tour), she moves towards a radical vision of God which draws on Christian concepts of goodness but, in a reversal of conventional Christian theology, locates this goodness in the human body and its sexual acts:
I looked at you and I knew you were God
and I was God and we lay in our bed
on the dark cloud, and somewhere down there
was the earth, and somehow all we did, the
blood, the pink stippling of the head, the
pearl fluid out of the slit, the
goodness of all we did would somehow get
down there, it would find its flowering in the world.
No poet I can think of has written so powerfully about sex: finding a language that precisely conveys physical details and at the same time invests them with an allusion and symbolism that makes use of existing systems of meaning in pursuit of discovering new meaning. For example, the verbal stream of ‘pearl fluid out of the slit’, beginning slowly with the repeated liquid ‘l’s and drawn out double-vowels of ‘pearl’ and ‘fluid’ and then rushing towards the explosive consonants of ‘slit’, provides an almost onomatopoeic impression of ejaculation. But it is also a reading that imbues the male sexual act with the values inherent in the language employed to describe it. ‘Pearl’ conveys exactly the colour and size and shape of the drop of semen that first emerges from ‘the head’. But it also carries associations of something found in nature that is precious, as well as Biblical associations of purity. The wit and wonder of the poem’s final revelation that ‘the goodness of all we did...would find its flowering in the world’ - bringing together the earlier botanical descriptions of the body’s sexual parts as well as the spiritual connotation of pearl - are arrived at by a genuine process of exploration that involves a touching of the physical body and of the body of language.
Through the body and its sexual acts, Olds seems to be saying, we can reach not only a transcendence that is equivalent to the transcendence claimed for religious experience but also the ‘goodness’ that is more usually attributed to religious than sexual practices. ‘The body on earth is all we have got’, she states categorically in ‘I Wanted To Be There When My Father Died’. So what is the soul - normally regarded as the antithesis of the material body - doing in her poems? In the bitterly ironic ‘What If God’, for instance, she envisages the kind of god that might exist in her mother’s abusive world, a world in which ‘she said that all we did was done in His sight so/ what was He doing as He saw her weep in my/ hair and slip my soul from between my ribs/ like a tiny hotel soap’. This witty but reductive image of the soul seems to parody the Christian idea of the divine ‘body’s guest’. ‘Did He/ wash His hands of me as I washed my hands of Him?’ she goes on to ask. But earlier in the poem, in the startling personification of God as ‘a squirrel with His/ arm in the yolk of my soul up to the elbow,/ stirring, stirring the gold’, the image of the egg yolk evokes an idea of the soul as the creative essence of the body. Like the world ‘pearl’ in ‘Love in Blood Time’, gold describes both the colour and value of what has been violated. It is an image that connects closely with Olds’ account of her creative process: her feeling that the poem forms behind her breastbone and that writing it is the ‘effort to get it out of me and onto the page without distorting it - like a very very over easy egg out of the pan onto the plate without breaking the yolk’.
Olds’ other analogy for the relationship between her body and the poem is of a dance: her body’s dance as she writes the poem (‘When I am writing a poem, it’s true that I am often hearing it, my lips move, but I am also, in a way, dancing with it’) and ‘the dance that goes on between the language and the line and idea or narrative’ in the body of the poem. She illustrated this with a diagram which superimposes the shape of a dancing body whose multiple arms represent its movements on the shape of one of her ragged-edged poems. As she explained:
I see the body likeness (as if in a mirror): the left-hand margin is the still left arm;
the caesura is the midline of the body (the spine); the right-hand margin shows
the right-hand’s freedom.
This image of a vertically dancing body appears in a more surprising but related context in ‘Am and Am Not’, the penultimate poem in Olds’ last published collection, The Wellspring(1997). An addition to her topos of ‘morning after’ poem - a celebratory alternative to the also post-coital, but usually male-voiced and regretful, Aubade - it begins with the poet brushing her teeth and proceeds, with the concentric female logic identified by Irigaray, to an enquiry of the performance of her vagina in the sexual act of the previous night and thence to an investigation of the soul:
When I am tilted forward, brushing my teeth,
I glance down. We do not know
ourselves. My cunt, like a hand, stroked him,
such subtle, intricate movement. Central
inside me this one I am and am not,
not only like a palm, more like a snake’s
reticulated body, rings of muscle -
like the penis outside-in, its twin.
