by John Kendall Hawkins
Since things and my body are made of the same stuff, vision must somehow come about in them; or yet again, their manifest visibility must be repeated in the body by a second visibility.
—Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,”
The Primacy of Perception
The opening line of “No Makeup,” the fourth poem in Sharon Olds’s new collection, Arias, states: “Maybe one reason I do not wear makeup is to scare people.” It’s funny, has a political edge, and gets you thinking about all the people who hide behind thin-skinned masks. Olds’s engaging humor always leads the reader toward an edgy question, like: Makeup for what?
A winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and the only woman from the U.S. to win the T.S. Eliot Prize, Olds is in a fine fettle here. Mixing up memory and desire, but with nothing wasted, her humane, savvy, lyrical takes on ordinary experiences, albeit ones that often exist somewhere between the concrete and the abstract, are thoroughly enthralling and often movingly accessible. There are many strands and streams of themes that run through the river of Olds’s work. In Arias, she has many poems about dealing with strangers, human self-destructiveness, sexuality, motherhood, and the brilliant flashes of a personal pantheism. All that, in addition to paeans to language, love, and social awareness.
Born in 1942, Olds spent her early childhood in the Bay Area before being sent to the Dana Halls School in Massachusetts. She did her undergraduate work at Stanford and earned her PhD at Columbia University in 1972. According to the biographical information at poetryfoundation.org, she grew up a “hellfire Calvinist,” which seems to have had a significant effect on her psychosexual development and later personal mythopoeia. She has lived in New York City for decades.
Olds has been called a “confessional” poet, but that label is not quite right, as confessional poets are often stuck recounting trauma from their past, which can strain an empathetic read. But Olds, for all her mother-meted (and metered) childhood abuse, survives with witty and strange ontological bursts of insight. She puts her head into gas clouds of life-affirming atoms. She never strains empathy, but seems to produce new streams of it.
She’s also too hip to be darkly backward—she’s tuned in to the Now and Future, politically, sexually, intellectually, and poetically. Her poem “My Godlessness” fits right in with the times. Surprisingly, and anti-confessionally, she writes:
My mother beating me was not the source
of my godlessness. The source was not
the rape and murder of my classmate, or the rapes
and murders of our fellow citizens.
It was not earth, or water, or air.
Instead, perhaps envisioning Trump and the circus in Washington D.C., she writes: “The source of my godlessness was cruelty / and abuse of power, its minions were like the / flame-headed one roaring now / from the pulpit, the orange-haired extinctor.”
Arias contains six parts: “Meeting A Stranger,” “Arias,” “Run Away Up,” “The New Knowing,” “Elegies,” and “First Child.” This gives some of the game away, but there’s more. I like to think of the collection as an opera, loose, decentralized, postmodern, but full of arias—38 of them to be exact—and leitmotifs (“My mother beat me in 4/4 time” being the main one), and it's a collection that features beginnings, middles, and ends. An opera, but more Tommy than Rigoletto—and Olds is a diva from birth to death in these poems.
Early in the collection, Olds conjures up a familiar remembrance of the confusion and horror of 9/11. Suddenly, there is that image of white dust and smoke coming at you like a billowing fog monster, people running for cover. In “Looking South at Lower Manhattan, Where the Towers Had Been,” the poet in Olds wants to make sense of the horror and panic, but stops herself:
if you see me starting to talk about
something I know nothing about,
like the death of someone who’s a stranger to me,
step between me and language.
She observes: “oxygen, carbon, hydrogen” and the “sacred ashes / of strangers,” coming at the onlookers—the in-your-face failure of humanity.
But there is humor, too, in these transactions with strangers. At the airport, in “Departure Gate Aria,” she imagines herself at the airport as a “guardian spirit,” who comes across a beclouded woman with sandals and engages her in conversation just long enough to praise how her sandals complement the woman’s garments and soul: “You look / beautiful and good,” she says, and watches the clouds disappear from the woman’s face. The poet is chuffed and thinks:
I bustled off—
so this is what I’ll do, now,
instead of kissing and being kissed, I’ll
go through airports praising people, like an
Antichrist saying, You do not need
to change your life.
Olds is known for going to poetic places where other more angelic types fear to tread, like the joy of sexuality—as if it only belonged on TV, but must get itself to a nunnery in poetic form. Olds mocks this notion immediately in “Breaking Bad Aria,” when she imagines why the shifty Heisenberg (Walter White) resonates with men: “he gets sexually aroused by cooking meth and having / killed someone, it excites him so much he fucks / harder than he has ever fucked.” Later in the poem, she has her own quake: “What was arousing, to me, / for three decades, was faithfulness, the / chains of orgasms extreme beyond violent /in safety.” She never lost her faith.
In “Gliss Aria” she celebrates the bliss she’s had with the gliss of her lower lips, although, she writes, “sometimes I have left them untouched, / so they cannot sing, yet they’ve been sweet to me, / liquidy, sleek, lissome, with some / faint fragrance of salted nectar.” At other times it’s more about the music, as when she carts some LPs over to her lover’s place and gets laid for the first time in “Long-Playing Aria”:
—my body which had hardly been touched,
even through my clothes—to be that passive
verb, with flowered in it, by a light-shedding
laughing man who seemed to not love
anyone, like a god.
