15 January 2009

One Secret Thing by Sharon Olds: disappointment to delight

So after very specifically requesting this book for Christmas, I wasn't very surprised to find it turn up in my Santa sack (though that would more correctly be a 'Sean sack', as I certainly don't believed in Santa, and even if he does exist he doesn't give me any presents).

I've written about Sharon Olds before – I'm a big fan of her collection The Wellspring, which was – or at least appears to be, one doesn't want to be too presumptuous – very autobiographical, and very real. So I was particularly interested in One Secret Thing, because the back cover says it 'completes her cycle of family poems', and I assumed it would be in the same vein as The Wellspring.

I started reading it in snatches late last week. It began with a series of poems about war. Not particularly autobiographical, I thought, but oh well. There were some nice moving bits, and nice images. (For example, from 'The body' this description of a corpse: the lovely one is gone, the one who/rode it, rider on a mount, the one who had/a name and spoke.') But I was a bit unsure what to make of this section. Later, on reading the back cover more thoroughly, I learned that 'This vision of strife between nations is followed by indelible new poems of conflict within a family', and it did make a bit more sense in a thematic sort of way.

I confess, as I read on, I was feeling a bit disappointed. These poems about the narrator's (/author's) unsatisfactory childhood just weren't working for me, and the language often seemed clumsy and over-cooked.

Things picked up at the beginning of part three, when she started writing of herself as a mother (this is very much a book of mothers and daughters – the narrator playing both roles in her different relationships), and I thought I might recommend 'Umbilicus' and 'When Our Firstborn Slept In' to my friends who are mothers of babies:
—while she slept, it was as if
my pierced ankles loosed themselves
and I walked like a hunter in the horror-joy
of the unattached. Girl of a mother,
mother of a girl, I paced, listening
Unfortunately, my disappointment came back as I plodded through the rest of part three.

But then I reached part four, 'Cassiopeia', and everything changed.

We've already met the narrator's difficult strict mother and her dreadful second husband in previous sections, but 'Cassiopeia' is about her mother after his death. The first poem (or rather, section of a long poem) '1. He is Taken Away', caught my attention – it seemed clearer, sharper and tighter, like the poems I remember from The Wellspring.

But '2. The Music' was the clincher. In it the narrator talks to her mother on the phone: 'she has been sorting/her late darling's clothes', 'her voice through her tears like the low singing/of a watered plant long not watered'. And I'm going to quote a large bit here, because this what really got me:
Now my mother sounds like me,
the way I sound to myself—one
who doesn't know, who fails and hopes.
And I feel, now, that I had wanted to never stop blaming her,
like eating hard-shelled animals
at mid-molt. But now my mother
is like a tiny, shucked crier
in a tide pool beside my hand. I think
I had thought I would falter if I forgave my mother,
as if, then, I would lose her—and I do
feel lonely, now, to sense her beside me,
as if she is only a sister.
Wow! Perfect.

This section continues through her mother's mourning, through rebuilding their relationship during her mother's decline.

Part five, 'One Secret Thing', continues the story with her mother's death, and the narrator's mourning. It's totally heartbreaking, but also restrained and quiet.

The poems that really, really worked for me more than make up for the ones that didn't. Amazing and inspiring writing.

No comments: