Sharon Olds’s Arias

Sharon Olds’s Arias (Alfred A. Knopf, 2019), a follow-up to Odes (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), is a vast collection of poems that sing, celebrate, remember, elegize, and honor people, moments, and personal experience within the modern American landscape. The book is split into six sections: Meeting a Stranger, Arias, Run Away Up, The New Knowing, Elegies, and First Child. Olds, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the T.S. Eliot Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, is one of America’s most prominent and well-respected poets, and continues to establish herself as a major poetic voice through her ability to articulate the contemporary female experience from the perspective of her nuanced poetic imagination. Her poetry is rooted in the personal, but manages to encapsulate female human nature through overarching themes such as science, nature, religion, daughterhood, motherhood, and sex. The music of her poetry is uniquely her own; the position of her voice allows readers to access what it means to be female in the postmodern sense as she explores major issues such as abuse, the oppressiveness of cultural/institutional norms, as well as whiteness and privilege. Olds’s poems often act as intricate paintings, reflecting the realities of a particular American experience that is often brutal and troublesome, but also beautiful and transcendent. Arias is a continuation of Olds’s well-defined poetic sensibilities in the way she pulls readers into her universe, stimulating a wide range of emotions and sensory experiences that challenge, enlighten, shock, and delight as each poem exposes every corner of the poet’s individual and complex human self.

“No Makeup,” from the first section, Meeting a Stranger, provides readers with the familiar tone of Olds’s directness and honesty as her voice and life experience occupy a central position in the poem. A prominent feature of Olds’s poetry is the way in which the lines wind down the page as the meditative qualities of her voice become more complicated and elaborate. In the opening line she proclaims: “Maybe one reason I do not wear makeup is to scare people.” She becomes more descriptive in this train of thought by saying

I am embryonic, pre-eyebrows, pre-eyelids, pre-mouth,
I am like a water bear talking to them,
or an amniotic traveler,
a vitreous floater on their own eyeball,
human ectoplasm risen on its hind legs to discourse with them.

In this section, gender is taken out of the equation, as the speaker compares herself to faceless substances: “embryonic,” “amniotic traveler,” “vitreous floater,” and “human ectoplasm.” The speaker also compares herself to “a water bear,” evoking an interesting accent of animal nature among the biological terms. She continues to describe herself without makeup in more supernatural terms:

…such a white white girl, such a sickly toadstool,
so pale, a visage of fog, a phiz of
mist above a graveyard, no magenta roses,
no floral tribute, no goddess, no grown-up
woman, no acknowledgement
of the drama of secondary sexual characteristics, just the
gray matter of spirit talking,
the thin features of a gray girl in a gray graveyard—
granite, ash, chalk, dust.

For the speaker, not wearing makeup evokes the sense of being a phantom, or a ghost—something more complex than being female, since the goal of makeup is to reinforce cultural definitions of femaleness. Without makeup, she is “just the / gray matter of spirit talking,” which places her on a supernatural plane, as if she had transcended not only her female form, but her human form as well. The poem returns to the personal as she explains

I tried the paint, but I could feel it on my skin, I could
hardly move, under the mask of my
desire to be seen as attractive in the female
way of 1957,
and I could not speak.

These lines express a direct conflict between personal identity and prescribed gender norms. Explicitly, in the need “to be seen as attractive in the female / way of 1957” she could “hardly move” and “could not speak.” Wearing makeup meant trading in her personhood for a culturally accepted norm that would allow her to be seen as a traditional female of a particular time period. The beauty of this poem comes to fruition at the end, as the speaker says “In my small eyes, and my smooth withered skin, / you can see my heart, you can read my naked lips.” The journey of this poem concludes with a commitment to the internal self as the real source of beauty.

“Departure Gate Aria” from the second section, Arias, describes an exchange between the speaker and a young female at the airport. The speaker explains “I wanted to speak / to her, as if I were a guardian spirit / working the airport…” As the two converse, the speaker tells the young female “you look / like a goddess. Her face came out from behind / its cloud, You don’t know how I needed that!” Through the conversation, it is revealed the that young female is nervous because she is about to meet her boyfriend’s parents, but the speaker assures her that she will “do just fine” and that she looks “beautiful and good.” In this poem, Olds employs one of her principal strengths, the poetic turn. After the speaker walks away from the young female, she says to herself

so this is what I’ll do, now,
instead of kissing and being kissed, I’ll
go through airports praising people, like an
Antichrist saying, You do not need
to change your life.

This is an excellent shift within the poem because of the way it turns itself back on the speaker, who decides that one way she can make up for her loneliness is to “go through airports praising people” which is both heartening and comical, but also self-serving. The insertion of “Antichrist” is disturbing and compelling; the speaker does not think of herself as a heavenly benevolent being, but rather, a divine being with ulterior motives. The symbol of the Antichrist is used in an interesting way; it flips the dynamic of the speaker’s intentions so that the lines between good and bad become blurred.

The strongest aspect of the collection deals with the speaker’s relationship to her mother. In these poems, the mother is someone who is revered, feared, loved, hated, mourned, and elegized. Out of all the poems about the mother in the collection, “From the Window of My Home-Town Hotel” from the third section, Run Away Up, is the most poignant in the way that Olds uses her signature meditative voice along with intricate nature images to honor her deceased mother. Nature, in fact, is the driving force behind the poem, and operates around the speaker’s thoughts and memories regarding the town and her mother:

A crow with a swimmer’s shoulders works
the air. And a little bird flies up into a
tree and closes its wings, like a blossom
folded up into a bud again.
In the distance is a very old pine, now sparse
and frail as if hand-painted on a plate
washed for a hundred years.

These images are beautifully rendered and specific as they showcase the speaker’s detailed and observant eye. A few lines later, the speaker admits: “I am forgetting my mother;” and yet the poem stays focused on the mother: “her bones were pestled in this city, / down the street from this hotel, / after her face had been rendered back / to her God. I don’t sense her here.” In this section of the poem, death and spirituality are at the forefront, but the lines “I am forgetting my mother,” and “I don’t sense her here” hold the strongest weight due to their ironic tension. The speaker, throughout this entire collection, seems to remember her mother very well, and senses her everywhere. She continues to elaborate on this fact as she says

This is where she saw the grindings of the
femurs and ulnas breathing in the air,
and the crow’s work by which it earned
its eggs, and where a songbird seemed
a flower again…

Through nature, through the inner-workings of the city, the mother is very much alive, and the speaker’s observations become fused with the spirit of her mother. This is another poetic strength of Olds’s: through irony and heavy description, her lines become drenched in human feeling. As a result, the images become symbolic of her mother and how the speaker feels about her. The last line pulls the entire poem together as the speaker finally gets to the core of what she inherently knows about her mother: “She wanted what was not there, and she saw and heard it.”

Arias is a wonderful collection for readers both new and familiar with Olds’s poetic style. It is representative of what makes her poetry unique: her voice, her poetic rhythms, as well as the themes and subjects that have spiraled through her work over the last forty years. What makes Olds special as a poet is the positioning of her voice. She writes from a perspective that is distinctly her own, allowing readers to get a sense of what it means to inhabit the world through a singular, female-centered voice. She envisions nature, the body, and spirituality in ways that subvert and highlight contemporary American society as a highly-regimented and institutionalized mode of living that seeks to sanitize humanity and divide it from its primal roots. In this sense, Olds is a radical poet, displaying a voice that is innocent, wise, forthright, and compassionate as she exposes all the ways that the modern conception of the traditional American lifestyle fails to satisfy humanity’s deeper need to experience unconditional love and interconnectedness.

January 6, 2020