Who is it? I lean against the sink, mouth open
and burning with Colgate, nixie palate
scoured with pond-mint; is it my soul
in there, elastic as an early creature
gone out on its own again, is it
my soul’s throat? Its rings ripple
in waves, as if it swallows, but what it
swallows stays, and grows, and grows,
we become one being, whom we hardly know,
whom we know better than we know anyone
else. And in the morning I look down. Who? What has -
what?! Seeing just the skin of the belly -
she is asleep in there, the soul, vertical,
undulant one, she is dancing upright in her dream.
Questioning and exploratory, the poem approaches the unknown (the central question of identity ‘Who Am I?’) and unseen (the vagina) through a reading of the body that begins with what is known and seen: the movements of a hand, a snake, and the penis. It employs language as a kind of a raft in the process of discovery: the pond-mint flavour of Colgate toothpaste (a product of the linguistic elasticity of contemporary advertising) leading by a process of natural association and post-modern wit to an image of the soul, ‘elastic as an early creature’, in the unformed, unfixed, watery world at the beginning of creation. It sets a precise and wittily paradoxical description of the empirical evidence (‘Its rings ripple/ in waves, as if it swallows, but what it/ swallows stays, and grows and grows’) against a language that breaks down in inarticulate speculation (‘Who? What has - what?’). In defining the vagina as ‘central inside me this one I am and am not’, it playfully acknowledges phallocentric assertions of identity - the unquestioning ‘I AM THAT I AM’ of the God of Exodus, or the tortured self-examining of John Clare’s ‘I Am’ - and at the same time discovers the female ‘hole’ (brilliantly epitomised as ‘the penis outside-in, its twin’) as symbolising not ‘lack’ but a source of mystery and paradox: an identity, a self, a ‘soul’, that together with the phallus becomes ‘one being’ but that exists separately, joyously, inside and as an integral part of the female body. It also embodies ideas about the body as the source of female creativity. The unfinished or delayed meanings of the line endings that propel the poem forwards give it the impression of being a writing of a body that, in Olds’ admiring words about Ruth Stone, ‘swivels its hips and moves’. The suggestion that the vagina soul has a throat implies that it also has a voice. The lyrically ecstatic final lines with their hypnotic, rhythmically repeated ‘l’s’ create an image of the dancing soul that not only demonstrates Olds’ power to put ‘body and soul’ into her work but is a literal embodiment of her concept of the poet’s/poem’s dancing body.
A radical feminine interpretation of the dance of creation, the poem makes a brilliantly anarchic addition to the poetry of the soul, rivalling Marvel’s ‘A Dialogue Between the Soul and Body’ in its wit and the Emperor Hadrian’s ‘Animula, vagula, blandula’ in its power to create an image of the soul that is vivid and comprehensible. Hadrian and Marvel both drew on Christian neo-Platonic thought to personify the soul. Olds’ image of the soul as the vagina asleep after sex, ‘dancing upright in her dream’, is her own original construction.
The power of Sharon Olds consists in her fearless investigation and recording of her experience, even when it exposes the most intimate details of her life and relationships, or challenges, or completely reverses previously accepted codes or narratives. It arises from the sensuousness and physical texture of a poetic discourse that in focusing on the body draws attention to the animal, vegetable and mineral constituents of ‘matter’. It resides in her ability to call on all her knowledge and all the resources of the existing body of language as she knows it to investigate and illumine the nature of her experience. It is in the structure of her poems: their aliveness and suppleness; the way they plunge in and change direction and don’t stop moving until they have both embodied an experience and arrived at an interpretation. It is in the power of a voice that ‘calls out to, whispers to, sings to’ the reader; that like Lorca’s Duende ‘gives a sensation of freshness wholly unknown’, that ‘burns the blood like powdered glass’. Finally, it is in her power to give her work a resonance beyond her personal story. Her nakedness in her poems is not, in the usual sense of the term, the confessional nakedness of an exhibitionist: and yet it is exhibitionist. ‘Our species needs (poetry), perhaps, to survive’, Olds argues. She offers the poetry of her survival - her courage to speak out, to ‘tell about it’, her refusal to accept powerlessness, her quest to identify good and evil, her celebration of sexuality and love - for the survival of humanity.
