In such previous collections as The Gold Cell
and The Dead and the Living
, Sharon Olds tends to draw her impetus from the sexual landscape. The same might be said of the poems in Blood, Tin, Straw
. Here, however, the libido is less invariably at center stage. Instead, Olds embraces her favorite subject--the body--in many different guises: as an object of love, desire, reproduction, and decay.
At its best, Blood, Tin, Straw captures effervescent moments with delectable poignancy. In "The Necklace," for example, the narrator recalls a falling strand of pearls that "spoke in oyster Braille on my chest." (She likens the pearls to the snake in the Garden of Eden, yet this beaded serpent seems more intimately related to her own family romance.) And in "My Father's Diary"--itself a strange precursor to the poems in The Father--Olds identifies the chronicle of a life with its departed creator:
My father dead, who had left me
these small structures of his young brain--
he wanted me to know him, he wanted
someone to know him.
Still, Olds has a tendency to trip over her own misspent innuendo. One poem in particular, "Coming of Age, 1966," collapses under the weight of a fabricated personal nostalgia, as the poet conflates her own writer's block with Nick Ut's famous photograph of a napalmed Vietnamese girl: "Every time / I tried to write of the body's gifts, / the child with her clothes burned off by napalm / ran into the poem screaming." Olds pins the blame for this atrocity (and for her writer's block!) on Lyndon Johnson. Yet the photo dates from 1972, which lets LBJ off the hook and points the finger at Richard Nixon. It may seem ludicrous to condemn a poem for being factually incorrect. However, the entire argument here is predicated upon Johnson's culpability in delaying the narrator's "entrance into the erotic." Offensive and overwrought, "Coming of Age, 1966" exemplifies Olds's worst poetic impulses. She does, it should be said, retain much of her appeal in Blood, Tin, Straw
. Yet there's still a sense that she's substituting a tried-and-true trademark for her customary, earnest ease. --Ryan Kuykendall
From Publishers Weekly
This sixth collection from Olds (Satan Says) revisits the obsessive roles and disturbing bodily images that have become her trademarks: she presents herself once again as lover, mother, daughter and voyeur. Olds certainly has a flair for diction, whether describing the aftermath of protected sex ("gore condom in the toilet a moment/ like a sea pet in its bowl, the eel/ taking our unconceived out to the open ocean") or the act of childbirth: "in the crush/ between the babies' skull-plates and the skin/ of the birth-gates, I wanted the symphesis/ more cherished." Anecdotes meant to shock abound. One poem records oral fixations: "I want to suck/ sweet, hot milk, with the salt/ silk of the human woman along/ my cheek." Another outlines death wishes: "I wanted to be/ fucked blind, battered half dead with it." One at a time, these scenes can be arresting; one after another, they make parts of the book as tiresomely, disappointingly repetitive as a sex therapist's case notes. Olds's arrangement of her work into five sections of fourteen poems each (the three title elements, plus "Fire" and "Light") does nothing to counter the book's overall sameness. Though she anticipates charges of narcissism with the poem "Take the I Out," Olds's descriptions of other victims can seem tactless, even predatory-a girl burned by napalm flings her "arms/ out to the sides, like a plucked heron"; the ill-fated crew of the space shuttle Challenger becomes a "burning jigsaw puzzle of flesh." Olds still suceeds, though, when she attends to her own body, where her skills continue to make her, as she writes, "a message conveyor,/ a flesh Morse." (Oct.)
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