Readers of Sharon Olds have always delighted in her alchemical ability to render the ordinary extraordinary and at her fearlessness in challenging widely accepted viewpoints. Blood, Tin, Straw, perhaps her finest collection to date, will not let down her significant numbers of fans and will surely welcome more into her fold.
Olds's new collection takes its name from The Wizard of Oz; in "Culture and Religion," the speaker observes that Dorothy and her cohorts are to be attacked with "Blood, tin, straw." For Olds, the implication is crucial: "what they / were made of was to be used against them." It is exactly what we're made of -- our bodies, our loves, our children, our everyday lives -- that Olds addresses and celebrates, in the face of a society that, she feels, too often ignores, silences, and demeans these things.
Olds addresses provocative topics with a refreshing candor and inquisitiveness. In doing so, she exposes the societal constraints that bind the imaginations of many writers who confront themes like sex, marriage, children, and gender. It's extremely difficult to say something new about these topics, but Olds makes it look easy. In "The Watchers," she describes watching a Hollywood action film and ponders the maleness of the genre. Here are topics -- violence in film and related gender questions -- that can inspire even the laziest couch potato to grab the remote when one of a million talking heads weighs in. But Olds, in a spare and telling moment of observation, breaks through the constraints of rhetoric:
Then men surrounded the car, swarmed it, like the mass of sperm mobbing the egg, the car afloat in them, stopped -- this was a moment of stillness in the male world.
It is Olds's capacity to reinvent the familiar, whether in a political debate or family scene, that gives her poems such immediacy. And, more than anything else, even beyond her considerable power over language, it's her fearlessness that inspires the crowds that follow her from reading to reading. In "Warrior: Fifth Grade," Olds openly confronts the sexual allure of violence, a topic often shunned by writers:
....the free swing through the air, that sideways plummet, and the hit, the crunching noise, the rubbery curve of the ribs, their spring, I wanted to hurt someone, someone bad, and be hurt, I wanted to be hit when I could hit back.
Lines later, Olds makes explicit the sexual connotations that nearly leapt from the page:
....it came to me that I thought that my lover was too gentle -- I was twenty -- I realized that I wanted to be fucked blind, battered half dead with it.
This is dangerous stuff, and it's bound to offend somebody. But in our present politically charged society, where certain expressions are simply taboo, Olds is like Martin Luther with a hammer and nail at the church door. To pass over these topics in silence, she insists, is to ensure the maintenance of the status quo.
Not all of Olds's poems are so incendiary: Many simply dwell on the ordinary, beautiful things in life -- but as she is not frightened to speak her mind against a homogenized political correctness; likewise, she doesn't fear the mundane. In "The Sound," she describes hearing her grown daughter singing as she gets dressed and imagines herself as her daughter's child:
I have never, before, heard a grown woman singing alone...I lean, here, like a newborn freshly arrived in a home, or an embryo in the belly of a woman whom recent loving has made musical, the body's harmony audible, as if matter itself were merciful.
Olds's verse reveals the revelatory beauty hiding in the everyday, if only we are patient enough to seek it out. Her poems are often reminiscent of adolescent poetry, but in a way that redeems this subgenre:
Suddenly, at night, in a strange town, in somebody's borrowed car, VW swelling of a man I have not met, suede, cords, smoke, emotion...
She offers a simple blueprint for effective, moving poetry: Write what you see and what moves you, and don't try to evade cliché. Only by trusting yourself, her poems demonstrate, will you find something new in your life, something worth celebrating. An Olds groupie recently announced to me, "Sharon Olds is a rock star," and her readings do have that air about them. Blood, Tin, Straw might go platinum.