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Blood, Tin, Straw: Poems

Blood, Tin, Straw: Poems

by Sharon Olds

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Winner of the 2000 Paterson Poetry Prize

"She has written without embarrassment or apology, with remarkable passion and savagery and nerve, poems about family and family pathology, early erotic fascination, and sexual life inside marriage."
--Amy Hempel

Sharon Olds divides this new book into five sections--"Blood," "Tin," "Straw," "Fire," and


Winner of the 2000 Paterson Poetry Prize

"She has written without embarrassment or apology, with remarkable passion and savagery and nerve, poems about family and family pathology, early erotic fascination, and sexual life inside marriage."
--Amy Hempel

Sharon Olds divides this new book into five sections--"Blood," "Tin," "Straw," "Fire," and "Light"--each made up of fourteen poems whose dominant imagery is drawn from one of these
elements. The poems are rooted in different moments of an ordinary life and weave back and forth in time. Each section suggests the progression of the making of a soul cleansed by blood, forged by fire, suffused by light. Unafraid to confront the ecstatic or the brutal side of a woman's experience, Sharon Olds transforms her subjects with an alchemist's art, using language that is alternately casual and startling, fierce and transcendent.

This is an intensely moving collection by one of our finest poets.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

What We're Made Of

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.

—Jake Kreilkamp

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This sixth collection from Olds (Satan Says) revisits the obsessive roles and disturbing bodily images that have become her trademarks: she presents herself once again as lover, mother, daughter and voyeur. Olds certainly has a flair for diction, whether describing the aftermath of protected sex ("gore condom in the toilet a moment/ like a sea pet in its bowl, the eel/ taking our unconceived out to the open ocean") or the act of childbirth: "in the crush/ between the babies' skull-plates and the skin/ of the birth-gates, I wanted the symphesis/ more cherished." Anecdotes meant to shock abound. One poem records oral fixations: "I want to suck/ sweet, hot milk, with the salt/ silk of the human woman along/ my cheek." Another outlines death wishes: "I wanted to be/ fucked blind, battered half dead with it." One at a time, these scenes can be arresting; one after another, they make parts of the book as tiresomely, disappointingly repetitive as a sex therapist's case notes. Olds's arrangement of her work into five sections of fourteen poems each (the three title elements, plus "Fire" and "Light") does nothing to counter the book's overall sameness. Though she anticipates charges of narcissism with the poem "Take the I Out," Olds's descriptions of other victims can seem tactless, even predatory-a girl burned by napalm flings her "arms/ out to the sides, like a plucked heron"; the ill-fated crew of the space shuttle Challenger becomes a "burning jigsaw puzzle of flesh." Olds still suceeds, though, when she attends to her own body, where her skills continue to make her, as she writes, "a message conveyor,/ a flesh Morse." (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Olds enjoys the reputation of a phenomenon; her collections of poetry (from Satan Says onward) remain in print, discussed, and passed from hand to hand throughout the United States. Her sixth book is without doubt her strongest to date. Olds's trademark has long been her astonishing candor--about her body, her husband's body, her parents' bodies, sex before and during her marriage, fear, dread, death, and hope--and this quality is still firmly in place here, but she has added to it a new strength and lyricism of metaphor and image. In "The Lips," for instance, she playfully deploys Neoplatonic metaphysics in this paean to her husband's love: "...did he love me before/ he knew me, before I was born? Maybe/ his love drew me to earth, my head/ moved to the surface of my mother's body, and.../ I came toward him in her ribbons, through her favors." She has turned her gaze to the unearthly with touching results: "Without desire or rage/ I would watch that dust celestium as the pain/ on my matter died and turned to spirit/ and wandered the cloud world of home,/ the ashes of the earth." Olds may be relied upon to startle--she uses many words that cannot be reprinted here--but the shock she delivers is that of true poetry. For all poetry collections.--Graham Christian, formerly with Andover-Harvard Theological Lib., Cambridge, MA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Rebecca Wolff
The Poems are rich in imagery, emotional resonance and psychic verity. They are indeed art.Time Out New York

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Random House
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Read an Excerpt

The Necklace

At the worst of the depression, one moment in the office,
suddenly, my necklace shifted,
flowed across some high ribs and sank down along the top of one breast as if a creature had got into my shirt,
yet I felt its will-lessness, caress of matter only, small whipper or snapper, milk or garter, just the vertebrae now, as if a stripped spine had taken its coccyx in its jaw around my throat -- s equator, and now stirred on the mortal plates.  And these were the pearls from my mother, as if she slithered along me to say, Come away from your gloom,
your father, that garden is a grave, come away,
come away -- as if some crumbs of her milquetoast,
aged and polished to a gem hardness,
spoke in oyster Braille on my chest near my own breast, suckler singing to suckler, anti-Circe my mother led me away from that trough with a light raking, over me, of her wiggly whip -- just one wobble along me, globe on her axis,
chariot-wheel of morning.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

Sharon Olds was born in 1942, in San Francisco, and was educated at Stanford University and Columbia University. Her poetry has won both the Lamont Poetry Selection and the National Book Critics Circle Award. She teaches poetry workshops in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at New York University and helps to foster the NYU workshop program at Goldwater Hospital, a state facility for the severely physically challenged. In 1998 she was named the New York State Poet Laureate for 1998 - 2000. She lives in New York City.

From the Hardcover edition.

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