Wednesday, 1 July 2009

One Secret Thing by Sharon Olds

Katrina Naomi on One Secret Thing by Sharon Olds, (Cape Poetry 2009)

Having devoured a good number of Olds’ books, her latest doesn’t disappoint. As I read a collection, I tick the poems that I enjoy. Most books get 6 or even 10 ticks. ’One Secret Thing’ got 17. It’s a crude system and it’s fair to say that there are some poems that I enjoyed far less than others, but those that work (all 17 of them) are outstanding.

Olds has divided the book into five sections: War, The Cannery, Umbilicus, Cassiopeia and One Secret Thing. Umbilicus and Cassiopeia scarcely managed 3 ticks between them, surprising as I usually like poems that (critically) examine relationships with parents, but the poems in these sections generally don’t do it for me. The poems that I feel are by far the strongest in this new collection are the War poems. This is Olds at her best - visceral, knowingly unpleasant yet also touching (loving even). See, for example, ‘a look of pleasant exertion’ from ‘The Smile’, about a man stabbing another; or the last lines from ‘His Crew’ about a pilot sacrificing himself to save his crew: ‘and saw the earth coming up toward him,/green as a great basin of water/being lifted to his face’. Several poems use extended metaphors, as with ‘Woman with the Lettuce’ which forces the reader to consider ‘an oversized lettuce, its white stems and/great, pale, veined leaves/unfolded in the dense air’ as a substitute for the fate that will befall a truckload of people, and specifically one woman, from an unspecified country.

Olds’ signature line endings, forcing the reader breathlessly on to the next line are here, as is her wonderfully vivid imagery, and her usual subjects of sex, violence and family (most in the school of the ‘apparently personal’). Some poems still feel to me as if they could be edited back (perhaps another of Olds’ signatures)? I imagine most poetry workshops would suggest a cull of the repetition of a title in the first line, as in the poem ‘At Night’, which opens ‘At night my mother tucked me in, with a/jamming motion’, but then follows this further down with a wonderful metaphor describing the house as ’my mother’s bashed, pretty ship’. Another signature is that almost every poem here is one free verse stanza.

Two of my favourite poems in this collection are elegies: ‘Western Wind’ and ‘Nereid Elegy’. The ashes from the narrator’s mother’s cremation are carried on the wind in the former ’flying/slowly, low, up over the hills/on their way to the ice fields’ and in the latter, where the narrator scatters the ashes:

my mother/was violet-gray, she was blue spruce,
twilight, fur, I ran my hand into the
evening talcum of her absent action, and there
came, sharp up, with shards, and powders,
a tangle of circles soldered together,
the triple-strand wedding ring
from her finger touched me, now, on the other
side of the fire.

Olds has lost none of her powers to move or inspire.

Katrina Naomi’s first full collection ‘The Girl with the Cactus Handshake’ will be published by Templar Poetry in October 2009.