The Dead and the Living
Reviewing books of poetry is always a bit awkward. The words in this review are not nearly as impressive as the words in the book. Olds has a deft touch, chooses words with precision and thoughtfulness, and yet her poems are clear and straightforward, so artful that they seem to contain no artifice at all. Her proficiency and technique make you stop and admire, stop and think about things from a different angle.
I mostly really admire Olds’ poetry, although many of the poems in this book are claustrophobic, too intimate, nearly on the border of incestuous (although, to be clear, not over that border—just close enough to be uncomfortable). I can't say that I enjoy her poetry, exactly. She peels the skin back from history and family life so you can see the squirming, breathing bloody bits beneath, expanding and not expanding. Often intense and sexual—often sad. Here are two of my favorites:
As we made love for the third day, cloudy and dark, as we did not stop but went into it, and into it, and did not hesitate and did not hold back we rose through the air, until we were up above timber line. The lake lay, icy and silver, the surface shirred, reflecting nothing. The black rocks lifted around it into the grainy sepia air, the patches of snow brilliant white, and even though we did not know where we were, we could not speak the language, we could hardly see, we did not stop, rising with the black rocks to the black hills, the black mountains rising from the hills. Resting on the crest of the mountains, one huge cloud with scalloped edges of blazing evening light, we did not turn back, we stayed with it, even though we were far beyond what we knew, we rose into the grain of the cloud, even though we were frightened, the air hollow, even though nothing grew there, even though it is a place from which no one has ever come back.
On a black night in early March,
the fire hot, my daughter says
Wrap me in something. I get the old
grey quilt, gleaming like a sloughed
insect casing, and wrap it around and
around her narrow nine-year-old body,
hollow and flexible. Cover my face,
she hisses in excitement. I cover her face
and fall back from the narrow, silver
shape on the carpet.
she is getting away—an Eqyptian child
bound in gauze, set in a boat
on a black night in early March
and pushed out on the water, given
over to the gods of the next world
who will find her
or not find her.