Old gold

While I was searching through my shelf for Mary Oliver, I chanced to notice a book by Sharon Olds: The Gold Cell. I must’ve had it for a long time, but as I flipped through it, I realized that I had never really perused it. My loss—here’s another poet that everyone should read again and again.

It’s a long book, as far as poetry collections go, clocking in at 90 pages. It’s divided into four sections of thematically linked poems. The first section is something of a grab bag, including poems about the seamier side of life in NYC as well as meditations on the violence that underpins the human condition. Though many of these are engaging, they offer only a glimpse of the extremely powerful writing that is to come in the second section, which focuses on the poet’s early life with her father. Yes, the mother figures in, too, but mostly as a foil for the father.

The writing here exhibits what I most look for in poetry—a raw emotional intensity combined with a deft handling of form, even if the form is simply a tight narrative technique. This is old-school Confessional poetry, which can be truly moving when done right. Olds is a master of the extreme metaphor, as evidenced in the first poem of this section, “Saturn,” which compares her father to the titan devouring his kids. Goya’s painting immediately springs to mind, though this Saturn seems more pernicious; he does not simply swallow his children whole, but rather cracks them open like shellfish, needing not only to consume them but break them in the process: “My brother’s arm went in up to the shoulder / and he bit it off, and sucked at the wound / as one sucks at the sockets of a lobster.” The father is shown to be passed out on the couch every night, so perhaps alcoholism was part of the problem, though that is never expressly stated. A similar hint appears in a later poem, “June 24,” which states, “You died night after night in the years of my childhood, / sinking down into speechless torpor.”

One of the highlights of this section is “History: 13,” which describes the father coming home late one night covered in blood—perhaps from a bar fight? The cause is never made clear, though the image of the blood-covered father reoccurs in other poems, where the father assumes overtones of both victim and butcher. Plath famously compared her father to Hitler in “Daddy,” but in “History: 13,” Olds compares her father to Mussolini (who seems to be fading more and more from our collective memory). The effect, I’d argue, is more visceral in Olds’ poem, as it shifts seamlessly from the injury of father to the death of the dictator, whose body suffered all the abuse of a traumatized nation waking up from its war-torn nightmare. Just as the desecration of Mussolini’s body served as a watershed for Italy, so the unexplained violence against the father marks a defining moment in the poet’s life: “I turned my back / on happiness, at 13 I entered / a life of mourning.” In the last poems of this section, the poet achieves some sort of rapprochement with her parents—or at least their memory—and seems to reach a point where the tyranny of the past no longer controls her. Of course, such reconciliation can be oddly unsettling, necessitating a hefty dose of soul-searching. Olds makes this starkly evident in “After 37 Years My Mother Apologizes for my Childhood,” where she writes, “I could not / see what I would do with the rest of my life,” and later, “I hardly knew what I / said or who I would be now that I had forgiven you.” Even pain and anger can be hard to let go, when they’re the two qualities that have defined your entire life.

The third section pivots to more sensual concerns, with a lot of poems about sex, desired and consummated, in all its messy glory. These, too, tend to be unabashedly straightforward in their description. As I’ve said before, a straight man cannot write in such terms, using the same sort of diction and imagery, without inviting accusations of toxic masculinity. Of course, these poems were written 30 years ago, so prevailing sentiments were different. I’m sure they must’ve seemed even more scandalous at the time.

The final section completes a natural progression from the third; that one focused on making babies, the final one focuses on raising them. Some of these seem a bit self-indulgent, with references that presumably hold more meaning for the poet than the reader. Still, the description is masterful. I suppose that’s no surprise. Olds specializes in focusing on the smallest but most telling details, and as a parent, she’s predisposed to notice the infinite minutiae that define her kids. Consider these lines from “When My Son is Sick”:

… his skin going
pale gold as cold butter and then
turning a little like rancid butter till the
freckles seem to spread, black little
islands of mold…

I could’ve selected any passage nearly at random and found similarly engaging language. That deft turn of phrase is what I love about Olds. Annoyingly, though, I was recently working on a poem and composed a phrase that seemed perfect and unique, and smiled at my good fortune to have discovered it. Then, in reading this book, I found the exact same phrase! Olds had beaten me to it!

If I have any gripes at all with this book, I would say that it might’ve been even more powerful if it had been a bit shorter. Perhaps some of the poems in the first or fourth sections could have been omitted—though it would, admittedly, be hard to choose which ones. And what about that title? Well, there is a poem entitled “In the Cell” but that doesn’t seem representative of the collection overall. The cover shows a snake curled around a gold circle that resembles the sun. So on the one hand, it conveys a sort of alchemist aesthetic; but on the whole, it looks rather like an ovum, a round human egg cell, which makes a lot more sense, given the focus of the poems.

This was Olds’ third collection of poetry; other books received greater acclaim, but I’d say that this one ranks among the best of them. Even after 30 years, it has not lost its currency or freshness.