Erik Martiny One Secret Thing, Sharon Olds, Jonathan Cape, 96pp, £10 (paperback)
The most recurrent criticism of Sharon Olds’s work is that it is inescapably narcissistic. It is not uncommon, in reviews especially, to come across such words as ‘solipsistic’ employed rather indiscriminately as though what has now entered the literary category of ‘Life Writing’ were somehow still slightly indecent or neurotic.
Outside the realm of infant psychology, solipsism is a psychiatric condition that implies a strong degree of detachment from reality and a denial of the existence of other minds – hardly an accurate analysis of Olds’s highly attentive, compassionate approach to her subjects. Even ‘narcissism’ is a blatant misnomer. Since when has Rembrandt been labelled narcissistic simply because he executed a relatively high number of self-portraits? Although Albrecht Dürer’s or Jacek Malczewski’s depictions of themselves as Christ in His glory might understandably be discussed in the domain of narcissism, Rembrandt’s unidealised portraits cannot really be said to enter the category. The same can easily be argued of Olds: her recent self- portraiture in particular is in fact bathetic, focusing the reader’s gaze on the most unglamorous parts of the body. The poem entitled ‘Self-Portrait, Rear View’ portrays the speaker taking an almost self-disgusted, yet winsomely amused, glance at her aging body:
– even the word saddlebags has a
smooth, calfskin feel to it,
compared to this compendium
of net string bags shaking their booty of
cellulite fruits and nuts. […]
She later wonders ‘if anyone has ever died,/looking in a mirror, of horror’ only to dismiss the thought in a feast of self-derisive humour. This new turn towards comic self-depiction has partially replaced Olds’s former representation of the body in celebratory Whitmanian terms, in the days when she still sang the body electric.
Olds’s work is self- and family-oriented for reasons that range beyond narcissism: her subjects are chosen for the emotional response they trigger but also because they are readily and lengthily accessible to observation. Since Olds’s preoccupation is with unfolding the compacted layers of behavioural origin, it seems logical that she should scrutinise intra- familial relationships. Like all optimal portraits (and most of the ones in this collection take a panoptic look at her mother), Olds’s make the viewer reconsider or expand the very concept of the human. They are like post- Freudian versions of the medieval genre of the exemplum, an anecdotal depiction of character to be contemplated as one considers oneself in the mirror in order to reassess oneself and others:
my mother tucked me in like a pinch,
with a shriek, then wedged my big sister in, with a
softer eek, we were like the parts of a
sexual part, squeaky and sweet,
the room full of girls was her blossom, the house was my
mother’s bashed, pretty ship, she
battened us down, this was our home […] (‘At Night’)
In a world in which most people have some form of hang-up about the body, Olds’s praise-oriented poems are lenifying, not to say therapeutic. Although her new collection entertains the notion of ugliness, it is still far from eschewing the generous pleasures of eulogy. A poem placed earlier in this collection, entitled ‘Little End Ode’, accommodates the ancient grand form of the ode to a humble yet physically immodest subject, in a manner reminiscent of Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘Sonnet du Trou du Cul’ (a poem which probably inspired Craig Raine’s equally unblushing sonnet ‘Arsehole’). Drawing on Whitman’s technique of epic enumeratio, Olds’s poems have always sung the praises of neglected beauties: as she puts it in almost biblical terms, ‘let no part go unpraised’.
Although Olds’s new collection tends to attenuate the more incisive tone of her previous post-Confessional unravelling of familial dysfunctionality (illustrated with awe-inspiring vividness in her first three books published in the 1980s), a number of poems still seek to disclose the damaging effects of abuse. In a recent review of One Secret Thing, Christina Patterson claims that ‘Olds can’t resist the urge to shock’; while this is true in some cases, many of the poems in Olds’s eighth collection tend to veer towards mildness and tender reappraisal of the past. In fact, some of them are so magnanimous that they border on what one might call amnesiac amnesty. Without the context provided by Olds’s early poems exploring the Jungian archetype of the Terrible Mother, the many elegiac poems in this new collection make her mother seem like an almost ideal parental figure. After so much absolution, one is almost thankful to read ‘One Secret Thing’, the title poem, which draws us deeper into the more familiar Olds terrain of coming to terms with the murky depths of subterranean inter-generational conflict. Readers familiar with Olds’s other volumes of poetry will be slightly surprised to find that she has withheld even one secret thing after thirty years of revelation, despite the fact that she has always protectively omitted the names of family members when revising her poems for publication.
In her review of One Secret Thing, Christina Patterson argues that one of Olds’s most interesting new poems, ‘Calvinist Parents’, misfires because the reader tends to agree with the epigraph (an excerpt of a review of Olds’s previous collection The Unswept Room snidely remarking that ‘sometime during the Truman Administration, Sharon Olds’s parents tied her to a chair, and she is still writing about it’). Although Olds’s inclusion of this adverse critical comment is perhaps over-risky, it offers another example of her willingness to let dialogic voices enter her texts, without forfeiting her denunciatory project. After seventeen lines of tense and loaded understatement, the poem ends in tough, resilient terms: ‘and under that roof, they laboured as they had been/laboured over, they beat us into swords.’
In interview, Olds has mentioned that she tries to resist her own ‘salvation addiction’. While the poems in her new collection still give in to this penchant, it is ultimately part and parcel of the quality that makes Olds’s poetry so intellectually, as well as sensually and emotionally, captivating.
Olds is to be commended for her ceaselessly auto-revisionist outlook. Her poems often circle back to add new insights to previous revelations, to modify false impressions or revitalise old poems by placing them side by side with fresh perceptions. She tends to revise some of her published texts when collecting them for selections (most notably ‘On the Subway’) and has written poems in which she makes amends for what she perceives to be excessive comparison between childhood misery and holocaust victims. Objectively speaking, even her early poems are actually quite measured in their use of hyperbole, especially when compared with the holocaust imagery employed by such poets as Sylvia Plath or Sapphire.
After so many poems written about the ins and outs of her poetically fraught Electra complex, simultaneously tempered and powered by the complications of being fascinated by a father described in fascistic terms, it comes as a welcome, deeply-engrossing privilege to be able to share Sharon Olds’s portrayals of Clytemnestra in a rehabilitatory exploration of a mother’s stirringly surprising resources.
One last poem deserves special highlighting, especially for those in search of topics that fall outside the sway of the maternal: ‘Last Words, Death Row, Circa 2030’ is Olds’s only dramatic monologue but it is one of the most striking of its kind, ranking with the best attempts in the form by the likes of such prominent masters of the genre as Carol Ann Duffy or Ai.