Because Sharon Olds has been publishing for forty years and because her work has drawn so much attention, both disparaging and laudatory, most people I know already have decided attitudes towards her work.

One Secret Thing
, her new cycle of family poems (Knopf, 2008) includes some intensely moving poems such as the one printed below, “To See My Mother.” Here, deftly orchestrated line breaks and clausal contractions, along with Olds’ characteristically concatenary metaphors, achieve transformative force. The psychological dimensions of the phrase “since I had met her” and the repetitions and variations pierce me on each rereading.
To See My Mother
It was like witnessing the earth being formed,
to see my mother die, like seeing
the dry lands be separated
from the oceans, and all the mists bear up
on one side, and all the solids
be borne down, on the other, until
the body was all there, all bronze and
petrified redwood opal, and the soul all
gone. If she hadn’t looked so exalted, so
beast-exalted and refreshed and suddenly
hopeful, more than hopeful—beyond
hope, relieved—if she had not been suffering so
much, since I had met her, I do not
know how I would have stood it, without
fighting someone, though no one was there
to fight, death was not there except
as her, my task was to hold her tiny
crown in one cupped hand, and her near
birdbone shoulder. Lakes, clouds,
nests. Winds, stems, tongues.
Embryo, zygote, blastocele, atom,
my mother’s dying was like an end
of life on earth, some end of water
and moisture salt and sweet, and vapor,
till only that still, ocher moon
shone, in the room, mouth open, no song.

Originally Published: October 14th, 2008

Born in California’s Mojave Desert, poet Forrest Gander grew up in Virginia and attended the College of William & Mary, where he majored in geology. After earning an MA in literature from San Francisco State University, Gander moved to Mexico, then to Arkansas, where his poetry—informed by his knowledge of...

  1. October 14, 2008
     Lemon Hound

    It's interesting to hear an Olds' poem described as having "deft" line breaks... But I do agree that when Olds hits a note, as she did for me most explicitly in the Gold Cell (and in those last lines above), the note resonates long and deep, and certainly raises the ante on what we are willing to see and reveal.

  2. October 15, 2008
     Larry Kaplun

    Thank you for making a post about Sharon's new book. I agree her work is beautiful and moving, and it's been essential poetry for me for a long time. I'm glad to see a blog on Harriet about her.

  3. October 15, 2008

    re: Olds' line breaks. I agree it's unusual to talk about Olds' line-breaks as deft, but I think they are deft in a sense, not that they are clickingly discreet entities inside a larger entity, or that they make stunning enjambments or interruptions, or display great wit, but because they do exactly the work they need to in an Olds poem, which is to stay somewhat out of the way of the poem's intense *about-ness*, to make themselves a non-issue, except when they spotlight certain end-words like, as in the poem above, "to see my mother die, like seeing" which makes the mother's death and seeing itself somewhat equivalent...
    among others.

  4. October 15, 2008
     bill knott

    daisy's "deft" is right, to my mind . . .
    I think Olds is a great poet, and her "Selected Poems" a few
    years back should have won all the awards . . .
    part of what makes her great is her craft–
    her skills are handtooled unique–
    "they do exactly the work they need to"
    as daisy insightfully phrases it . . .
    what works for her is what she worked for,
    the Olds flow,
    the Olds enjambement, the pauses and clauses, the
    effective use of internal rhymes and
    all–her technique is to envy for.

  5. October 15, 2008
     Lemon Hound

    I agree, yes, it's not about the line breaks with Olds. It seems so old fashioned to even think about line breaks these days, but they still excite me.

  6. October 15, 2008

    >they still excite me
    Me too.

  7. November 8, 2008
     Glenn Ingersoll

    I'm behind an Olds book or two. I enjoy her work, although it often makes me roll my eyes. She is a poet of excess, which is honorable, I think.
    "To See My Mother" is lush, wild, presumptuous, flagrant, and touching, like a talented drag artist who shows you the poignancy of being human, the impossibility of merely two genders, Olds here birthing and deathing with a similar exuberance.
    Olds can be campy in a bad way, too. Really amazingly bad. But I think the "amazing" is the key. Even her bad poems have a delicious outrageousness to them. They don't cross their knees demurely under calf-length skirts.