Sunday 7 July 2013

The Father

'The Father' by Sharon Olds: I read a review of 'Stag's Leap' somewhere but when I search on the library catalogue this was the only thing they had available (so much stock is still in storage until the new Central Library opens next year). I am left wondering if maybe I should take the Modern and Contemporary American Poetry course as I feel singularly inadequate to say anything about this book. 

Having reviewed Christopher Reid's 'A Scattering' the first question that comes to mind concerns the potential autobiographical nature of the poems. Although written in the first person there is a peculiar sense of impersonality and distance in the whole atmosphere of the book. I searched online for further clues and came across this interview in The Guardian in which she is initially very vague; then she describes a student at a reading saying; "If I thought you'd made up all the stuff in your poems, I'd be really mad at you", and she says in response; "It had not crossed my mind really that anyone would make up a life, make up these stories - it seemed so obvious to me they were being told, sung, from some inner necessity that rose in an actual life. But at that point I couldn't come out and say that, I think I had some idea I was protecting someone, I'm not sure who . . ." (I don't think she is talking specifically about 'the Father' here, just her poetry generally.) In fact reading the interview was much more illuminating than the poems, she is not someone I knew anything about and I found her really engaging.

The poems are a catalogue of decline but at the same time almost a homage to the love between daughter and father. The minutiae that are contained within the poems express just how the narrator is focussed entirely on the him to the exclusion of all else. They contain long descriptions of the visceral physical nature of his illness, the destruction wrought on his body, she is acutely aware of his vulnerability and the change this has brought to their relationship. In the opening poem 'The Waiting': 

"Now he would have some company
as he tried to swallow an eighth of a teaspoon
of coffee, he would have his child to give him
the cup to spit into, his child to empty it
I would be there all day, watch him nap,
be there when he woke, sit with him
until the day ended, and he would get back into
bed with his wife."

The first half of the book catalogues his decline, from a man who reaches out to cut a stray thread from her nightdress:

"Suddenly, he sees a thread
dangling from the cuff of my nightie, he cries out
Stay there! and goes to his desk drawer.
I hold my wrist out to him
and he stares with rigid concentration,
his irises balls of impacted matter." (Nulipara)

until one day he can no longer rise in his bed to greet the minister:

"And then, one day, he tried,
his brain ordered his body to heave up,
the sweat rose in his pores but he was not
moving, he cast up his eyes as the minister
leaned to kiss him, he lay and stared, it was
nothing like the nights he had lain on the couch passed
out, nothing." (The Struggle)

She lingers and lingers over the day and moment of his death, some of the images quite repetitive until it is almost a relief for the end to finally arrive, but the tenderness she describes is quite exquisite:

"I put my head on the bed beside him
and breathed and he did not breathe, I breathed and
breathed and he darkened and lay there,
my father. I laid my hand on his chest
and I looked at him, at his eyelashes
and the pores of his skin, cracks in his lips,
dark rose-red inside his mouth,
springing hair deep in his nose, I
moved his head to set it straight on the pillows,
it moved so easily, and his ear,
gently crushed for the last hour,
unfolded in the air." (The Last Day)

The second half of the book negotiates the aftermath with equal delicacy, how she feels about his body and what will happen to it, the funeral, how he occupies her thoughts in the time afterwards. I liked this reflection on how their relationship becomes frozen in time, in limbo, that she can almost treasure what it had become and not worry about earlier time:

"A week after my father died
suddenly I understood
his fondness for me was safe - nothing
could touch it. In that last year,
his face would sometimes brighten when I would
enter the room, and his wife said
that once, when he was half asleep
he smiled when she said my name." (Beyond Harm)

But after a year the motel she stayed in while visiting him is hospital is knocked down and it felt like accepting that the world must move on, she is more philosophical:

"They will have
sold the beds, set aside the triple-milled
amber fluted soaps - and did they
save the pool, unsuction it up and
leave a hole like a grave, or did they
cave it in, Pompeiian. Anyway,
every trace of everything
that held me
holding him
will be removed from the planet." (The Motel)

I found on my searching this essay written by a postgrad student which, if you are interested, is way more articulate and astute than me. I think this is the kind of poetry collection that needs the analysis, someone to point out for you what the poet is trying to do, and quite how clever they are being about it. It is also important to take in the collection as a whole. I think this kind of book is different from 'anthology' type collections because of the way the poems are focussed on a single event and the multitudinous ways that it impacts. Again 'enjoy' is probably the wrong word for reading 'The Father' but it has certainly given me much to reflect on and I will await her other book's emergence from library storage.


  1. I'm not a fan of Sharon Olds (I have nothing against her either), but you make a good argument for the worth of her poetry to others.

  2. Hi Jan, her poetry is definitely what you would call 'difficult' and I can't imagine being a fan like I might say I was a fan of Billy Collins, but sometimes a challenge is good too.


Thanks for stopping by. Thoughts, opinions and suggestions (reading or otherwise) always most welcome.


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