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
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.
This works perfectly well as satire on American macho, but satire is not Olds’s natural mode and it is clear that she has something particular to gain from it. This persona satisfies a need in her. She is enabled to shift motherhood out of the female realm and into the male, as she sees it, away from endurance and towards action.
Incest in Olds’s poetry shades into exogamy without ever being rejected. In The Father incestuous emotion is still there, but it doesn’t have the unembarrassed hedonism of the earlier volume, and is supplemented by a feeling for which there seems to be no name: the poet’s desire to take her father back inside her – somehow back, though it is a place he has never been. In ‘Nullipara’, she will give him the safety he never represented for her:
He knows he will live in me
after he is dead, I will carry him like a mother.
I do not know if I will ever deliver.
And in ‘Close to Death’:
I always thought
I had a salvation for him, hidden,
even from myself, in my chest.
And ‘The Pulling’:
drawn through my body like a napkin through a ring –
as if my father could live and die
safely inside me.
This fantasy of providing salvation overlaps with a fantasy of power. It may be a benign revenge, but it is revenge for all that. The tension between the two roles shows up in a poem like ‘His Terror’, which concludes:
Maybe his terror is not of dying,
or even of death, but of some cry
he has kept inside him all his life
and there are weeks left.
That last line is in its understated way as intense as anything in the book, divided as it is between the father’s need to keep that cry from being expressed and the daughter’s need to hear it.
The fact of a power struggle is explicitly acknowledged in ‘Beyond Harm’, in which the father, mishearing the poet’s routine ‘How are you?’ replies:
‘I love you
too.’ From then on, I had
that word to lose.
He could retract his inadvertent blessing at any moment:
But then, a while after he died,
I suddenly thought, with amazement, he will always
love me now, and I laughed – he was dead, dead!
If there is a power struggle going on, it is one of which we necessarily have a partial account. The fact that the poet sees herself largely as her father’s victim does not prevent her from being in her own way a predator, or scavenger. In ‘I Go Back to May 1937’, from The Sign of Saturn, Olds imagines confronting her parents with their future so as to warn them off each other –
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of
– before realising that she wants to live, and will pay a price for it:
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.
That is her bargain: she will survive and testify. How well does she abide by it?
What the poet had to cope with as a child is hinted at in earlier poems from The Sign of Saturn and spelled out explicitly in ‘Saturn’ and ‘What if God’: cold, alcoholic father, sexually abusive mother. The father in ‘Saturn’ knowingly destroyed his son:
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 lobster.
The mother in ‘What if God’, meanwhile, slipped the poet’s soul
from between my
ribs like a tiny hotel soap
when she entered her bed. At least once the poet’s sister urinated on her in bed (‘The Takers’), knowing that their mother would assume the bed-wetting was the usual sort, any other story an attempt to shift blame.
This may be a house of dysfunction but damage is not a virtue. Though scars have become the guarantee of an autobiographical poet, how you live with damage is also an issue. The father withheld love, the mother inflicted it in an intolerable form. The father never seems to have been human enough to explain why he wasn’t being human, but the mother sought to make amends. We learn this from a poem in The Sign of Saturn called ‘After 37 Years My Mother Apologises For My Childhood’.
There is no context offered, or indication given of how the conversation started, but the mother sheds tears that the poet recognises as showing ‘true regret, the/regret of the body’, and says: ‘Where else could I turn? Who else did I have?’ The climax of the poem is the passage:
I hardly knew what I
said or who I would be now that I had forgiven you.
But there is another question unexpressed: who will you be, now that I have forgiven you? The answer to this second question would seem to be: no one. Forgiveness doesn’t reinstate the mother, it abolishes her. Olds’s tendency to think that she has only one parent, the male one, is not modified but exaggerated by the apparent breakthrough in family relations.
