'Never having had you, I cannot let you go': Sharon Olds's Poems of a Father-Daughter Relationship

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Author: Brian Dillon
Editors: Carol T. Gaffke and Anna J. Sheets
Date: 1999
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 22)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,906 words

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In her first three books of poetry—Satan Says (1980), The Dead and the Living (1984), The Gold Cell (1989)—as well as recently published poems not collected into book form, Sharon Olds describes a dysfunctional family misruled by a father whose abuse of power the poems' speaker responds to both as a child and an adult. Rather than one full-length Prelude-like account, Olds offers snapshots, literally dozens of short poems, a few which metaphorically delineate the father damaging the family structure, and others which narrate in specific detail the father's brutal presence. One anthology of literature commonly used in introductory level classes features three poems highlighting the speaker's relationship with her father. In “The Chute” (included in GC) the father selects a child to suspend by the ankles inside the laundry chute, threatening to drop the helpless one: “he loved to hear/passionate screaming in a narrow space.” In “The Victims” (included in DL), an abusive father is kicked out of the house, divorced by his wife, and fired from his job. And in “The Race” the adult speaker narrates a wild—nearly out of breath—dash through an airport to board a plane in order to cross the continent and arrive at her dying father's bedside. Whether deliberate or not, the anthology selection of Olds's poems allows readers to construct a plot, a linear progression from abuse to expulsion of the abuser to the apparent death of the abuser, with (perhaps) the speaker's achievement of a peace with her past in “The Race.” This last poem is included in The Father, Olds's most recent publication, and is just one of 52 poems in this book detailing the speaker's response to her father's dying and death.

To what extent, in looking at the entire Olds canon, can a plot about the father be discerned? The title poem for Satan Says, which opens Olds's first book, establishes a concern the poet returns to in her next two books and in poetry published since The Gold Cell. In circumstances more terrifying than Alice's wonderland dreamworld, the speaker is locked in “a little cedar box,” apparently a small jewelry box. The voice of Satan promises her freedom if she repeats his vulgarities: “Say shit, say death, say fuck the father.” The speaker complies, but her conflicted response about her parents highlights an emotion foreign to Satan: “I love them but / I'm trying to say what happened to us / in the lost past.” Her expression of love prevents her escape from the cedar box. “It's your coffin now, Satan says.” Though burdened by familial circumstances, the “pain of the locked past,” the speaker's freedom lies in “trying to say what happened,” as well as, the poem concludes, “the suddenly discovered knowledge of love” (Satan Says).

The voice of the speaker in “Satan Says” certainly seems to be the same voice we hear in numerous poems published over the next decade or more. In “The Chute,” Olds's speaker...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100003123