Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002 by Sharon Olds
Generally if a book starts throwing the word “cock” around too early in the game, I leave the conversation. Call me old-fashioned, but that particular audacity can be a reliable signal that presumption, empty shock value, and a possible personality disorder are around the corner. But what can I say? Sharon Olds can put a blowjob in her second poem and get away with it, because her freshly-published Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002 makes it worthwhile -- mostly.
If you’re not yet familiar with Olds, Strike Sparks, which has already won the National Book Critics Circle Award, will serve as a fine and comprehensive introduction. I’ll add the caveat, however, that depending on your tastes, she can take some getting used to.
The book’s opening selections, drawn from Olds’s first two books, Satan Says and The Dead and the Living, are an onslaught. There is a miscarriage; there is Olds sliding around in her abusive father’s mucous; there is a woman (presumably also Olds) jumping from a moving bus with her child in her arms. There is a penis likened to a slug’s antennae and sex a week after childbirth when the vagina is a “nest of stitches.” The poems are relentless both in the emotional intimacy they grant the reader and in their illustrative power.
Colorful as they are, you might be compelled to consign Olds’s topics to the shock-value bin -- that would be a mistake. The nonchalance of her voice is dazzling in its precision and its versatility; she can do the gory scenes listed above, then out of nowhere become pretty: “silver flashes in her eyes like distant / bodies of water glimpsed through woods.”
Given the autobiographical nature of the majority of its poems, Strike Sparks is in many ways a poetic memoir in which we keep circling around the subjects of sex, motherhood, and Olds’s troubled childhood and parents in a Catch-22 kind of spiraling chronology. We bounce around in time and with each pass by a topic we see it more clearly or from a different perspective.
The poems circle a profound atheism in which the physical body is a document of being; physical experience is the primary mode of forming and physical contact the primary human relationship. Olds heaps so much praise on the body electric that she flaunts her motherhood’s superiority to poetry: “I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman, / Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing, / I and the other women this exceptional / act with the exceptional heroic body, / this giving birth, this glistening verb.”
Olds’s considerations of motherhood adhere closely to the physical fact of bodies coming from bodies -- “the oldest story we have on our planet -- / the story of replacement.” In “New Mother” the sex act, at once threatening and desired, is a means of reclaiming the ravaged body after giving birth. The many poems she writes about her children gain a unique power from their attention to the physical nature of the mother-child relationship and from their focus on the ramifications of producing another being from your own.
When Olds sends her son off to summer camp she says, “Everything that’s been placed in him will / come out, now, the contents of a trunk / unpacked and lined up on a bunk in the underpine light.” If I can pop-psychoanalyze for a moment, some of Olds’s bodily fixation and its accompanying idea that what goes into you is what you are draws heavily from her relationship with her parents, whose presence reverberates constantly through the book. The tales of an alcoholic father, the allusions to abuse by both parents, and the scenes from a generally unstable childhood permeate Strike Sparks. The title itself comes from an image of Olds taking two paper dolls of her parents to “bang them together / at the hips like chips of flint as if to / strike sparks from them,” at once expressing disdain and gratitude for their coupling and her birth. All this psychodrama can get tiresome. While the best of it is moving and intense, the worst of it would be at home in an angsty teenager’s Livejournal. The selections from The Father, which follow the events surrounding her father’s death, are especially erratic, producing both some of the best and worst work in the book.
There are pieces there that will floor you. “My Father Speaks to Me from the Dead” brings us back to the physical parental relationship, but with a more lamenting and complex undercurrent: “when I say now that I love you / I mean look down at your hand, move it, / that action is matter’s love, for human / love go elsewhere.” The downside of the emotional chaos is that Olds perseverates; her eloquence stalls against the complexity of her relationship to her father and some pieces seem superfluous or underdeveloped.
But now we’ve just hit the grand old problems of confessionalism, haven’t we -- is this art or a diary with line breaks? Is it insightful or just eloquent self-indulgence? Luckily no one has asked me to solve the great aesthetic problems of our time, so I can say it’s both.
The personal nature of Olds’s subject matter will turn some people off, and her focus falters from time to time. She is, however, a very talented writer who has obviously worked to sharpen her craft, so when she’s on -- and most of the time she is -- she’s fantastic. I was surprised at how quickly she won over my stodginess, considering my slight prejudice against her style of writing. My best advice is to give Strike Sparks a fair shake and read the first two sections at least; Olds will let you know pretty quickly whether or not the two of you are going to get along.
Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002 by Sharon Olds
Alfred A. Knopf