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Written by Timothy Sexton
Domestic violence here refers more broadly than standard conventional use of the term. The poetry of Sharon Olds is marked by an immediate and unadorned admission of psychological abuse of the poet by her parents. The most direct admission and confrontation with this past almost certainly forms the focus of her poem titled “I Got Back to May 1937” in which she seeks to overcome the boundaries of time and even self-preservation to warn her parents before they even married of the bad things they are going to do to their children that they surely never imagined in 1937 they could even be capable of doing. For Olds, domestic violence is a thematic concept that only ends at the point of physicality; the seed of its origins trace much farther back into the past of the perpetrator.
Looking for the Small Beauties in Life
While there is no escaping the lingering aftereffects of such violence for Olds, as well, it is another more positive and optimistic theme that really has become her signature. She outlines her direct engagement with the abstraction in a line of verse in which she proudly admits that early in life she discovered the secret to finding all the various examples of small, but beautiful things that exist amid all the darkness and emotional turmoil: paying attention. The poems that make up the body of work produced by Sharon Olds are not difficult to penetrate and she uses conversational language to make her point. The place where Olds tends to get all “poety” is in disguising beautiful little surprises awaiting the attentive viewer behind what may seem at times almost mundane rhymes and subjects. This subtlety has its downside, however; those who fail to pay attention have often mistaken her for a second rate Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton when she is anything but.
As if often the case with writers exploiting their literary obsessions to deal with traumatic events from the past still haunting their present, another theme that Olds turns to again and again is the loss of innocence. Fortunately, this thematic concern is not focused solely nor directed exclusively to confessional verse about her own sense of loss. The theme of not being able to go back to the ways things were touch upon a host of subjects and are dealt with in a variety of different ways that are each attuned to the consideration of the events the poem at hand. While it is almost an inescapable reality that Olds has discovered ways to view various events through the lens of innocence being lost as the result of the tragic forfeiture of her own, she manages to do what all great artists do: take the personal and make it universal.
With the publication of her collection titled The Father in 1992 which made the shortlist of contenders for the T.S. Eliot Prize in England that year, a new theme entered the poetry of Olds: reconciliation. Although published individually in various magazines, the poems are structured within the collection to guide the reader from one to the next with subsequent entries drawing their emotional power from the subjects of those that came before. The narrative lays out a timeline that that follows Olds as she deals with the revelation that her father is dying of cancer through the funeral following his succumbing to the disease as it gradually becomes clear that that it is a hopeful journey toward emotional and spiritual healing.
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