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Life Arts    H4'ed 9/5/20

Sharon Olds: Interpenetrations of Love and Being

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Sharon Olds

Knopf ($18.95)

By John Kendall Hawkins

Since things and my body are made of the same stuff, vision must somehow come about in them; or yet again, their manifest visibility must be repeated in the body by a second visibility.

-Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "Eye and Mind," The Primacy of Perception

The opening line of "No Makeup," the fourth poem in Sharon Olds' new collection, Arias, states: "Maybe one reason I do not wear makeup is to scare people." (18) It's funny, has a political edge, and gets you thinking about all the people who hide behind thin-skinned masks. Olds' engaging humor always leads the reader toward an edgy question, like: Makeup for what?

A winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and only American woman to win the T.S. Eliot prize, Olds is in a fine fettle here. Mixing up memory and desire, but with nothing wasted, her humane, savvy, lyrical takes on ordinary experiences, albeit ones that often exist somewhere between the concrete and the abstract, are thoroughly enthralling and often movingly accessible. There are many strands and streams of themes that run through the river of Olds' work. In Arias, she has many poems about dealing with strangers, human self-destructiveness, sexuality, motherhood, and the brilliant flashes of a personal pantheism. All that, in addition to paeans to language, love, and social awareness.

Born in 1942, Olds spent her early childhood in the Bay Area before being sent to the Dana Halls School in Massachusetts. She did her undergraduate work at Stanford and earned her PhD at Columbia University in 1972. According to the biographical information at, she grew up a "hellfire Calvinist," which seems to have had a significant effect on her psychosexual development and later personal mythopoeia. She has lived in New York City for decades.

Olds has been called a "confessional" poet, but that label is not quite right, as confessional poets are often stuck recounting trauma from their past, which can strain an empathetic read. But Olds, for all her mother-meted (and metered) childhood abuse, survives with witty and strange ontological bursts of insight. She puts her head into gas clouds of life-affirming atoms. She never strains empathy, but seems to produce new streams of it.

She's also too hip to be darkly backward-she's tuned in to the Now and Future, politically, sexually, intellectually, and poetically. Her poem "My Godlessness" fits right in with the times. Surprisingly, and anti-confessionally, she writes:

My mother beating me was not the source

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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