It has been a poetry-themed week, ending with a wonderful evening tonight with the American poet Sharon Olds reading of some of her old and new poems at the Southbank.

I have long been a huge Olds fan. I love the visceral aspect of her poems, and her fearlessness and generosity when it comes to expressing the intimacies of her life and the rawness of her emotions:

From The Sisters of Sexual Treasure (Selected Poems, London: Cape, 2005, p.2):

‘As soon as my sister and I got out of our

mother’s house, all we wanted to

do was fuck, obliterate

her tiny sparrow body and narrow

grasshopper legs.’

She deals with the realities of life, and its losses, adorning, even embracing, them with beauty within tragedy:

From Miscarriage (Selected Poems, p.14):

‘When I was a month pregnant, the great

clots of blood appeared in the pale

green swaying water of the toilet,

brick red like black in the salty

translucent brine, like forms of life

appearing, jellyfish with the clear-cut

shapes of fungi.’

Her poems on her father’s illness and death deal with both the fact of his dying, but also the difficult relationship she had with him. In The Race, she describes her desperation to get to his bedside before he dies, and her relief at arriving ‘in time’.

From The Race (Selected Poems, p.50-1):

‘…I walked into his room

and watched his chest rise slowly

and sink again, all night

I watched him breathe.’

In Wonder (p.52), she analyses her own response to hearing that her father is going to die:

‘… If I had dared to imagine

trading, I might have wished to trade

places with anyone raised on love,

but how would anyone raised on love

bear this death?’

This is what I so love about Olds’ poetry – her honesty, her refusal to gloss over the less acceptable, and her courage to put the imperfections, the flaws and the rawness of life out there, on a very personal level. She is so aware of our humanness, in its totality, and is unashamed of this.

In The Feelings (p.53-4), she describes the moment when she is present at her father’s death:

‘…I was the

only one there who knew

he was entirely gone, the only one

there to say goodbye to his body

that was all he was…’

‘…The next morning,

I felt my husband’s body on me

crushing me sweetly like a weight laid heavy on some

soft thing, some fruit, holding me

hard to this world. Yes the tears came

out like juice and sugar from the fruit –

the skin thins, and breaks, and rips, there are

laws on this earth, and we live by them.’

Olds’ poems are often rooted in a bodily, fleshy, visceral world, yet there is no sense of a body/mind duality. On the contrary, both appear entertwined in the physical selves that we live in.

The current collection, Stag’s Leap, which has just been nominated for the TS Eliot Prize, is about the end of her marriage, her husband leaving after many decades of togetherness. He features, perhaps now poignantly, in many of her earlier collections:

From This Hour (Collected Poems, p.85):

‘We could never really say what it is like,

this hour of drinking wine together

on a hot summer night, in the living room

with the windows open, in our underwear…’

The title of the new collection, Stag’s Leap, refers to their favourite wine. The opening poem, While He Told Me, positions her, and us, in the room where she learns of the end of the marriage. Her love for her husband refuses to die despite the desertion. Yet amidst the pain, there is also much humour, and Olds as a performer is hugely charismatic, and funny. In Telling My Mother:

‘…So the men are gone,

and I’m back with mom. I always

feared this would happen…’

Re-reading some of her older poems after tonight’s performance, I came across The Wedding Vows (Collected Poems, p.128-129):

‘I did not stand at the altar, I stood

at the foot of the chancel steps, with my beloved…’

‘…We stood

beside each other, crying slightly

with fear and awe. In truth, we had married

that first night, in bed, we had been

married by our bodies, but now we stood

in history – what our bodies had said,

mouth to mouth, we now said publicly,

gathered together, death…’

It made me feel sad, reading this, with the knowledge that all is now broken, and cast aside. But Olds would probably not share this sentiment, her works are never maudlin or self-pitying. She would, perhaps, stop, and consider, and with a wry and bemused smile conclude that making and breaking is the stuff of life…