Sunday, October 23, 2005

Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002

by Sharon Olds (NY: Knopf, 2004)

I was in a big argument once (it was 1985) with Saul Sosnowsky, a scholar of Latin American literature. He was chairing a panel of consultants deciding which authors should be included in a projected 13-part series profiling Latin American writers for radio; I was writing the grant. I proposed including Gabriela Mistral, whom I knew had won a Nobel Prize for literature. In refusing her, the professor accused that Mistral didn't write about "literary subjects. She just writes about things like motherhood." Everyone at the table, including him, flashed on the deeply sexist scholarly prejudice he had just pronounced.

Sharon Olds is such a good poet that I buy her books new even though I don't personally know her. This collection omits some of my favourite poems of hers but it includes wonderfully meaty poems about motherhood. I use meaty advisedly -- physical selves and bodily acts are very vivid in her work, and the physicality gives tremendous support to the emotional and imaginative aspects.

Olds writes so avidly about her enjoyment of heterosexual marriage and sex in marriage that it rehabilitates my image of that condition. And she managed to arrive at that pleasing state despite a sexually active and activist youth in a time when "sex was a crime." The poem about trying to insert a diaphragm that keeps springing and landing on the floor in a seedy hotel bathroom is so vivid and stunningly original it brings tears to my eyes, especially because of the way at the end she claims the power of this young self who was so determined to control her own life.

What drew me to this book most while I was considering it in the store were the poems about the aging and death of her father, and especially the one about a rat and a cockroach who appear to her after her father's death. Something similar happened to me.

If you don't read anything else in this book, find it in the store and turn to the short poem "The Pope's Penis." The patriarchy really does have no clothes.

1 comment:

  1. There's a podcast of a Sharon Olds poetry readin in Key West at this link:

    She reads poems about her mother's death and her divorce that are very touching.


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