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Sharon Olds: Strike Sparks

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Mar 09, 2017
Category: Poetry

Her father is dying, and her plane’s been cancelled, but there’s another, leaving in just a few minutes, not in this terminal, but it will get her to her father before he dies, and so Sharon Olds runs — I swear, to you, she runs as no woman has ever run before. (Does she make it? Read this.) 

She’s making love. Though it looks like she’s having sex, because the writing is so specific. (Sorry. No links. Buy the book.) But as much as Sharon Olds reveals what he does to her and how she responds, she’s not just about the act but about its meaning. (“How do they do it, the ones who make love without love?” she wonders.)

Her son, he’s so big now. How did it happen? When? And her daughter — brushing her hair, Sharon Olds can’t help thinking: What does it all mean?

Parents, lovers/husbands, children. Sharon Olds deals mostly — I could almost say: deals only — with the big topics. At least, the big topics if you have parents, husbands/lovers and kids. And she deals with them so directly, so bluntly, that it may come as a surprise to those who do not know her writing that if you heard her read you might think these are letters, not poems.

These poems have been wildly honored. In 2012, Sharon Olds won the T.S. Eliot Prize for her next book, Stag’s Leap. Then she won the Pulitzer. Then she won the Wallace Stevens award, which isn’t small — in addition to the honor, there’s a check for $100,000. [To buy the paperback of “Strike Sparks”from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

The subject of a lot of poetry is poetry: the poem taking its place — or wanting to — in the great chain of literature. Sharon Olds has done her reading. And she has her influences. But the beauty of her writing is that you see none of that. All you get is a woman, looking and listening, and then talking. “Do what you are going to do, and I will tell you about it,” she writes at the end of a poem about her parents, and that’s the strength of her work — it’s just the facts she thinks you need, plus her take on them.

Sharon Olds can go this deep because she lives this deep. She does not read newspapers or watch TV. “The amount of horror one used to hear about in one village could be quite extreme,“ she explains. “But one might not have heard about all the other villages’ horrors at the same time.” Also, she doesn’t drink coffee or smoke, and she limits her wine. Her life is marriage, kids, work. Which, she says, accounts for accessibility of her poems:

I think that my work is easy to understand because I am not a thinker. How can I put it? I write the way I perceive, I guess. It’s not really simple, I don’t think, but it’s about ordinary things — feeling about things, about people. I’m not an intellectual, I’m not an abstract thinker. And I’m interested in ordinary life. So I think that our writing reflects us.

“Strike Sparks” is a selection of her poems from 1980 to 2002. It tells a story, though that wasn’t her intent along the way. (“I’m just interested in human stuff like hate, love, sexual love and sex. I don’t see why not.”) In these poems, we follow the dying of a father, the growth of children, the deepening of love through sex. And more.

Let me not cast Sharon Olds as the literary equivalent of a thriller writer who can swear like a sailor. Her observations are often small and wry, what you might find in a newspaper column:

Whenever I see large breasts
on a small woman, these days, my mouth
drops open, slightly.

But, mostly, she does what the greatest poets do: She knows what you feel, but can’t find the words to say. Married to someone you actually like? Read The Wedding Vow. Those last words — would “wow” be appropriate?

Yes, Sharon Olds has politics, but only briefly in these poems, and mostly dating back to Vietnam.  (If interested, you might read her letter to Laura Bush, declining dinner at the White House. The restraint is amazing. And, again, so is the last line.)

Writing about Sharon Olds, I feel I’m typing with my knuckles. Let me get out of the way; she can speak for herself.

I Could Not Tell

I could not tell I had jumped off that bus,
that bus in motion, with my child in my arms,
because I did not know it. I believed my own story:
I had fallen, or the bus had started up
when I had one foot in the air.

I would not remember the tightening of my jaw,
the irk that I’d missed my stop, the step out
into the air, the clear child
gazing about her in the air as I plunged
to one knee on the street, scraped it, twisted it,
the bus skidding to a stop, the driver
jumping out, my daughter laughing
Do it again.

I have never done it
again, I have been very careful.
I have kept an eye on that nice young mother
who lightly leapt
off the moving vehicle
onto the stopped street, her life
in her hands, her life’s life in her hands.

To buy “Gold Cell” from, click here.

To buy “The Dead and the Living” from, click here.

To buy “Satan Says” from, click here.

To buy “Blood, Tin, Straw: Poems” from, click here.

To buy “The Unswept Room” from, click here.