It may be a truth about emotional damage that it renders the traumatised party unable to conclude the relationship. By this account, the mother effects an abrupt release for the poet when she admits her responsibility, while the father continues to block her access to the endgame. There’s something about this, though, that seems glib, psychobabblish. The mother gets it coming and going. Comparing ‘Saturn’ and ‘What if God’, the poems that directly address parental abuse, it is clear that when the mother is cruel she is threatened with a god, (‘reach down and/take that woman off that child’s body’), but when the father is cruel he becomes one. Both parents are blamed, but only one is relentlessly eroticised and mythologised. Is it too insanely presumptuous to suggest, in the paradox zone that is autobiographical poetry, where dark material is obsessively rehearsed but its interpretation is tightly controlled, that the anti-maternal attitude predates and shapes the trauma that is used to prove it and justify it?
The mother is extraordinarily absent from The Father, not just as a person with some sort of stake in her ex-husband’s death, but in other ways too. The poet condenses all her ideas of inheritance into the long legs she feels she derives from her father: those long legs are mentioned very often. The mother seems to have made no genetic contribution. Olds imagines, in ‘Last Acts’, her father carrying her in seminal form before conception, a seed that is also somehow a finished product, ‘riding in his balls the day before he cast me’. Olds even contrives in ‘The Swimmer’ to feminise the sperm that became her while it is still within her father’s body, making him the source of her femaleness too:
the seed that made me raced
ahead of the others, arms held to her sides.
There are other absentees from The Father besides the mother: until the last pages of the new book you could think, without the benefit of a recent reading of The Sign of Saturn, that the poet was an only child. The brother who was eaten, the sister who was also a victim, however complicit, in the hellish household, leave no mark. There might conceivably be an element of tact in these omissions, but nothing is more suspect than the tact of an autobiographical poet. All tact has been overthrown as a precondition of the mode, and any attempt to reinstate it seems surreptitious and sly. Also on the list of absentees is the poet’s husband, who is physically present on occasion but not as the specific counterweight to the father he was in The Sign of Saturn. The most paradoxical absentee, however, is the one who is constantly there: the father’s second wife.
That is always how she is referred to, as ‘his wife’ not ‘my stepmother’. There is a possible courtesy in that – no word ending in those particular six letters could count as an honorific in Olds’s vocabulary. There is no antagonism expressed for the father’s wife, but there isn’t any warmth either. The poems maintain an absolute neutrality, even where no such state can apply, and where the poem’s structure demands an emotion of some sort. It’s quite a feat to write a poem about a woman alone with the body of her husband (‘After Death’), and so completely project your own preoccupations onto her:
Did she lie on him, I think not, so
breakable. Did she kneel by the bed,
holding his hand, did she draw off the sheet
and look at him, a last time,
kiss his nipples, navel, dead
warm penis. The man himself
was safe, this was what he had sloughed.
It lay between them like a child of their love.
The father’s wife is a screen for one more round of incestuous fantasy, a stand-in not an actor. We know nothing about her. She only has a name (Francis, apparently) because the father’s last spoken sentence included it: the name is preserved because of who spoke it, not who it referred to.
The same rule dictates the strange emotional blankness of a poem called ‘The Want’. The poet confides:
I had stopped
longing for him to address me from his heart
before he died.
The poem ends, though, with the father’s wife spending time with him alone in hospital, settling him for the night:
When she came out of his room she was shining – he had
taken her hands and thanked her for all
she had done for him for twenty years,
and then he had said I want to devote
the rest of my life to you.
That’s where the poem ends, where most people’s poems would just be building up steam. The poet must have feelings, somewhere on a continuum between rage and acceptance, about her father addressing someone other than her from his heart, before he died. What is the poem about, if not the conflict between wife and daughter over rights to the dying man? Yet the poem refuses this subject. It is important that the father’s words are recorded, like any utterance of a god (dying does not make him any less a god) but the father’s wife is allowed no role beyond witness of his words. She is nothing in her own right; the relationship between the women doesn’t begin to develop any human texture.
