A Note on Two Poems by Sharon Olds
[This article appeared originally in Notes on Contemporary Literature.]
Sharon Olds has become one of the most prominent poets of her generation, and the recognition that she has received is largely deserved. She has consistently given a direct but lyrical expression to the grotesque aspects of mundane circumstance, and she has consistently found language that seems to surprise itself with the oblique truths that it reveals. These qualities are, however, sometimes sacrificed to expedient effects, and this expediency is nowhere more apparent than in "The Sisters of Sexual Treasure" and "The End."
It is, perhaps, unfair to focus on any two poems out of the large body of work that Olds has produced. Yet, both of these poems have been prominently anthologized: "The Sisters of Sexual Treasure" in The Pittsburgh Book of Contemporary American Poetry [Ed. by Ed Ochester and Peter Oresick. Pittsburgh, PA/London: U of Pittsburgh P, 1993. 198] and "The End" in The Norton Introduction to Poetry [Hunter, J. Paul. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 1986. 91]. And so it is not an unfair assumption that Olds' reputation has derived in some significant measure from the wider readership that has been afforded these poems, among others.
Both "The Sisters of Sexual Treasure" and "The End" are confessional in the autobiographical manner of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. This manner involves a careful modulation of voice that invites empathy and then presents shocking revelations to test that empathy. The success of such poems hangs on the credibility of the revelations, but the personas that the poets assume seem sometimes to confuse shock-value and credibility. Indeed, the underlying challenge presented by such personas is that the rejection of this rhetorical technique is made to amount to a rejection of the persona's torment, a rejection of the hard cost of insight.
In both of Olds' poems, the focal situations are compelling. "The Sisters of Sexual Treasure" examines the psychological effects of divorce, the promiscuity that is the sisters' response to their mother's rejection of sexuality and to their lost father's projected embodiment of it. "The End" concerns the irreversible effects on a couple's relationship when they agree that she should have an abortion.
Furthermore, in both poems, the focal situations are given effective, complexly ironic turns. In "The Sisters of Sexual Treasure," the sisters' promiscuity does not begin until they move out of their "mother's house" (line 2), suggesting the degree to which she dominated that physical space and their psyches with "her tiny sparrow body and narrow/grasshopper legs" (lines 4-5). In "The End," the woman's sudden menstruation serves to emphasize, rather than to diminish, the strain between her and her lover, reinforcing the fine perception that the decision to abort in itself demands a profound reconsideration of their relationship.
Nevertheless, the force of these two short poems is very much sacrificed to contrived effects. In "The Sisters of Sexual Treasure," the contrivance is a matter of the language used to describe the sisters' promiscuity: "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" (lines 5-11). Unless I am misreading the poem, Olds' persona comes across as more comic than desperate--that is, the voice reminds one more of Erica Jong than of Alice Adams. In effect, we are supposed to revel in the persona's sexual exuberance, even as we empathize with the pathos of its causes. The unflinching suggestion of incestuous longing becomes strangely muddled in the comical manner in which the shocking revelation is made. One wonders what the reaction would be to a poem in which a father, similarly separated from his daughters, described his promiscuity in analogous terms.
In "The End," the contrivance amounts to a facile exploitation of coincidence. Just as the couple decide that the woman should have an abortion, a terrible auto accident occurs--rather conveniently--just outside their window. The description of the mangled bodies being pulled from the wreckage is blatantly suggestive of the processes of birth and abortion: "Cops pulled the bodies out/bloody as births from the small, smoking/aperture of the door, laid them/on the hill, covered them with blankets that soaked/through. Blood/began to pour down my legs into my slippers" (lines 9-15). Although it is plausible that the stress involved in making the decision to abort and then in witnessing such a horrible wreck might have the physical effect of starting the woman's menstruation or of causing her to miscarry, one wonders what would have happened if the accident had not occurred. Moreover, if the poem depends on the coincidence of the accident, it would seem that the impact of the woman's decision to abort would have been less if the accident had not occurred.
In both of these poems, then, Olds overreaches, and we respond in much the same way as we respond to tabloid journalism. In essence, our curiosity is engaged, however intensely, on a very superficial level, and the more profound implications of the experiences are obscured by sensation.