Today is the last Tuesday of the month, which means it’s time for Lu and Kelly’smonthly Read More/Blog More Poetry event. This month I decided to revisit one of my all-time favourite poetry collections, Sharon Olds’ The Father, and to accompany it with a new-to-me collection by the same author,The Wellspring. This turned out to be an excellent idea – the two collections complement each other so well they’re almost like two sides of the same coin.
The Father is a collection of poems about the speaker’s experience of watching her father die of cancer. As I said when I blogged about it briefly two years ago, it’s a harrowing book, but it’s also a beautiful one. Olds turns her attention to the physicality of dying, and uses raw and direct language to express her sense of connection to a body that is weakening day by day. The Father reads like a diary of grief, and that alone is painful enough; but the book’s emotional landscape is further complicated by the speaker’s relationship with her father, which is far from straightforward. Poems like the amazing “Beyond Harm” (which still never fails to make me cry”, “I Wanted to be There When My Father Died” [.doc link] or “Last Words” capture all these conflicted feelings flawlessly.
I really appreciate the fact that Olds documents a kind of emotional experience that falls outside the fictional but nevertheless socially powerful and constrictive script of illness, death, grief, and mourning. We all have set expectations about how this sort of process is supposed to go, both for ourselves and for others, and this book bulldozers them all. Books like The Father expand the sort of narratives we tend to guide ourselves with: by voicing a very complicated emotional experience, they make it seem less lonely and more permissible, and that alone is a very valuable thing. The only two things I can think to compare this book to are a) the Mountain Goats album “The Sunset Tree”, which covers analogous emotional terrain and b) A Monster Calls, which also illuminates some of the complications of grief (though complications of a different sort).
Here’s a poem I particularly liked, “Death and Mortality”:
My father’s dying is not evil. It is not good and it is not evil, it is out of the moral world altogether. When the nurses empty his catheter bag, pouring the pale, amber fluid into the hospital measuring cup, it is neither good nor bad, it is only the body. Even his pain, when his face contracts, and his mouth makes a sucking snap when his jaws draw back is not wicked, no one is doing it to him, there is no guilt, and no shame, there is only pleasure and pain. This is the world where sex lives, the world of the nerves, the world without church, we kiss him in it, we stroke back his gunned hair, his wife and I, one on either side, we wipe the flow of saliva like ivory clay from the side of his mouth. His body feels us attending him Outside the world of the moral, as if We are making love to him in the woods And we hear, far away, in a field, The distant hymns of a tent-meeting, Smaller than the smallest drops of green-black Woods dew on his body as we dip to touch him.
In the more recent collection The Wellspring, Sharon Olds turns her attention to life. When I say this collection complements The Father perfectly, I’m not saying it because I don’t want allow a book room to be unrelentingly sad; but rather because it was interesting to me to see the same poet turn her attention to other types of emotional experience. In The Wellspring, Olds focuses on the same kind of physical details as in The Father, but this time in relation to puberty, to sexuality, to motherhood, to a child’s illness. The unapologetic physicality of her poetry is one of the things I appreciate about it the most. Let me use an excerpt from “Her First Week” to show you what I mean:
It was in my care, the creature of her spine, like the first chordate, as if the history of the vertebrate had been placed in my hands. Every time I checked, she was still with us – someday, there would be a human race. I could not see it in her eyes, but when I fed her, gathered her like a loose bouquet to my side and offered the breast, greyish-white, and struck with miniscule scars like creeks in sunlight, I felt she was serious, I believed she was willing to stay.
Or another one, from “Bathing the New Born”:
I love that time when you croon and croon to them, you can see the calm slowly entering them, you can sense it in your clasping hand, the little spine relaxing against the muscle of your forearm, you feel the fear leaving their bodies, he lay in the blue oval plastic baby tub and looked at me in wonder and began to move his silky limbs at will in the water.
I’m not a mother and am not personally interested in becoming one, so a lot of what The Wellspring covers falls outside of my experience. But reading is about far more than merely finding echoes of yourself, after all: I loved this collection exactly because Olds focuses on female experiences that have been historically marginalised, and because she does such a wonderful job of conjuring them in vivid sensorial detail. You can find another one of my favourite poems, "High School Senior", online here.