Read This: One Secret Thing by Sharon Olds
Last night, Sharon Olds read from her new collection, One Secret Thing, at The Literary Center at the Margaret Mitchell House. It was a packed house, and I waited in line for an hour to get my copy signed. I also had the rare pleasure to observe a private reception where Olds talked to a dozen high school students about poetry. It was during this session that Olds read "I Go Back to May 1937," which, for me, is the equivalent of hearing Anne Sexton read "Her Kind." The students didn't get the gravity of the moment, but I was in awe to hear her read this classic poem. The public reading last night was exclusively poems from One Secret Thing until she asked that the camera filming the event be turned off so she could read the first draft of a new poem about race relations she had written that morning in her hotel room. Another rare pleasure.
As she began her reading, Olds said the new collection is "against war," but since this is Sharon Olds, war comes in many guises, including finding a sought-after peace with her dying mother. Indeed, the first section of the book is simply called "War" and Olds used photographs from World War II to arrive at these short, powerful pieces. However, in an ingenious twist, she stripped out any reference to the era so that the poems stand as a treatise against any kind of war. In the second section, "The Cannery," shifts to a familiar battleground -- her family life. Her mother takes center stage in this section and the abuse Olds' suffered at her hands in what she has described as a "Calvinist hellfire" home. She also had the balls to use an unflattering review from bitter William Logan as an epigraph to the poem "Calvinist Parents": Sometime during the Truman Administration, Sharon Olds's parents tied her to a chair, and she is still writing about it. Olds goes on to unleash 20 lines that are better than anything Logan has written, or will write, in his life.
There are a number of side-trips away from the main theme, which are quirky and full of humor in the midst of the war. One is "Self-Portrait, Rear View," which she performed on HBO's Def Poetry Jam and that you can watch at this link, and a lovely poem dedicated to Edmund White called "Sleeves," where she realizes that one of her childhood crushes was most likely gay.
Then the collection closes with the death of Olds' mother and these are heartbreaking poems. Olds said she fought the urge to title the collection The Mother, saying it would have been too neat a bookend to The Father. The poems are broken into two sections -- "Cassiopeia" (which is the cover image of the collection) and "One Secret Thing" -- and chronicle the discovery of her mother's brain tumor, the vigil at her deathbed and the scattering of her ashes at sea. While these poems are deeply personal, there is a universality about them that will cut close to home for anyone who has lost a parent. One Secret Thing effectively brings to a close a story Olds has been telling us in her last eight collections. There is a sense of release and hard-won peace by this brilliant collection's end. I drew a heavy sigh as I read the last poem, "Nereid Elegy," about Olds and her family putting her mother's ashes into the water along with flowers plucked from her garden. There is finally closure for Olds and this collection allows us to share it with her. What a gift.
Just before dawn, the fixed stars
stand over my mother's house,
and the queen's throne seems to set
as the earth turns away from it.
But my mother is at her zenith--every
hour or so, these days, she stops talking,
and lets me have a turn, she squinches her
face like a child concentrating, she
knows this custom is important. Then
she is off again, on her long carouse
across the sky. There are two new
people who worship her. Well I worship you
myself, I say, for your good work
with the young musicians, and she says in her new
voice, Well I worship you right back.
Then she tells me the tumor may be growing again,
she has me finger the side of her radiant
visionary childhood face, to feel,
in the dent of her temple, the earth rising,
coming for her. She tells me her dream in which her
late husband, pissing in the goldfish
pool, turns toward her, laughing. She laughs,
her head thrown back, her hard palate
an arc, her curls gleaming like the moonlit
lake bush of an ancient Venus.
She was not meant to be a mother,
she never got to be a child until now--
I feel I am back in an early time,
when people were being tried out, combinations
of flowers, and animals, and hinges of iron,
and wheeling desire, and longing. I feel
like an old shepherd on a hill. My lamb
who sickened so long, my first lamb, is gamboling.