One Secret Thing

Overview

Sharon Olds completes her cycle of family poems in a book at once intense and harmonic, playful with language, and rich with a new self-awareness and sense of irony.

The opening poem, with its sequence of fearsome images of war, serves as a prelude to poems of home in which humor, anger, and compassion sing together with lyric energy—sometimes comic, sometimes filled with a kind of unblinking forgiveness. These songs of joy and danger—public and private—illuminate one another. ...

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One Secret Thing

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Overview

Sharon Olds completes her cycle of family poems in a book at once intense and harmonic, playful with language, and rich with a new self-awareness and sense of irony.

The opening poem, with its sequence of fearsome images of war, serves as a prelude to poems of home in which humor, anger, and compassion sing together with lyric energy—sometimes comic, sometimes filled with a kind of unblinking forgiveness. These songs of joy and danger—public and private—illuminate one another. As the book unfolds, the portrait of the mother goes through a moving revisioning, leading us to a final series of elegies of hard-won mourning. One Secret Thing is charged throughout with Sharon Olds’s characteristic passion, imagination, and poetic power.

The doctor on the phone was young, maybe on his first rotation in the emergency room.
On the ancient boarding-school radio,
in the attic hall, the announcer had given my boyfriend’s name as one of two brought to the hospital after the sunrise service, the egg-hunt, the crash—one of them critical, one of them dead. I was looking at the stairwell banisters, at their lathing,
the necks and knobs like joints and bones,
the varnish here thicker here thinner—I had said
Which one of them died, and now the world was an ant’s world: the huge crumb of each second thrown, somehow, up onto my back, and the young, tired voice said my fresh love’s name.

from “Easter 1960”

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

The ninth outing from Olds (Blood, Tin, Straw) should again please the many admirers of her raw, vivid and often explicit poems, but might surprise few of them-until the end. As in all her books, Olds works in a demotic free verse, driven by rough enjambments and shocking comparisons: she devotes much of her energy (three of five sections here) to sex, remembered pain and parenthood-the dramatic, abusive household in which she grew up and her tender relationship with her own daughter. Olds depicts the traumas of her first decades with undeniable, if occasionally cartoonish, force: "When I think of people who kill and eat people,/ I think of how lonely my mother was." Olds can also offer high-volume poetry of public protest, as in the set of sonnet-sized poems against war with which the book begins. What seems new here are Olds's reactions to her mother's last years, and to her mother's death. On an antidepressant, briefly "adorable," and then in failing health, "my mother sounds like me,/ the way I sound to myself-one/ who doesn't know, who fails and hopes." Both the failures and the hopes find here a voice that takes them seriously. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Anyone familiar with the work of the award-winning Olds (e.g., The Unswept Room) knows that she is one of those rare poets who can take the everyday and make it sing. What's missing in the opening pages of this work is the very fierce and individual detail in relentless flow that characterizes her best work; the first section, called "War," is surprisingly bland and anonymous. Olds hits her stride-and sounds more like her old self-in the following four sections, detailing a strained and complex mother-daughter relationship over time. Some lines jump out-"When I think of people who kill and eat people/I think how lonely my mother was"-and homey details are effectively used throughout. But sometimes the revelations aren't so revelatory-"girl of a mother, mother of a girl"-and leaps from space heaters to the spirit's healing are a stretch. Not always satisfying but this is, ultimately, Olds, and contemporary poetry collections should add for completeness.
—Barbara Hoffert

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375711770
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/30/2008
  • Pages: 112
  • Sales rank: 935,487
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Sharon Olds was born in San Francisco. Her poetry has been chosen as the Lamont Poetry Selection and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. She lives in New York City.
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Read an Excerpt

