Seeing things

Sharon Olds shows a vision that never flinches in her collection of poems

By Charles Bainbridge

Seeing thingsSelected Poems by Sharon Olds 160pp, Cape

Sharon Olds is a stunning poet, and this volume gathers together much of her best writing from the past 26 years. She has always confronted the personal details of her life with remarkable directness and honesty, but the key to her success is the way this material is lit up by a range of finely judged shifts in scale and perspective. Her poems are vivid morality plays, wrestling with ideas of right and wrong, full of symbolic echoes and possibilities.
In “The Lifting”, for instance, she describes her dying father removing his hospital gown to get her to look at the reality of his wasting body. The poem, as so much of her work, enacts the process of being made to look at the difficult, the hidden, bringing what we want to avoid fully into the gaze: “I looked / where his solid ruddy stomach had been / and I saw the skin fallen into loose / soft hairy rippled folds / lying in a pool of folds . . .” In the final lines Olds parallels this language of harsh physical description with the language of Biblical revelation. The lifting of the gown is portrayed as a version of the lifting away of ignorance – “the way we were promised at death it would rise, / the veils would fall from our eyes, we would know everything”.

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