The Matter of This World: New and Selected Poems (Slow Dancer, 1987)
I found The Matter of This World in a second hand bookshop next to Berwick-upon-Tweed station. I was there to meet a relation of my wife off the train from London. It was high summer, somewhere at the end of the Nineties. I had driven one-and-a-half hours to get there. Arriving early, the bookshop was something of a gift.
I had heard of, and read, some of Sharon Olds’s work, but nothing really prepared me for the shock of finding this book at this moment in my life. Just taking it down from the shelf reminds me of that very particular time, of looking after and administering to the needs of my two young children. Parallel to this era, but not separated from it, was another kind of enterprise altogether, that of reading and writing as much poetry as possible.
It was pretty much falling apart at the seams then, and has completely disintegrated now. I notice the inscription on the inside cover: £1.50. Only 500 copies were ever printed. It may be one of my favourite books of all time.
Since she won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2012 for Stag’s Leap, it is hard to imagine a time when Sharon Olds was not a poetry-household-name. But that is what it was like for me that afternoon in Berwick. She was just a name on a book, albeit an exciting one and one I wanted to know more of. It was the first British publication of poems by Sharon Olds, for which we should thank Slow Dancer’s editor, John Harvey. What amazing energy and vision!
I am not really sure if you can ever replicate the sheer hunger, obsession, desire and compulsion of your first serial encounters with poetry, at the point when you know you need it to breathe and make sense of who you are as much as you do food and a roof over your head. It wasn’t a question of deciding, shall-I, shan’t-I?, to buy the book. My wallet practically did the deal without me.
The poems which jumped out at me then, and still do now, though they are all famous, are ‘In the Hospital, Near the End’, ‘I Go Back to May 1937’ and ‘Looking at Them Asleep’. It was more of a case of the book reading me. For reasons which are explicitly linked to my own lack of sleep and exhaustion, I especially loved ‘Looking at Them Asleep’:
I look at him in his
quest, the thin muscles of his arms
passionate and tense, I look at her with her
face like the face of a snake who has swallowed a deer,
content, content – and I know if I wake her she’ll
smile and turn her face toward me though
half asleep and open her eyes and I
know if I wake him he’ll jerk and say Don’t and sit
up and stare about him in the blue
unrecognition, oh my Lord how I
know these two. When love comes to me and says
What do you know, I say, This girl, this boy.
This was the first time I encountered the recognition, naming and rejoicing in poetry of the desire, love, shame, passion, embarrassment and blind terror of parenthood. I had absolutely no doubt that Olds had experienced that animal, pre-verbal love, the one that consumes you in those first exhausted years. You tiptoe into their rooms at night, just to check that they are still breathing. Sometimes you wake them up, just in case. It is like tinkering with a poem, getting up early or staying up late to delete just one more adjective, or comma, in case you get hit by a bus on your way to work the following morning only for the world to laugh at your incomplete and amateur work.
That fierce, animal love for her offspring finds its exact replica in her harrowing-tender poems for her parents, especially those about and for her father, later gathered in The Father (Secker and Warburg, 1993). I recently heard Finuala Dowling say that while it is possible, and necessary, to say in a poem how much we adore our parents, we also need to be able to describe the harm that comes to them, sometimes to the point of wishing them harm. Olds does not do that here, but in her documenting of suffering she does risk a voyeuristic distancing which, while heart-breaking, remains uncomfortable. The strewn pages in front of me label this poem ‘In the Hospital, Near the End’, but you may know it as ‘The Lifting’:
if you had
told me I would see the dark
thick bud of his penis in all that
dark hair and just look at him as I
look at my children, in love and wonder,
I would not have believed you. But now I can still
see the tiny snowflakes, white and
night-blue, on the cotton of the gown as it
rises the way we were promised at death it would rise,
the veils would fall from our eyes, we would know everything.
It is not mere documentary, of course. Who else would notice those ‘tiny snowflakes’, and that they are ‘night-blue’? Who else would risk using the Kinnellian word ‘bud’ to describe a penis? In the final analysis, her project is about ‘love and wonder’, which both protects the material and makes it sacred. Nothing prepares you for it and nothing comes close to taking over your life in the same way again, not even illness or death. It is not a choice, finally, like falling in love. It is beyond that, existing somewhere in and outside of ourselves ‘deep in unconsciousness’ and ‘anxious and crystally in all this darkness’. I never want to stop being grateful for it.
This article appears in the current edition of The North