In 1855, a new poet introduced himself to the world: "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos / Disorderly, fleshly, sensual…eating drinking and breeding." Experimental in its use of free verse; progressive in its treatment of race, gender, and sexuality; and above all democratic in its politics and its spirituality, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass stoked a vast fire that swept through world poetry, consuming and altering all the landscape before it.
One-hundred sixty years later, we have confirmation that Whitman’s poetic wildfire is finally under control. Sharon Olds’s new volume Odes is the firebreak we’ve been waiting for, the clearing across which we can safely watch Whitman’s flames dim to embers. Where Whitman burned in the open, writing about "The smoke of my own breath,/ Echoes, ripples, and buzzed whispers…loveroot, silkthread, crotch and vine, / my respiration and inspiration," Olds scribbles "the book of my flesh" in poems
whose shock value (evident in titles like "Ode to the Clitoris," "Ode to the Tampon," "Merkin Ode," "Celibate’s Ode to Balls," etc. ) is mitigated by their conventional mores, though they do feature some of the most un-unforgettable lines in recent poetry, like her admission that "Part of the beauty of male genitals, to me, / was that they were not anything like my mother’s."
The seven sections of Odes follow a loose arc from paeans to incipient sexuality to reflections on death and dying, reflecting constantly on female identity, sexual experiences, love, beauty, and aging (culminating in Olds’s fey-ghoulish expression of filial love in "Donner Party Mother Ode," when she imagines telling her mother "I / think I’d start with your earlobes.") Almost every poem features language at once medical (in "Ode to Stretch Marks," she asks "Do you gather, over nine months, in the / endometrium, the mucous / tunic of the uterus?"), portentous (she apostrophizes the hymen as "little night blood sister, / picnic basket of pain and free will"), and daintily goofy (the clitoris is a "weentsy Minerva who springs / full-armored, molten"). Almost every poem refers, at one point or another, to bodily processes, genitalia, or the reproductive system, most often Olds’s own, but sometimes those of her lovers and family. And almost every poem smacks of a naughty schoolgirl’s delight in the cloacal poetics of those nasty little boys: "I / want to bring poetry into the bathroom."
Perhaps somewhere in America there’s a reader who’ll be shocked to hear menstrual blood described as "hardy / elixir, transparent manna." Perhaps somewhere there’s a reader who blushes at Olds’s thoughts on old age and sex in "Ode to Wattles":
I love to be a little
disgusting, to go as far as I can
into the thrilling unloveliness
of an elderwoman’s aging. It is like daring
time, and the ancient laws of eros,
Perhaps. But in 2016, given the Internet, I seriously doubt it.
The problem with Odes is Olds herself, who has made a career of poems that strive for shock in their treatment of subjects like her religiously conservative and often abusive upbringing in San Francisco; her experience of her own body and its processes, as well as her fascination with the bodies of others; and her view of history as a text written on the body of the conquered. Much of Odes is derivative of this work and shows Olds’s worst qualities as a poet: a weak sense of the free verse line, with haphazard line breaks suggestive of Bukowski at last call; a tendency to treat every experience, no matter the significance, in thirty to forty lines; and a tiresome, unexamined use of music as a trope for transcendence. Certainly there are moments of playfulness and insight in Odes, especially about the costs of old age, as in "Legs Ode," where Olds, recovering from hip surgery and ordered not to cross her legs, remarks:
I had not know how vain I was
of my gams, until I had to still them—no
semaphoric waving, no
Olds shows off a jazzy linguistic play at times, especially in the poems where she explores etymology (she rhapsodizes about the vulva, "you’re on the page with vulgar, and Vulgate / Latin. But there is vowel as well, and / vugg, Cornish for a hollow in a lode"), but these are offset by moments of deadly earnestness ("Rape is rape / which alters where it alteration finds") and by genuine lapses in poetic speech, as in this clunky evocation of her own conception in "Victuals Dream Ode" (which itself rips off her celebrated poem "I Go Back to May 1937"): "(T)hen his matter bumped / her matter and they creatored my spirit."
Olds herself senses her derivativeness in " Wild Ode," where, having first meditated upon the subject of female flatulence, she compares herself to a barn spider weaving a web and asks, "Have I gone as far as I can / go, on these lines I pull out of my ass?" It was my favorite moment in the book, the "lines" suggesting both silk and verse, and the whole image alluding to Whitman’s "A Noiseless Patient Spider," where Whitman depicts the soul as a spider that "launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself." In the spinnerets of a wittier poet, one more in love with her weaving than with the flies she hoped to catch, the image might have shone from all points, like a star. But having seized the reader’s attention, Olds resorts to her old shock peddling: "Women smoked cigarettes / with the delicate circular lip of their sex." This is trivial stuff.
The truly democratic poet must contain all things; that is the source of his power. Whitman can both offend and exalt because he can say, "Do I contradict myself? / Very well, I contradict myself, / (I am vast, I contain multitudes)." Olds seeks to offend and exalt in Odes, but struggles to do so, because her "I" never ceases insisting that we revere it as a singular self, as the special one who will "bring poetry into the bathroom." Ultimately, her poems are but modest receptacles, striving but failing to contain the multiplicity of our finite, bodily experience.