Review: The Dead and the Living by Sharon Olds

If you have stumbled upon this post you probably have already read some Sharon Olds’ work, and liked some of it enough to go back and look at some of her earlier works, but are fighting a tinge of reservation. Olds can be admired for the sheer raw guts she puts into her poems, the brutal way she expresses her internalized truths. Her honesty is alarming and alluring. But there can be a pariah quality to her, as well. I want to say she has a touch of Madonna in her ethos. At times she can seem to be sneering, a little bit snide. This would be insulting, except her writing is so good you want to forgive her, and do — mostly.

I find it frustrating when this tone creeps in, as it does here in one or two instances. Another disquieting aspect I find her writing is the inclusion of some very intimate aspects of her children at various ages and phases. I appreciate her words for their beauty but wonder if her children resent so much exposure. Fortunately, most of the poems in this book are full of clear, blunt prose (masquerading as verses) that revoke the layers of artificiality that can come to accompany our memories of ourselves, the more painful aspects of our personal histories. I find her poems refreshing for this quality (even though thank God I do not have her personal history).

Nevertheless, Sharon Olds employs language in a thought-provoking, erotic, yet accessible way. Her poems are heavy, without weighing you down. In a way this collection has given voice to some of my innermost thoughts, fears and desires, ones I didn’t know I had until I’ve read her poetry and nod my head in compassion and commiseration.

Olds’ poetry combines sensuous, keenly observed — and keenly felt — images with searing emotion i  ways that achieve an intensity that is, at times, trance-inducing. In The Dead and the Living, Olds’ writing is grounded in personal family experiences which include, during her childhood, shuddering, shattering incidents of abuse. I found the poems raw, edgy, blunt, earthy, but also subtle, exploring many dimensions of family experience over several generations. There is something about the work which blends both rage and understanding, an ability to move through without forgetting. Two examples would be the “The Killer” and “The Sign of Saturn,” in which Olds reflects on the shadow she sees, or imagines, in her own children.

I have some issues with some particular poems, however. In my reading and re-reading of these particular verses I sometimes have wondered why I kept trying to like them. I generally know what I’m getting, and in this instance it’s blatant political screed broken into short lines to resemble poetry. In “Things That are Worse than Death”, she writes:

You are speaking of Chile,
of the woman who was arrested
with her husband and their five-year-old son.
You tell how the guards tortured the woman, the man, the child,
in front of each other,
‘as they like to do.’

I fail to see what’s poetic about it. If you take out the line breaks and read it as prose, there would be no difference whatsoever. Worse, in this volume, Olds also turns the same lack of poetic effect to the confessional poem, “The Eye”:

My bad grandfather wouldn’t feed us.
He turned the lights out when we tried to read.
He sat alone in the invisible room
in front of the hearth, and drank.

To offer a more concrete criticism here, why on earth was the word “bad” not excised in the first line? Did she not think it was obvious? (This may seem a minor nitpicking; rest assured most poets will, when faced with a more difficult decision than this one, agonize over such a thing for days, if not weeks.)

Every once in a while, though, this book does offer up a flash that makes me remember why, in fact, I do keep re-reading (even reciting out loud) some of Olds’ poems: because when she’s on her game, the woman can really write decent poetry. I’m looking forward to reading her most recent poems to see how her perspectives, and writing, may have evolved. In my opinion, this a very serious woman (in the best sense of the word serious), who knows her way around both the day world and the underworld and can hold the tension between.

So, although not all poems in this book avoid a self-aggrandizing, mock horror edge, and a few may upset tender sensibilities about what information we need to know about her children in order to understand her as a mother/writer, I enjoyed this book and would even recommend it to readers who have already formed some apprehension toward her work.

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