The Gold Cell (New York: Knopf, 1987) (hereafter GC), The Sign of Saturn (London: Secker &
Warburg, 1991) (hereafter SoS), p. 61.
Interview by Sue Stewart in 1991, Talking Verse: Interviews With Poets, ed. R. Crawford,
H. Hart, D. Kinloch, R. Price (St Andrews and Williamsburg, VA: Verse, 1995).
3 In a forward to her poem ‘Requiem’ Anna Akhmatova describes being asked by a woman standing beside her in a prison queue in the years of the Yezhov terror, ‘Can you describe this?’
Her reply was: ‘Yes, I can’.
4 Ed. D. Weissbort (London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1991).
5 ‘The Girl’, GC, SoS, p. 56.
6 ‘The Pact’, The Dead and the Living (New York: Knopf, 1984) (hereafter DL), SoS, p. 32.
7 ‘The Sign of Saturn’, DL, SoS, p. 45.
8 ‘Saturn’, GC, SoS, p62.
9 Ibid., p. 17.
10 ‘Silenced Voices: Turkey - Ismail Besikci’, American Poetry Review (July-Aug 1986), pp.
11 ‘The Lisp’, p. 12. The Wellspring (London: Cape, 1996), p. 12.
12 (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984), pp. 62-3.
13 Ibid., p. 318. ‘The truth about our childhood is stored up in our body, and although we can
repress it, we can never alter it.’
14 The Father (London: Cape, 1993), p. 67.
15 ‘Aesthetics of the Shah’, DL, SoS, p. 19.
16 Ibid., p. 33.
17 Satan Says (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press) (thereafter SS), SoS, p. 2.
18 Subtitled ‘a photograph of China, 1905, DL, SoS, p. 15.
19 DL, SoS, p. 26.
20 GC, SoS, p. 63.
21 SS, SoS, p. 1.
22 ‘Elegy: To his Mistris going to Bed’. The whole section reads: ‘Licence my roving hands, and let them goe / Behind before above, between, below. / Oh my America, my new found lande, / My Kingdome, safeliest when with one man man’d, / My myne of precious tones, my Empiree, / How blest am I in this discovering thee’.
23 Note to ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, transl. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, in Isabelle de Courtivron and Elaine Marks (eds), New French Feminisms (Minneapolis: University of Massachusetts Press; Brighton: Harvester, 1981).
24 GC, SoS, p. 81
25 ‘..the great Poet must be, implicite if not explicite, a profound Metaphysician. He may not have it in logical coherence, in his Brain & Tongue; but he must have it by Tact: for all sounds, & forms of human nature he must have the ear of a wild Arab listening in the silent Desert - the eye of a North American Indian tracing the footsteps of an enemy upon the Leaves that strew the Forest; the Touch of a Blind Man feeling the face of a darling Child.’ Letter to William Sotheby, in Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. L. Griggs (Oxford: OUP, 1956-71), vol. ii, p. 810.
26 de Courtivron and Marks, New French Feminisms, p.103; from ‘Ce sexe qui ne’en est pas un’ - ‘This sex which is not one’, 1977.
27 The Father, p. 39.
28 SS, SoS, p. 14.
29 ‘Sex Without Love’, DL, SoS, p. 37.
30 ‘Sunday Night in the City’ SS, SoS, p. 4.
31 DL, SoS, p. 38.
32 GC, SoS, p. 77.
33 Ibid., p. 82.
34 E.g. Matthew 13;45, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.’
35 The Father, p. 67.
36 Sue Stewart Interview, p.188.
38 Ibid., p 149.
39 ‘Ruth Stone and Her Poems’, in The House Is Made of Poetry: The Art of Ruth Stone, ed. Wendy Barker and Sandra Gilbert (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1996).
