Sharon Olds’s Brilliant Odes

Apr 17, 2019 | Book Reviews

Sharon Olds teaches at NYU and I got to hear her read some of the odes several years ago, before they were published—pure delight! Many are about stuff you can’t mention in polite company. And when you see her onstage (Ugg boots, barrettes in hair, soft voice, bright eyes), reading these brilliant, naughty, funny, profound poems, you can only feel—I could only feel—total adoration.

She won the Pulitzer for her earlier collection Stag’s Leap, about the dissolution of her long marriage—sharply intimate poems of grief, love and longing. The poems in Odes are just as intimate, just as piercing, and grounded in the earthy physicality of the body. Olds will turn your staid ideas of serious poetry uspide-down, with poems like “Ode to the Hymen,” “Ode to the Tampon,” and “Ode to a Composting Toilet.” There is humor and vulnerability and emotional depth in the work, all at once. In poems like “Sloan Kettering Ode,” “Ode to the Last Thirty-Eight Trees in New York City Visible from This Window,” and “Ode to the Corner I was Stood In,” there is deep pain within the language’s beauty. Throughout the book, a complex portrait emerges of a mother’s violence—and Olds’s reckoning with it, with clear eyes and courageous honesty and an open heart.

Olds is courageous in all things: how much of herself she shows; the rules she breaks and the grace with which she does so; her sense of play, of sexuality, of wonder.

In a recent interview with Krista Tippett, Olds discusses her evolution as a person and a writer. Here she is, after reading her “Unmatching Legs Ode”:

“I like looking up muscles and nerves and finding out their names. I like weird words. I had a political struggle with that. I long wanted to leave a pile of poems at the checkout at ShopRite. I would look at the women who also were in line with me—and in those days, they were, gee, almost all women—and wonder which of my poems they might feel welcome to. And if it had a fancy, weird word near the beginning, eh, not so much.

“So I tried to leave out the fancy, weird words, but the trouble was, I was in love with those words. They’re like magic spells. I studied languages because I love them so much. I’m not good at them, and I don’t know semantics or semiotics or anything like that, but I love those words. So, when I’m reading that, I see, uh-oh, “gastrocnemius” is coming. Get ready.

“And again, having experienced myself as not confident but weird and partly not confident because of being weird but then developing a taste for the weirdness — and, you know, once we find friends, once we find close friends, they love us for our weirdness as much as our not-weirdness. And so, there’s this woman of, I don’t know, 65, whatever I was then, lying on the floor, watching her legs wave in the air—it’s normal. And it’s fun.”

Hear her reading “Poem for the Breasts” and “Ode to the Hymen:”


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