Blood, Tin, Straw
by Sharon Olds
Alfred A. Knopf. Cloth, $24. Paper, $15.
With her first book, "Satan Says," published in 1980 by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Sharon Olds launched a relatively late-blooming poetic career -- she was 37 -- that hasn't slowed. She's recognized as among the finest of our living poets, and she's certainly one of the most popular. For serious poetry, her books sell off the charts. Her second collection, "The Dead and the Living" (1984), which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, has sold over 50,000 copies. Her third, "The Gold Cell" (1987), is in its 15th printing.
Born in San Francisco, Olds was educated at Stanford and Columbia, where she endured to obtain her literature Ph.D. while working to find her voice as a poet. One poem from this new collection, "The Defense," recounts the ordeal of defending her dissertation. Known for intimate poems about sexuality and family life, Olds is seen by many as the center of a back-to-the-body movement in poetry, especially by women.
As a poet who sings the body, Olds extends a noble lineage. Whitman's poetry of "amativeness," tame stuff now, was provocative for mid-19th century readers and unsettling to many. Likewise with Olds. Noted critic Helen Vendler once called Olds' poetry pornographic. In "Blood, Tin, Straw," her sixth collection, Olds has done what some might have thought impossible -- go even farther in plumbing physical intimacy for deeply felt poetry.
Among poems of child-birth and parenting, early sexual experience and conjugal love, there are many beautiful lines not quotable here. These -- from "When It Comes" -- suggest Olds often startling ability to observe and render sensual detail:
at times, the last steps across the bathroom,Probably obvious to women, this poem describes menstruation.
you make a dazzling trail, the petals
the flower-girl scatters under the feet of the bride. And then the colors of it,
sometimes an almost golden red,
or a black vermilion, the drop that leaps
and opens slowly in the water, gel sac of a galaxy,
the black-violet, lobed pool, calm
as a lake on the back of the moon, it is all
woundless, even the little spot
in jet and crimson spangled tights who
flings her fine tightrope out
to the left and to the right in that luminous arena,
green upper air of the toilet bowl . . . .
With this collection, Olds has drawn some sharp critical fire. (Interestingly, the negative reviews are from men.) Enough already with the sex, these writers seem to be saying. One critic calls her "the empirical queen of lovemaking." Another asks, sarcastically, "is there a more fulfilled poet in America?" Success in the arts often prompts a backlash, and I think we're seeing it.
Olds herself sees this collection as a departure. In an interview (Hungry Mind Review), she says one poem, "Poem to the Reader," which explores feelings of selfishness and unworthiness, exemplifies this book's spirit of speaking more freely -- "the speaker begins to say things that have always felt true, but that she hasn't been able to know she thought."
In some places, this freer voice looks a little loose, on the ragged side. The poet is experimenting, taking risks. A major influence with Olds is the now deceased poet Muriel Rukeyser, also a poet of frankness who wrote in an accessible voice. From Rukeyser, says Olds, she learned three things: Write about what they tell you to forget, write about what they tell you to forget, write about what they tell you to forget. Few do it with more acute sensibility and imaginative reach than Olds. Write me for the bumper sticker.
Michael Schneider, a poet who lives in Edgewood, has taken workshops with Sharon Olds.