DiagnosisBy the time I was six months old, she knew somethingwas wrong with me. I got looks on my faceshe had not seen on any childin the family, or the extended family,or the neighborhood. My mother took me into the pediatrician with the kind hands,a doctor with a name like a suit size for a wheel:Hub Long. My mom did not tell himwhat she thought in truth, that I was Possessed.It was just these strange looks on my face—he held me, and conversed with me,chatting as one does with a baby, and my mothersaid, She’s doing it now! Look!She’s doing it now! and the doctor said,What your daughter hasis called a senseof humor. Ohhh, she said, and took meback to the house where that sense would be testedand found to be incurable.When Our Firstborn Slept InMy breasts hardening with milk—little seepsleaking into the folded husbandhankies set into the front curvesof the nursing harness—I would wander aroundthe quiet apartment when her nap would last a littlelonger than usual. When she was awake, I waspurpose, I was a soft domesticprowling of goodness—only when she sleptwas I free to think the thoughts of onein bondage. I had wanted to be someone—not justsomeone’s mom, but someone, some one.Yet I know that this work that I did with herlay at the heart of what mattered to me—wasthat heart. And still there was a part of meleft out by it, as if exposed on a mountainby mothering. And when she slept in,I smelled the husks of olive rindon that slope, I heard the blue knockof the eucalyptus locket nut, Itasted the breath of the wolf seekingthe flesh to enrich her milk, I saw thebending of the cedar under the seaof the wind—while she slept, it was as ifmy pierced ankles loosed themselvesand I walked like a hunter in the horror-joyof the unattached. Girl of a mother,mother of a girl, I paced, listening,almost part-fearing, sometimes, that she might have stoppedbreathing, knowing nothing was anything, for me,next to the small motions as she woke,light and wind on the face of the water.And then that faint cry, like apelagic bird, who sleeps in flight, and I wouldturn, pivot on a spice-crushing heel,and approach her door.Calvinist ParentsSometime during the Truman Administration,Sharon Olds’s parents tied her to a chair,and she is still writing about it.—review of The Unswept RoomMy father was a gentleman, and he expectedus to be gentlemen. If we did not observethe niceties of etiquette he whoppedus with his belt. He had a strong arm,and boy did we feel it.—Prescott Sheldon Bush,brother to a president anduncle to anotherThey put roofs over our heads.Ours was made of bent tiles,so the edge of the roof had a broken look,as if a lot of crockeryhad been thrown down, onto the home—a dump for heaven’s cheap earthenware.Along the eaves, the arches were likeentries to the Colosseumwhere a lion might appear, or an eight-foot armoredbeing with the painted faceof a simpering lady. Bees would not roostin those concave combs, above our rooms,birds not swarm. How does a young ’unpay for room and board? They put aroof over our heads, against lightning,and droppings—no foreign genes, no outsidegestures, no unfamilial words;and under that roof, they labored as they had beenlabored over, they beat us into swords.One Secret ThingOne secret thing happenedat the end of my mother’s life, when I wasalone with her. I knew it should happen—I knew someone was there, in there,something less unlike my mother thananything else on earth. And the jarwas there on the table, the space around itpulled back from it, like the awestruck handmadeair around the crèche, and her openmouth was parched. It was late. The lideased off. I watched my finger draw throughthe jelly, its egg-sex essence, the fourcorners of the room were not creatures, were notthe four winds of the earth, if I did notdo this, what was I—I rubbed the cowlick ofpetrolatum on the skin around where thefinal measures of what was almost notbreath swayed, and her throat made a gutturalcreek bed sound, like pebbly relief. But eachlip was stuck by chap to its rowof teeth, stuck fast. And then I workedfor my motherhood, my humanhood, Islid my forefinger slowly back andforth, along the scab-line and underlyingcanines and incisors, upper lip and thenlower lip, until, like a bastedseam, softly ripped, what had beenjoined was asunder, I ran the salve insidethe folds, along the gums,common mercy. The secret washow deeply I did not want to touchinside her, and how much the actwas an act of escape, my last chanceto free myself.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

Everything 3

Pt. 1 War

War

1 Woman with the Lettuce 7

2 Legless Fighter Pilot 8

5 What Could Happen 9

4 The Dead 10

5 When He Came for the Family 11

6 The Signal 12

7 The Leader 13

8 The Smile 15

9 Free Shoes 16

10 The Body-Sniffers 17

11 His Crew 18

12 The Body 19

Pt. 2 The Cannery

The Cannery, 1942-1945 23

Diagnosis 24

At Night 25

Behavior Chart 26

Calvinist Parents 27

Money 28

Fly on the Wall in the Puritan Home 30

Maiden Name 31

Men's Singles, 1952 33

The Float 34

Freezer 36

The Bra 37

The Couldn't 39

Home Theater, 1955 40

Paterfamilias 42

Easter 1960 43

Pt. 3 Umbilicus

Umbilicus 47

When Our Firstborn Slept In 48

Toth Farry 49

Home Ec 50

The Space Heater 51

Barbarous Artifacts 53

Animal Dress 54

Royal Beauty Bright 55

Self-Exam 56

The Riser 57

Wooden Ode 58

The Scare 59

Pansy Coda 60

Last Words, Death Row, Circa 2030 61

Self-Portrait, Rear View 62

The Dead 64

Sleeves 65

Good Measure 67

Pt. 4 Cassiopeia

Cassiopeia

1 He Is Taken Away 71

2 The Music 72

3 The Ecstatic 74

4 Two Late Dialogues 75

Mom as Comet 75

Her Creed 77

5 Warily, Sportsman! 78

6 Little End Ode 80

7 Something Is Happening 81

8 Cassiopeia 82

Pt. 5 One Secret Thing

Still Life 87

One Secret Thing 88

The Last Evening 89

Last Hour 91

To See My Mother 93

When I Left Her 94

Western Wind 95

Satin Maroon 96

Nereid Elegy 97

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