When Reputations Are Wrong

olds

Sometimes poets get a reputation and carry it around like Jacob Marley’s chains. Consider Sharon Olds and sex. The two are closely aligned in poetry readers’ minds, but Olds is more than that. She can write about family–both her kids and her parents–in moving ways. Ways that could pass muster with the Hallmark Channel, even.

Consider “Late Poem to My Father.” It is an exercise in empathy wherein Olds uses her imagination to visit her own father’s childhood and what he might have experienced under his father. The incentive? Olds’ father apparently was an alcoholic, and like most alcoholic fathers, no joy to be around if you were his son or daughter.

“Why?” Olds must have asked. “How?” And, as is so often the case with poets, these questions drove her muse.

Olds’ poem, then, is similar to an adopted child’s search for her birth parent. The chariot is driven by the winged horses Why and How. The poem seeks answers. It wants to understand, to connect, in the worst way. Let’s take a look-see:

 

Late Poem to My Father
by Sharon Olds

Suddenly I thought of you
as a child in that house, the unlit rooms
and the hot fireplace with the man in front of it,
silent. You moved through the heavy air
in your physical beauty, a boy of seven,
helpless, smart, there were things the man
did near you, and he was your father,
the mold by which you were made. Down in the
cellar, the barrels of sweet apples,
picked at their peak from the tree, rotted and
rotted, and past the cellar door
the creek ran and ran, and something was
not given to you, or something was
taken from you that you were born with, so that
even at 30 and 40 you set the
oily medicine to your lips
every night, the poison to help you
drop down unconscious. I always thought the
point was what you did to us
as a grown man, but then I remembered that
child being formed in front of the fire, the
tiny bones inside his soul
twisted in greenstick fractures, the small
tendons that hold the heart in place
snapped. And what they did to you
you did not do to me. When I love you now,
I like to think I am giving my love
directly to that boy in the fiery room,
as if it could reach him in time.

 

Here time dials all the way back to Dad at age seven, when he was “helpless, smart.” Then comes the purposely vague “there were things the man / did near you, and he was your father.”

So much for hard and fast rules. Writers are instructed to forswear words like “things” and yet, sometimes, they are just the ticket. Sometimes letting the reader imagine different concrete interpretations enhances the effect.

Olds continues with her reverie: “…something was / not given to you, or something was / taken from you that you were born with.” Either might explain a path toward alcohol–one cleared with the machete of misery rooted in childhood.

The poetic part of the poem hits its stride toward the end:

I always thought the
point was what you did to us
as a grown man, but then I remembered that
child being formed in front of the fire, the
tiny bones inside his soul
twisted in greenstick fractures, the small
tendons that hold the heart in place
snapped. And what they did to you
you did not do to me.

Not many are willing to look at an adult and see a child “formed in front of the fire,” or see “the tiny bones inside his soul / twisted in greenstick fractures, the small / tendons that hold the hear in place / snapped.”

With images rendered like that, despite his very evident flaws, the father is redeemed by a forgiving daughter who wishes she were there to help him as a child when he was most vulnerable. And now, she finds it noble that, unlike so many others, her father, addicted as he might be, refuses to carry the curse forward: “And what they did to you / you did not do to me.”

Sharon Olds’ poems with sexual themes are often frank and provocative–hardly subtle. But the story, as with most reputations, is more complicated than that. Reading a collection of her works shows that she can be sensitive and forgiving, too. She is not, in other words, a one-trick pony.

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