40 ‘Little soul so sleek and smiling / Flesh’s friend and guest also / Where departing will you wander / growing paler now and languid /And not joking as you used to?’ (Stevie Smith’s translation).
41 Sue Stewart interview, p. 191.
42 ‘Theory and Function of the Duende’, in Lorca: Selected Poems, trans. J. L. Gill (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960).
The Gold Cell (1987), The Sign Of Saturn, p61.
Interview by Sue Stewart in 1991, Talking Verse: Interviews With Poets, ed. R. Crawford, H. Hart, D. Kinloch, R. Price, Verse, 1995.
In a forward to her poem ‘Requiem’ Anna Akhmatova describes being asked by a woman standing beside her in a prison queue in the years of the Yezhov terror ‘Can you describe this?’ Her reply was: ‘Yes, I can’.
ed D. Weissbort, Anvil Press Poetry, 1991.
‘The Girl’, GC, SOS, p56.
‘The Pact’, The Dead and the Living (1984), SOS, p32.
‘The Sign of Saturn’, DL, SOS, p45.
‘Saturn’, GC, SOS, p62.
op cit., p17.
‘Silenced Voices: Turkey - Ismail Besikci’, The American Poetry Review, July-Aug 1986, pp29-30.
‘The Lisp’, p12.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984, p62-3.
Op cit., p318. ‘The truth about our childhood is stored up in our body, and although we can repress it, we can never alter it.’
The Father (1993), p67.
‘Aesthetics of the Shah’, DL, SOS, p19.
DL, SOS, p33.
‘Love Between Us’, Satan Says, SOS, p2.
Subtitled ‘a photograph of China, 1905, DL, SOS, p15.
DL, SOS, p26.
TGC, SOS, p63.
SS, SOS, p3.
‘Elegy: To his Mistris going to Bed’. The whole section reads: ‘Licence my roving hands, and let them goe/ Behind before above, between, below./ Oh my america, my new found lande,/ My kingdome, safeliest when with one man man’d,/ My myne of precious tones, my empiree,/ How blest am I in this discovering thee’.
Note to ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, transl. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, in Isabelle de Courtivron and Elaine Marks (eds), New French Feminisms, Minneapolis: Univeersity of Massachusetts Press; Brighton: Harvester, 1981
GC, SOS, p81
‘..the great Poet must be, implicte if not explicite, a profound Metaphysician. He may not have it in logical coherence, in his Brain & Tongue; but he must have it by Tact: for all sounds, & forms of human nature he must have the ear of a wild Arab listening in the silent Desert - the eye of a North American Indian tracing the footsteps of an enemy upon the Leaves that strew the Forest; the Touch of a Blind Man feeling the face of a darling Child.’ Letter to William Sotheby, Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed E. L. Griggs, Oxford, 1956-71, Vol 2, p810.
Marks and de Courtivron, 1981, p103; from Ce sexe qui ne’en est pas un - ‘This sex which is not one’ - 1977.
The Father, p39.
SS, SOS, p14.
‘Sex Without Love’, DL, SOS, p37.
‘Sunday Night in the City’ SS, SOS, p4.
DL, SOS, p38
GC, SOS, p77.
GC, SOS, p82
e.g. Matthew 13.45, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.’
The Father (1983), p67.
Sue Stewart Interview, op cit, p188.
see above, p 9.
‘Ruth Stone and Her Poems’, in The House Is Made of Poetry: The Art of Ruth Stone, ed Wendy Barker and Sandra Gilbert, Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1996.
‘Little soul so sleek and smiling/Flesh’s friend and guest also/Where departing will you wander/growing paler now and languid/And not joking as you used to?’ (Stevie Smith’s translation).
Stewart, op cit, p191.
‘Theory and Function of the Duende’, Lorca: Selected Poems, trasl J. L. Gill, Penguin, 1960.
Copyright © Vicki Feaver
Re-produced by permission of the author.