That’s just the point, to create a space where father and daughter can he alone in the world. Only then can every permutation of sexual and parental relationship be gone through without distraction. The poet is possessive of her father’s body even after death, begrudging its dispersal. In ‘The Dead Body’ she writes:
Don’t take that
tongue in transplant or that unwilling eye
– strange to single out the tongue, unless because it said I love you too. The insistent birth imagery has less to do with a religious perspective – a new beginning for him – than with a new beginning for her; signs of finally containing and controlling her father.
Sharon Olds’s poetry is art and not therapy, but it is art with a therapy quotient, and sometimes her diagnoses seem like symptoms in their own right. There are times when her assertions of her father’s cold neglect don’t match anecdotal memories cited in another context. One might ask how the father of ‘Psalm’ –
we had hardly
touched since the nights he had walked the floor at my arrival
– squares with the father of ‘The Exam’:
the way he used to do
the Itsy Bitsy Spider, slowly,
up my arm.
Sometimes the assertion and its undermining by evidence occupy the same sentence, as in ‘The Pull’:
did he urge me to live – when the loop of his seed
roped me and drew me over into matter;
and once when I had the flu and he brought me
ten tiny Pyrex bowls
with ten leftovers down in the bottoms.
This gesture is not just tender but dainty – self-conscious, flirtatious. There is nothing unpractised about it; it isn’t plausible as a one-off. There may not have been other explicit urgings to live, but those are for special occasions, surely. There must have been a daily exercise of affection for the gesture with the bowls to be so eloquently playful, so imaginative.
This is not to accuse Olds of that darkest secret of the autobiographical poet, a happy childhood. One way of dealing with family hurts is to mythologise them. Easier to turn your father into the god who eats his children than to integrate the drunk slumped on the couch with the man who played Itsy Bitsy Spider, the cold spurner of affection with the preparer of delicacies in Pyrex.
There is a difference, though, in the way that the poets of these two volumes inhabit the mythology they have created. The poet of The Sign of Saturn carries her scars outwards into the world. Her parents have given her rules for living after all, in spite of themselves. All she has to do is never imitate them in any respect. She feels a bodily affinity with her father, but she is able to move beyond him, to explore sex and found a family with a sort of defiant healthiness.
The poet of The Father has much less the psychology of a survivor. Longing for reconciliation but unable to delude herself, she relapses into an earlier set of emotions, ranging from a desire to be revenged to a desire to immolate herself. These desires combine in the fantasy of a place where she can keep him hers and intact for all time, a place that is both womb and tomb. Her book will provide such a place, but in perverse piety, like a woman in Greek tragedy, an Electra or an Antigone, she will join him there. The Father is a tomb for two.
The possibility that the poet is choosing to inhabit a structure of fantasy is confronted only once in the book, in the penultimate poem, ‘Waste Sonata’:
I have learned
to get pleasure from speaking of pain.
But to die, like this. To grow old and die
a child, lying to herself.
It is a tribute to the power of Sharon Olds’s paternal obsession that this passage, which for once doesn’t deal with the world primarily through the poet’s relationship with the father, should seem so striking. Introspection is hardly a register alien to a book of elegiac poetry. It’s fairly extraordinary for its appearance to be delayed till the 51st poem of 52.
The closing passage of the poem, though, shows that ‘Waste Sonata’ represents an airhole for the poet rather than a way out just yet:
My father was not a shit. He was a man
failing at life. He had little shits
travelling through him while he lay there unconscious –
sometimes I don’t let myself say
I loved him, anymore, but I feel
I almost love those shits that move through him,
shapely, those waste foetuses,
my mother, my sister, my brother, and me
in that purgatory.
It must count as a breakthrough that the poet’s mother and siblings return from oblivion but as a setback that she has chosen this particular setting for the family reunion. Sharon Olds may be seeking to free herself from the power of her father’s myth, but she remains imprisoned in the web of imagery she has woven round him. The woman who wanted motherhood to be a male thing, as far removed as possible from anything her mother would do, who saw her father as a man who ate children, now shifts her fantasies to another register, where contradictions are not so much reconciled as excreted.
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