Book review: Sharon Olds’s Odes

OdesOdes by Sharon Olds
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel some surprise to think how long I’ve been reading the poetry of Sharon Olds, perhaps to find myself so old! From her first books I read, I was shocked by her confessionals of her difficult family relationships and her exaltations of her body and sex. I loved her long lines and the way she jammed together images and metaphors and wordplay in ways that seemed to build power and never become tangled.

Seeing the title of her latest collection, I had a moment of doubt. Could she have enough variation of theme to keep my interest, if keeping only to one mode, the mode of odes?

I had to say I loved them. Take ‘My Mother’s Flashlight Ode’ where in her typical fashion, she’ll focus on a quotidian object, in this case a flashlight, and suddenly render it fantastical, in this case the batteries inside of it turned to ‘winged monkey bombs’. Two peak emotional experiences are described – trying to get to her mother before she died, and trying to guide a confused and ill mother back to bed –and suddenly the flashlight has become her mother flashing her, the ‘pink-white meteor of her unclothed body’, and finally the mother becomes Olds’s light, her lantern.

Other reviewers have commented that they’re not shocked by the poet’s love of being somewhat shocking, in writing about what others aren’t writing about, and also a lack of playfulness, but I was delighted to read about hip replacement, wattles, cellulite, a douche bag, and Olds’s unmatching legs, along with more serious odes to friends or relatives passed. There may be a few poems like ‘Sick Couch Ode’ that are more rambling and a bit lazy. But there are so many startling and energised phrases and images in these poems as a whole.

I also seem to recall previous books having sections very, very tightly focused on one relationship, or on one emotional theme. In Odes, I liked the contrasts and variations, a lightness of voice in describing the body’s decay and faults, yet still a strong emotional core, questions and references to how we are made, how we become who we are.

I wrote most of his review after having finished six of the seven sections, but wanted to get some thoughts down early. I couldn’t resist reading some of the other reviews on Goodreads and in other publications of Odes that show readers really engaging with the book, whether they like it or not; the negative reviews still show close reading and knowledge of Olds’s body of work. I think it makes good conversation for what we ask of our poets and writers, how we expect them to change or stay the same, whether a flaw is loveable, or not quite.

I’m not sure how much I was affected by the reviews then, that did point out a few flaws: for example, drawing attention a few times too many the way she is writing about things others may not, or when the poem’s revelatory moment spins from the mundane to a cosmic image, or to one of music – I think this trick was repeated too often.

So it was strange to find reading the last section that I moved from excitement and praise to thinking that the themes were repeating too many times. I don’t mind a poems about vaginas but I do want them to tell me different things, rather than stay in similar descriptions. The odes to dirt and then a compost toilet really did seem to start getting mundane. So, perhaps not a perfect collection… but all in all, still pretty amazing.

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