Strange Companions

I’m teaching Sharon Olds tomorrow at Polytech, so this week I’ve been re-immersing myself in her work. I’d forgotten how good it is. You remember the sex, the violence, the big-ticket melodrama of her relationship with her father. But I’d forgotten how much she writes of sheer physical joy – how good it feels to be aware of yourself, to be an embodied mind, to experience and feel and thirst and hunger and slake those desires. The Wellspring is a classic case in point. It begins with those incredibly sexual examinations of of her mother, of her relationship with her mother. They aren’t (to me, at least) prurient, but god, do they flirt with that risk! And then there are the poems about her first sexual experiences, which I feel a bit icky about reading. The first time, yes, you give her points for bravery. But after that, how often do you want to read about someone having oral sex? Although I have to admit, the poem “First” actually spends a lot less time discussing the mechanics of the act than it did in memory. What struck me this time was that she’s actually describing something very close to rape:

and when I
said No, I was sorry, I couldn’t,
he had invented this […]

Sends me back to Oprah Winfrey, patiently explaining to a teenage girl that no, oral sex was still sex – the clue was in the name. Although, to be fair to the bloke, it’s more a case of slippery cunning, and duping the girl into giving him what he wanted by pretending it was something else. So, sleazy – oh yes. Unfair – yes, definitely. Underhanded – yes. Actually rape – well ok, probably not.  (Guys – if any of you try the ‘yeah, but she enjoyed it, so it’s alright’ line, be aware that you’ll be wearing your testicles as a bowtie for a long time afterwards.) (Deservedly.)

But then we get to those incredible poems in the second half of the book, where she writes about her children and her husband. Again, sex is never far from the surface, but these poems are so full of love and fierce joy that the sex falls back into place as just another natural aspect of being. Poems about the act of giving birth, of conception, of breast feeding and raising children, and of watching them grow … it’s beautiful, and it’s earthy, and it’s very real. And very female. It’ll be interesting to see how the guys in my class (and I have four of them) will respond to her work.

Which makes the incongruity of the other book I’m reading all the more amusing: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s classic dystopian fantasy, We. I couldn’t have come up with a more perfect contrast if I’d tried. We is set in a totalitarian state, where everything is regimented, channeled, controlled. Happiness is an obligation to the One State. Sex is something that you are allotted a pink slip for, with a partner who has registered for you for that purpose (the pink slip is permission to lower the blinds for the allocated copulative time – the citizens live their entire lives in glass buildings). Even poetry has been harnessed to serve the needs of the One State:

“I wondered at the ancients who had never realized the utter absurdity of their literature and poetry. The enormous, magnificent power of the literary word was completely wasted. It’s simply ridiculous – everyone wrote anything he pleased. Just as ridiculous and absurd as the fact that the ancients allowed the ocean to beat dully at the shore twenty-four hours a day, while the millions of kilogrammometers of energy residing in the waves went only to heighten lovers’ feelings. But we have extracted electricity from the amorous whisper of the waves; we have transformed the savage, foam-spitting beast into a domestic animal; and in the same way we have tamed and harnessed the once wild element of poetry. Today, poetry is no longer the idle, impudent whistling of the nightingale; poetry is civic service, poetry is useful.”

Good luck with that. Me, I’m siding with Sharon.

4 Replies to “Strange Companions”

  1. I too am a bit fan of Sharon Olds’s work – well, Wellspring anyway. I love those poems that are almost too personal, but not quite. I love that bravery. That said, I found her book about her father dying went over the line for me – I couldn’t read it. Maybe I should try again. I’d be keen to hear how your students find her poetry.

    1. I know what you mean. I found rereading The Father pretty hard – I defy anyone to come through the experience with dry eyes.
      (Actually I suspect if you ever do meet someone who can, they’ll either turn out to be a sociopath or a politician … hmm, Sharon Olds as diagnostic tool?)

  2. I love Sharon Olds poetry. Recently I heard her read and was surprised how quiet and unassuming she was – not at all like her poetry. A slim, grey-haired woman dressed in grey you wouldn’t have glanced at twice in the street. She began her reading with two poems by someone else which she wanted to recommend – how many poets would give up valuable reading time to another? Someone who has a great deal of humility, i think. My favourite poem is The Brag. Fantastic!

  3. Now you’ve got me hanging out to read both Sharon Olds (no, I haven’t yet–shame on me!) and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We”. So many good books, so little time!

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