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.

More lilies

I don’t want this to become an obituary blog, but I need to note the death of another of my poetic luminaries: May Oliver.

I think I first became acquainted with her work through the Poulin anthology, Modern American Poetry (the same can be said for a number of my favorite poets of the last generation). I felt an immediate affinity, as I considered myself (and still do) a nature poet at heart. Still, whereas I sometimes feel compelled to include the occasional human in my poems, Oliver did not.

I’ve been flipping through House of Light recently, and I’m struck by the general lack of human contact. Most of the poems stem from a walk by the poet through secluded woods and fields, and center on an observation made during the excursion. That may sound a bit formulaic—and OK, if I have one gripe with Oliver’s poetry, it’s that it is forumulaic—but the insights are beautifully rendered in sparse language that speaks directly to my inner sensibilities.

Sparse, direct, plain language is a defining feature of her poetry. She adores flowery plants, not flowery language. Adjectives are typically simple, and often simply indicate color. Interestingly, the main colors found in House of Light are white, black, and red, with occasional patches of green and blue. And again, it’s just “red,” not “blood red” or “cherry red” or scarlet or fuchsia—just “red.” She gets away with this partly because the objects she’s describing are so familiar, they hardly need describing at all. We all know what color is a crane, or a bear, or the sky; any attempt to portray them with more specificity would mar the image. I started flagging all the poems that mentioned white, black, or red, but I ran out of stickies.

And it’s not just colors that appear throughout. The familiar woodland creatures make multiple appearances: deer, cranes, owls, frogs—not to mention lilies, her favorite flower (lilies for Oliver are like ballerinas for Degas). These are not exotic creatures, and that’s partly the point. Nature is not what you find in zoos or on safari, it’s what you find in your own backyard. On the other hand, you don’t find many dogs, cats, and squirrels—such creatures are far too domesticated. Nature is not the antidote to civilization, it’s the default state. Buildings and structures and mechanical devices are the anomaly, and though they may distract us from our natural state, they do not erase it.

Her poems often convey the serenity of nature, which, on its own, does not typically change in human timescales. Death is ubiquitous, but it’s typically a quiet, and sometimes quick, death: a heron nabs a frog and moves on, a turtle gulps a duckling and is gone. And afterward, the quiet returns. Death is to be welcomed as an opportunity to return to the earth and set the cycle of life in motion again. In fact, when she declares in “Foxes in Winter,” “I never said / nature wasn’t cruel,” I’m suddenly taken aback by the defensiveness of the line and the surprising truth to it. Yes, she never said nature wasn’t cruel, but that’s because she didn’t need to; cruelty is a human construct, implying some sort of malicious intent or pleasure in someone else’s suffering. Nature can’t be cruel, though we may perceive it to be. She also says, perhaps with a bit irony, “I think this is / the prettiest world—so long as you don’t mind / a little dying.” Of course, most people do mind a little dying, especially when they’re the ones doing the dying.

I sometimes find myself starting to write a poem, but then stopping and saying, “Wait a minute, are you really going to write another poem about snakes? Shouldn’t you try something different?” Oliver’s work repudiates that advice. She returns to the same subjects, the same tropes, time and again, following a well-worn path through her poetic woods, literal and figurative. But as with a favorite hiking path, I never get tired of following her.