In her latest book, Blood, Tin, Straw (Knopf), the much-lauded poet Sharon Olds continues to poke at the dying embers of confessional poetry. Whether or not the flame can be revived is difficult to tell. Here, as it has been in her previous books, Olds's approach is to tell all with an unflinching gaze, especially when it comes to all the taboo goings-on around the genital-anal area.
In her early books such as The Dead and the Living and The Gold Cell, this worked to stunning effect. Like her kindred spirit, photographer Sally Mann, Olds achieved a special notoriety for recognizing her own children as sexual beings, and then employing this almost-always-unspoken truth as the big bang in a sophisticated cosmology of the erotic life. But naturally, children grow older, and their erotic lives are not much different from our own. So what's a mother to do?
If you guessed plumb the depths of her own sexual self, you guessed right. And so we get to hear all about Olds's "celestial wattles" in this book, all about her "grey flower" and "whatever, in love, one would/call the asshole." When she surveys this subject matter in the terms of longing, Olds manages to tell us something new about this old theme, as in "The Babysitter," in which the poet dramatizes her encounter with the desire for knowledge through these fierce lines:
I really didn't know what a person was, I
wanted someone to suck my breast,
I ended up in the locked bathroom,
naked to the waist, holding the baby,
and all she wanted was my glasses...
But in other poems her impulse to sing the body electric falls flat, as in the generic ode to her menstrual period, "When It Comes" ("There will be an egg in there..."). Elsewhere, off-kilter confessions go unexplored, as in "Warrior: 5th Grade," where a speaker explains that "my lover was too/gentle--I was twenty--I realized that I wanted to be/fucked blind, pummeled half dead with it." Although her obsession with the sexual is the driving force behind her poetry, she seems to have become afraid we'll forget it, which sometimes leads to strange or ridiculous metaphors, as in "At Home": "it is a comfort to faintly stroke his eyelid,/maybe the closest there is, on him,/to a cervix." Or this from "The Protestor": "you'd decided to be/raped rather than to kill, if it was their/life or your ass, it was your ass."
Another significant aspect of the Olds project is to find profundity in the mundane. In her best poems, this unveils the transformative power of poetry, as in the complicated "Poem to the Reader," which takes as its starting point the angst-ridden popping of a zit:
I'd look into the bathroom mirror, stare into that
homely, handsome face--was I nice?
was I evil?--then squeeze, out of my pores,
the slow, thick, cold sebum.
Later, the poem provides glimpses of baroque worlds far more meaningful:
And sexual love, what if it
is mostly sex, the cunt wanting
to swallow, swallow, fiercely sing all
day all night, what if I'm a selfish/fucker
feeding on his pleasure
For Olds, who has previously indicted the concept of "Sex Without Love," as the title of an earlier poem baldly puts it, these are brave and vulnerable words, and they reveal the depths of thought this accomplished poet will mine. But too often Olds's penchant for sifting through the minutiae of everyday life doesn't yield the gold she's looking for. The movement of a necklace on her chest, her daughter singing upstairs, and many other "significant moments" never really transcend their ordinariness. The poet is also getting in the unfortunate habit of raiding her childhood memories for grand meanings, then settling on tired images, like seeing her father naked on the toilet. And "My Father's Diary," ringing as it does of a poet on the prowl for material, seems downright voyeuristic.
Olds also has a tendency to substitute the rigorous thinking of which she is capable for a sort of pseudo-spiritualism. When she has a vision of her "husband's honor"--alternately depicted as a flower, a baby, or "human genitals,/ the pair together"--she concludes "it was the soul." In another poem, she is transported to "the simple fields of God" by an "Outdoor Shower." Worse are the therapy-revelation endings Olds occasionally deploys: After the lovemaking of "You Kindly," thoughts of the speaker's father intrude on the moment: "I lay/ along your length and did not think how he/did not love me, how he trained me not to be loved."
Part of the problem here stems from how far Olds has turned her gaze inward. In previous strong poems, such as "The Pope's Penis" or "Outside the Operating Room of the Sex-Change Doctor," Olds was able to imagine and dramatize foreign ideas and people in highly effective ways. By contrast, a vast majority of poems in Blood, Tin, Straw are centered on the first-person speaker. This creates an almost oppressive series of self-discoveries, a solipsistic universe that becomes tedious. Take "For and Against Knowledge," a poem that looks to be about astronaut Sally Ride. Yet within ten lines, Olds has shifted the focus back to her micro-world: "If she were our daughter,/I would probably dream how she had died." The poem invites comparison to an earlier one in which Olds depicted "The Death of Marilyn Monroe" by its echo of the sentiment that the dead icon is no longer "she"--that is, the live woman. In the earlier poem, though, Olds wisely left herself out of the equation, leaving room for the reader to partake in the culpability and catharsis of the situation.
There are, it should be noted, some terrific pieces in this book: "Tousled Darling" is a love poem to a child that only Olds could write; "The Prepositions" is a well-wrought meditation on "the breaking of childhood, the beginning of memory"; and "The Falls" conveys a life-or-death situation with intense luminosity. In "The Promise," the poet pledges to her love, "if the ropes/binding your soul are your own wrists, I will cut them." And in "Culture and Religion" Olds mixes The Wizard of Oz and "the only other movie/I had seen,"--a "Crucifixion documentary"--in fascinating ways:
And the witch wanted
to torture them to death, like Jesus
--Blood, Tin, Straw--what they
were made of was to be used to kill them.
These lines, laying out the connection between the self and the menacing outside world, help explain why the first three sections of the book ("Blood," "Tin," and "Straw") focus so relentlessly on a controlling first-person voice. But in the last two sections, "Fire" and "Light," Olds reaches beyond her traditional poetic motifs and outlines a determined philosophy of hope, looking out to where "beyond the body itself, we are making/love." The impulse is a welcome one: It's time to move on.