Tomb for Two

Adam Mars-Jones

  • The Father by Sharon Olds
    Secker, 88 pp, £6.00, February 1993, ISBN 0 436 33952 8
  • The Sign of Saturn by Sharon Olds
    Secker, 92 pp, £8.00, March 1991, ISBN 0 436 20029 5

Praise The Father. Praise Sharon Olds. Celebrate the autobiographical mode in American poetry, its risks and rewards. Praise directness cut with understatement, starkness with an obliquity that can still take the reader off guard. Salute, with unease, elegies that are also episodes of psychodrama, stages of a struggle that bereavement alters in key but hardly interrupts.

An elegy is a loss-lyric, the sifting and sealing of a life’s leavings. What is startling about the poems in The Father, as they radiate outward from a death, is that their emotional depth does not correspond to a richness in the relationship being mourned – in fact, the depth of the poems is inversely proportionate to the richness of the relationship. The poet is so attentive to her father’s dying because in his living he so comprehensively refused her. She is looking for their relationship to begin before it ends; his deathbed is her last chance and best hope.

Sharon Olds’s language rises so readily to the Biblical or mythical in its descriptions of her father precisely because he himself so rarely stooped to the human. As she puts it in ‘To My Father’,

What have I worshipped?
I ask you this so seriously,
you who almost never spoke.
I have idolised the mouth of the silent man.

The element in The Father that earns the definite article of its title, is Olds’s meticulous charting of physical changes – colour, texture, mass, smell – in the body close to death. She scrutinises these changes like a Roman augur over the entrails of a sacrifice, gravely frantic for significance. Her eyes are dry and very sharp; she finds a beauty in mortal process running parallel to all its ugliness. Her major theme-word is ‘matter’ (shadowed by ‘earth’), its balancing, transcendent counterpart ‘shining’ (or ‘glistening’). The actual phrase ‘glistening matter’ occurs half-way through the sequence, in the last lines of the poem ‘The Exact Moment of His Death’.

The troubling distinction of The Father as a book of elegies lies in its exploring of what has been called in another context (by Richard Sennett in his book Authority) ‘bonds of rejection’: the way a person continues to be determined by forces or people who have consciously been thrown off. The structures underlying the emotions need not change just because the emotions now bear a minus sign before them: minus-love can be as profoundly shaping as love – more so, if it happens that what is denied persists, while what is acknowledged dies with its day.

We are impoverished by the deaths of those to whom we say yes, but in a strange way it can be the deaths of those to whom we say no that turn our worlds upside down. The millstone, at the very moment that it drops from our necks, is revealed also to have been a lodestone that long deluded time. Sharon Olds’s father is not a new preoccupation: he features early and often, as a combined fetish and bogeyman, in The Sign of Saturn, a selection made from three previous volumes (published in 1980, 1984 and 1987). This, for instance, is from the second poem in the book:

That love between us I called a stillborn
hung by the feet – lately I have seen it
move, Father.

There is something here of Sylvia Plath’s accusatory masochism, even with ‘Father’ standing in for the more leeringly complicit ‘Daddy’. In fact it is strange how little difference the advent of the women’s movement, which has claimed Plath since her death, need make to a woman poet coming after. But then it’s hardly reasonable to expect much in the way of gender solidarity from women who so hate their mothers.

The mother in The Sign of Saturn is granted the occasional cameo of functionality as in ‘The Moment’, when she gives her daughter’s first period a welcome that might not have been predicted, but essentially she is turned away from, as the father, for all his destructiveness, is turned towards. There is no defiance of the father to match the triumph over the mother expressed in ‘The Sisters of Sexual Treasure’:

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.

The mother is the obstacle to pleasure, and the passage to the father that she bars is also the passage to a wider world.

Only one poem coincides with feminism, ‘The Language of the Brag’, and it has an instructive singularity. ‘I have wanted excellence in the knife-throw,’ says the poet, ‘I have wanted some epic use for my excellent body.’ Labour turns out to be just such an epic use, and the poem ends:

I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,
Allen Ginsberg. I have done this thing,
I and the other women this exceptional
act with the exceptional heroic body,
this giving birth, this glistening verb,
and I am putting my proud American boast
right here with the others.

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