The Weekend Read: Sharon Olds

Sex Without Love
by Sharon Olds

How do they do it, the ones who make love

without love? Beautiful as dancers,

gliding over each other like ice-skaters

over the ice, fingers hooked

inside each other’s bodies, faces

red as steak, wine, wet as the

children at birth whose mothers are going to

give them away. How do they come to the

come to the come to the God come to the

still waters, and not love

the one who came there with them, light

rising slowly as steam off their joined

skin? These are the true religious,

the purists, the pros, the ones who will not

accept a false Messiah, love the

priest instead of the God. They do not

mistake the lover for their own pleasure,

they are like great runners: they know they are alone

with the road surface, the cold, the wind,

the fit of their shoes, their over-all cardio-

vascular health–just factors, like the partner

in the bed, and not the truth, which is the

single body alone in the universe

against its own best time.
Well, it isn’t a poem about running but the analogy lingers decades after I first encountered this poem, probably the most famous Olds’ poem. To be alone on the road, in the poem, in one’s practice, to go far, as she did, into the self. In a meeting yesterday a room full of writers bandied about the collaborative aspects of writing–community, publication, editorial processes, etc–and that’s true, absolutely true. But ultimately, writing is a long distance practice. Best not looked at too directly. Best tended to the way that a runner tends to his or her goals, which is to say, best do it, daily alone, or with one’s own goals in mind. The middle distance, the bend in the road, a pleasurable view…

At a reading in November someone asked Jeramy Dodds and Lisa Robertson if they remembered their own lines. If they came to them now and then. I thought it was such a strange and instinctive question and I was happy to hear it. Neither writer seemed to want to engage with the question, but I think that beyond the idea of the poem is there a visceral link, an umbilical cord, that perhaps isn’t ever severed.

I haven’t read Sharon Olds in a long time. Her work, all these years later, seems almost a parody of these early, urgent poems and I simply can’t read her anymore. It feels as if the poet has attempted to *not* let her practice grow. The titles are firmly domestic, feature mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, going back, back, to 1937, to the Month of June,  the poet at the centre of her family, watching, “do what you are going to do,” she says, “and I will tell about it…” I wonder about the way that poets situate themselves in family narratives as if, like the cast of the Star Trek Enterprise, we can wander out into these distant, and unique dramas, and interact without harm? Or, put another way, does our well-meaning neutrality, our looking, have a price?

More generously, perhaps as a reader I have gone in a direction too far from our original place of commonality and can only wave back fondly when the lines from the poem come to me. And they do. They return again and again as a kind of perfect example of this kind of poetry, this confessional, this scrubbing of one’s daily life. They do come back though, with a tinge of nostalgia for a time when a poem seemed whole to me. Impenetrable. When I believed what I read.

It’s not that I don’t trust poetry, it’s that I am suspicious of sincerity.

I’m not saying that one can’t write about one’s life. Look at these early Olds’ poems. Look at Rae Armantrout, Erin Moure, these poets chronicle the dailiness, but their dailiness is huge. Is cast, not with simple metaphors and interior imagery, but by taking the small ache of the heart and casting it into the universe of ideas, the history of human thought. They are all there, the mothers, the brothers, the desire to go back to a certain moment… I guess I’m saying it’s hard, very hard to do well, and to do new, and to do fresh, even, it seems, when you once nailed the form.

Over the years the imitators of Olds have multiplied, but few have taken the risks she took, at least in these early books, and few have sliced their skin and flayed their veins with such style. As the boozy mother in Hannah and her Sisters says, “Now how can you act when there’s nothing inside to come out?” Indeed.

–Sina Queyras

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