Saturday, October 08, 2005

A Poet Dissents: Waging Peace with Words

The poet Sharon Olds was in the news recently. On the basis of her opposition to the war in Iraq, Olds declined an invitation by First Lady Laura Bush to participate in the fifth National Book Festival scheduled in late September on the National Mall. In a letter to Mrs. Bush, Olds writes: "...I could not face the idea of breaking bread with you . . . .I knew that if I sat down to eat with you, it would feel to me as if I were condoning what I see to be the wild, highhanded actions of the Bush administration. ... So many Americans who had felt pride in our country now feel anguish and shame, for the current regime of blood, wounds and fire. I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it."

Neither her pointed remarks, nor Olds's act of protest surprised me. She has strong convictions, which often find expression in her poems. Hers is a raw and direct style. Her subject matter often addresses difficulties of relationships, shifts in self-perception resulting from any number of upsets in life—divorce, miscarriage, death. Her poems also celebrate love—the initiation of youth to romantic love and the comfortable pleasures shared between old lovers.

I first learned about her work in the late 1980s when Bill Moyers hosted a program on PBS called The Power of the Word. In it he spoke with a number of contemporary poets, including Galway Kinnell, William Stafford, Mary Oliver, as well as Sharon Olds, in a variety of settings—the poet's office in academia, his or her home library or garden, and, in the case of Olds, a writer's workshop. Each poet discussed his or her own work, important sources for inspiration, and the creative process. They also spoke about the resonance, and relevance, of poetry as a form of self-expression.

In the program Sharon Olds read a poem about her father. A work in progress, it was searing and frightening in its immediacy. I cannot forget the tenderness with which she read words that punished her father's emotional misdeeds. Her love for him—tested and battered—was, nevertheless, undiminished.

A year or so later, I drove with a friend to hear her read at Laguna Beach. At the time, I was living in Oceanside, California. I see from looking at her inscription in my copy of The Dead and The Living that it was 1990. I remembered her apologies to the audience for her difficulty reading. She was, she told us, suffering from bronchitis. I too wasn't well, recovering from a winter cold. I'd almost skipped the reading. It was the first of many spectacular literary events I attended in southern California.

Among the shelves of books in the Laguna Beach public library, Olds read a poem that I have revisited often ever since. It reveals something about her parents and hints at the difficult road of their marriage and its destructive forces. In the poem, she promises to be their memory, to be the recorder of their lives.

I Go Back To May 1937

I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the
wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips black in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don't do it--she's the wrong woman,
he's the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don't do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips like chips of flint as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

Sharon Olds photographed in 1980 by Victor Thomas