Through ten collections of poems, Sharon Olds has turned an unflinching eye toward the ecstasies and sorrows of living in the human body. Every stage of life is meticulously observed and explored: childhood, adolescence and the awakening of sexuality, marriage, the birthing of children, divorce, the caretaking of aging parents, their deaths, and the confronting of ones own mortality.
Listen to her read one of her first odes, “Poem for the Breasts,” which appeared in her Pulitzer and T.S. Eliot prize winning collection, Stag’s Leap, and “Ode to the Hymen” at the 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival.
What’s immediately is obvious is that although a sharp observer, Olds has never allowed the intensity of her looking to dull her capacity for empathy. The husband who leaves her after a long marriage is not subjected to the bitterness or resentment one might expect, but observed with tenderness and compassion. Throughout her work, even describing acts of human cruelty, whether those of political leaders or of her own parents, her capacity to search for understanding compels the reader to continue through revelations that, otherwise, might be unbearable.
In “Poem for the Breasts” and “Ode to the Hymen,” as in many of Olds’ poems, attention to physical detail is the act of cherishing the world and the body in our brief moment of corporeality. Acknowledging the frailty of the body is part of this cherishing. In “Little Things,” an early poem, Olds writes, “I am/ paying attention to small beauties,/ whatever I have—as if it were our duty to/ find things to love, to bind ourselves to this world.”
While many of us might allow fear and shame to censor what we are willing to discover or reveal, Olds refuses to be so limited. It is as if for her fear and shame are absolutely reliable signals: Something is hidden behind them that we must explore if we are ever to understand our true selves. The deeper the fear or shame, the more tenaciously she will insist on exploring further.
So it is no surprise that Olds should be inspired by Neruda to write odes on such elemental subjects. Her odes, like all her poems, are unrelentingly inquisitive and tender. What may surprise some of her readers is her great sense of humor and obvious delight in sharing it.
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