Her caesuras open like orchidal maneuvers in the dark, an erotic mythopoesis at work.
Some of the best poems in Arias come in the joie de vivre and humor of her baby poems. In “Objective Permanence Aria,” Olds imagines that first self-conscious moment of delightful other-being:
What a moment it was, in my life, when my mother
would leave the room, and I knew she still
existed! I was connected to that giant
flower on legs, that huge human
bee, even when the evidence of her
was invisible to me.
In “My First Two Weeks,” the baby drolly recalls that “I lived in a collective, / a commune of newborns” and, as for her relationship to Mom, “I commandeered those teats!” Oh, sweet liebfraumilch!
But such Blakean songs of innocence are more than balanced out by the poet’s songs of experience in a childhood of beatings at the hands of her mother. In “Waist Aria,” we hear the child being told, “Young lady—go up and wait for me / with your clothes off, below the waist.” Over and over again, these words cry out from the page—unexpectedly, at first, until the 4/4 time becomes the scene of a crime the poet must return to or die in.
Because of her ardent love for her mother, Olds keeps searching for answers in the poetry of her pain. In “I Do Not Know If It Is True, but I Think,” she introduces the musical pathology she shares with her mother, as if the mother, too, found release in rhyme and time:
My mother beat me to the meter of “Onward,
Christian Soldiers.” She speeded up
the tempo which dragged, in church—Slow-ly
On-ward Bo-ring Chris-tian Sol-diers—
and she got to give pain, maybe the same
pain her mother had given her
and her mother’s mother had given her mother . . .
She is beaten because her mother wanted a boy, pre-named Timothy, and, instead, much to the mother’s dismay, a girl emerged out of the pain and quagmire of birth. In “Timothy Aria,” Olds writes, “I had been a star, / for a while, and I did not forget that I’d been / held, once, at some length, in passionate regard.” She holds the moment like a changeling, taking simple succor in the fact that her mother can love. In “Cold Tahoe Today,” the poet sub-merges with elements and goes to watery places: “I was an agate hunter, /a diver for transparent stone. / It meant so much to me to be / entirely inside that liquid world”—because there, “No one could hit you, in there, no one could / pull their arm back fast enough / to strike.”
Several lovely poems are devoted to the release of her trauma after her mother dies. She tends, with her sister, to her mother’s pain-driven last hours from this realm in “Morphine Elegy.” She becomes mother to her mother in “Dawn Song,” laying to rest a woman never at home in the world with these words:
And I want to say, to my
mother, my journeying laborer
who wandered here, with me in her hobo
sack—I want to put her to sleep
like an exhausted animal. Sleep, baby,
Olds possesses a keen sense of existence as not merely anthropocentric, but as pantheistic—that there is a divine force identifiable in everything, right down to the molecular level. Such phenomenological poems here include “Her Birthday as Ashes in Seawater,” where her mother’s ashes have been dispersed, leaving “her nature unknowable, dense, / dispersed, her atomization a miracle.” She is part of the sea and the sea is part of the galaxy and the galaxy is part of at least one of the universes. It’s a reminder that when we scale up, anthropocentrism doesn’t fare well.
“My Parents’ Ashes (New York City, October, 2001)” returns the reader to the earlier poem written not long after 9/11, when the acrid dust of bones and buildings was still in the air, holding memory in place. It evokes an image of her parents’ ashes dispersed 3000 miles away in the San Francisco Bay:
Maybe a molecule of her
has lain beside a molecule
of him, or interpenetrated
it, an element of her matter
bonding to an element of his
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
the currents carry them
back and forth under the Golden Gate.
Olds’s caesuras move back and forth, with and against the current, her rhythms and imagery stretching into the diaphanous reaches of language’s primordial brine.
For Olds, these interpenetrations of being can be playful and funny, too, as in “Animal Crackers,” where she pokes fun at the notion of transubstantiation: “I ate Christ, and the bunny, / I want a Levine matzoh, I want / Dickinson by her own recipe, / and Keats, bright oatmeal brooch.” It’s pagan cannibalism: ingesting the other, incorporating their power. But like most poets of Olds’s caliber, intertextuality has significant influences—she’s read everybody, and it can be difficult to discern her responses to other poets’ language. There’s some Plath, but only in an anti-Plath way; there’s Dickinson in her caesuras and maybe in the loneliness at the core of her ostensible extroversion; in at least one poem, “Cervix Aria,” I hear Blake:
When I held a snapdragon gently by its jaws
and squeezed, so they opened, it was as if
the volt at the hinge of the maw of the blossom leaped
open at the same instant as the glug!
at the core of my body
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
We almost knew this, at five, four,
three—when we saw the truth of beauty,
our body, abashed, gulped.
“Cervix Aria” could probably go far in summing up the aim of this collection. We come into the world already full of the knowledge we will spend our lives seeking and we talk each other out of wisdom; our common language is also our common ignorance. We can only approximate each other’s being, and that we do through the poetry of love.