French 1 In this paper I will discuss two poems by Sharon Olds. They are both taken from her collection "The Dead and the Living" and are entitled "The Eye" and "Poem to My Husband from my Fathers Daughter." Olds is a contemporary writer who expertly maneuvers her work through modern life. In this particular collection, written in 1983, she takes us on an explorative journey through both the past and present of family life. I will explore the role of the family in both these poems and how, through the collection, a realization and acceptance is reached. I felt it fitting to choose these two poems, as the first one is taken from "Poems for the living" and the second from "Poems for the dead." This collection of poems explores the role of family within society, how through its dysfunction we can learn to exist as a person despite the odds. The collection helps Olds' explore the truth about family and how we learn to eventually accept them, one way or another.
The poems, according to Contemporary literary Criticism move from "The public to the private as the collection turns from the dead towards the living." (Gaffrey 121) What struck me about these two poems in particular is the universal truths they reveal, firstly in "The Eye," how one learns to hate, and then resent and in "A Poem to my Husband from My Father's Daughter," how a woman come to terms with her father's legacy. The first poem I will discuss is from the first portion of the book and as I analyze the piece, it is easy to see the distinction between the tone of the two poems. "The Eye" begins by saying: "Bad Grandfather wouldn't feed us. He turned the lights out when we tried to read" (19).
This line is a stark image that draws a clear picture of the pain this child associated with this man. As the poem continues, we are invited to see more "Snapshots of the darker side of family life" (Gaffrey 22). According to Brian Dillon in his essay the poems speaker is responding both as a child and an adult (Dillon 109). This becomes more evident to me as the poem continues, "He sat alone in the invisible room, in front of the hearth and drank." (19) As the poem gathers momentum, we are invited to join Olds' in her trip down memory lane "today I thought about that glass eye... ." (19) The tone lightens as we learn of her Grandfathers death and it become clear that this is a memory for the speaker that is being retold as an adult, "He died when I was seven... ." (19).
This is obviously still a vivid memory that disturbs the speaker to this day. This one Stanza poem allows the poem to be fast pace and unhindered with long drawn out accounts of abuse. The poem is not any less shocking however, to the contrary. The pace of this poem is fast and builds momentum as the words tumble out. The speaker recalls the terror of a child and the eventual hate and resentment of an adult ."..
how I am one fourth him, a brutal man with a hole for an eye and one fourth her, a woman who protected no one" (19) Here it becomes evident that the reader feels bitterness to the Grandmother also. It is not merely a hatred for men that we see but resentment towards a woman too, "and Grandma had never once taken anyone's side against him" (19). According to Gaffery, this is a feeling that is harbored deep with Olds work (120). Through Olds imagery, one can imagine being with that child, still bitter about her cruel grandfather and unsympathetic Grandmother. As the poem continues, the images of this man grow stronger "The firelight on his cold harsh face reflecting extra on his glass eye" (19). The poem goes on to discuss his glass eye father, calling it a "limp hole" (19) giving the distinct impression of lifelessness.
It also struck me as an allusion towards the torment of the madman in Poe's famous poem "The telltale Heart." The way the child was haunted by the Grandfather's eye makes it obvious the terror this man brought to those near him and reminded me of the lasting impression it had left on Poe's speaker. The eye within this poem acts to emphasis the cruel and heartless nature of this man. It symbolizes the way the man's impact has scared this person. The poem then turns from anger towards resentment, bitter by the association these Grandparents legacy has left, "I am their sex, too there son, their bed... ." (19) The title alone suggests the all-seeing nature of someone or something. As the poem expands on the story, it can be seen to be a reference to the grandfather's glass eye or in fact, that of the child who did not miss any of the unkindness showered on the child.
With all the above in mind is this poem just the revelation of an abusive family life? I do not believe so. We are left with hope and escape in the form of the apple cellar that is "the path down to a creek, gleaming in the dark, a way out of there" (19). According to Gaffery in her review of this poem in Contemporary literary Criticism, this poem isn't another bleak look into an abusive family. "The Eye" is instead designed as a "journey of self discovery (Gaffery 122) The journey that life takes us on isn't always light and airy as Olds so clearly points out. Yet, it does not mean that all hope is lost as everyone has the chance to find his or her way down to the "gleaming creek" (19). It is with this in mind that it is believed by Dillon and Hudzick to be a story of hurt and anger that is in turn blessed by escape and realization.
"The Eye" can be explored in many ways but one can't help but realize the journey the speaker has traveled through in this poem The second poem I wish to discuss is "Poem to my Husband From my Father's Daughter" (56). The poem is again one stanza long but does not seem to reach the fever pitch of "The Eye" when the poem is read. Instead this poem creeps slowly to a realization and acceptance of family life. The poem appears in the second part of this collection, entitled "Poems for the living." As the title of this section indicates, the poetry has begun a further journey into the metaphorical living. In the case of this poem that living is the notion of liberation and acceptance. The speaker realizes she cannot escape the legacy of her father seeing him in herself, "I am my father as a woman" (56).
Yet not stepping away, the speaker embraces her husband for his strength to love her knowing that she is her father's daughter. She praises her husband's ability to "bravely embrace him in me, putting your life in his hands as in mine" (56). Despite of her own fears the speaker manages to acknowledge the fact that she has her father's hair and his eyes, .".. Springing from my head like oil from the ground, you can see his eyes, reddish as liquor left in a shot glass" (56). According to Brian Dillon in his review of Sharon Olds, "Poems of a Father Daughter Relationship" this acceptance allows the speaker to "reclaim the past and serve as a therapeutic function" (111) the fact that the speaker can express the resemblance, physical or otherwise is a step towards recovery. The next step according to Dillon is that, even though the father's image is so pathetic, the speaker's strength lies in the ability to "turn into art the pain and weirdness" (111) she feels toward her father.
The speaker in this poem does just that as the poem continues a feeling of liberation and pride towards her husband can be felt in her defiant tone, "You are fearless, you enter him as a woman, my sex like a wound in his body, you flood your seed in his life as me" (56) Olds's speaker comes to realize that her father is within her and there is not anything she can do about it. Even so, she finds the experience of exposing him within herself exalirating and appears to find comfort in the knowledge that she can please her husband despite her past, "as you enter ecstasy, the hairs lifting all over your body, I have never seen a happier man" (56). To end with this line appears to indicate the speaker has reached a resolve that, even though she is still her "Father's Daughter" she is her own woman, in her own right and she can make others happy. To conclude these two poems are distinctly different in the message they relay.
"The Eye" reveals the raw emotion of a child when faced with cruelty within the family unit. Olds has a unique ability to reveal these emotions with the sense to keep the descriptions brief and stark for the greatest impact. Then comes the realization for escape as an adult through the trap door under the bed. "The Poem to My Husband from My Father's Daughter" (56) gives the reader another strong and concise poem to explore.
Again Olds doesn't mince words, preferring to relay the message of acceptance through short sentences and a short poem. The pain and suffering are evident within these poems, however in agreement with Gaffery in Contemporary Literary Criticism I believe these poems to be designed as family album of snapshots, however horrible they might be they result "in a kind of recognition of family life." (123) With this in mind I would agree with Dillon and Hudziks notion that Olds' poems do not come across as a soul in torment, more of a journey to liberate herself. These poems take us on a journey of self-discovery that is evident very evident in these two poems.