I think I must have discovered Sharon Olds’ book The Gold Cell in my late teens or early twenties, and then worked my way backwards as well as reading her releases when they came out. I wanted to write poetry at the time and Olds’ work was a revelation. I could feel the literary skill gathering the words together but it was her voice—personal, intense and confessional—that supported me to believe that I could write about my own life and identity, so long as it was crafted well. The flexibility and experience of poetry could make an incident or memory even more intense or sharp or considered in its telling.
So, I find it astonishing that Olds is now 80 and still writing such dynamic work, as published in the 2022 collection Balladz. Let’s just talk about the poem, ‘His Birthday’. On her partner’s 75th birthday, Olds masturbates, and orgasms four times. I have never read such a vital declaration of an older woman’s sexual pleasure. And no one but Olds could charge the conversational confession of the poetry with an image like ‘the full chrysanthemum / in each chamber of the sex’s heart’ or ‘a spider dropping down / to fix a hypotenuse for a web’ as a metaphor for her exhausted hand.
I found the poetry in this collection to be looser, more ecstatic and stranger than before, often conflating time, jumping off from a childhood memory or a random present thought to the poem’s core subject. I loved the acknowledgement of the world outside her poems – politics – which I don’t remember from previous work. Not being familiar with Emily Dickinson, I didn’t quite ‘get’ Olds’ Dickinson ballads (named the Amherst Ballads). And as other reviewers mentioned, it feels a little surprising that the same old memories of her mother (and being tied to a chair as punishment by her parents) keep resurfacing in these poems, when elsewhere she has such an amazing ability to be so precisely, luminously in the present moment. Though one of the same reviewers said that Olds has earned the right to write about anything she wants to. I don’t mean to be judgemental but I think life would be easier and lighter to be able to lay our trauma to rest. But perhaps that’s why I’ve always been so touched by Olds’ poetry: the emotion, the complexity. And perhaps I find this collection even more touching than what came before: so much poignancy in the many ballads singing of the dead, and building, building to the most poignant, the last poems for her partner Carl.