BOOK REVIEW / A diary of the dying time

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IF THERE'S an image which typifies Sharon Olds's powerful sequence of poems about her dying father, it's the drinking-glass by his bed. The glass is grimly functional: as the cancer grows in his throat, so the glass fills with globules of his phlegm. But it's not without beauty: 'like a glass of beer foam', it sits there 'shiny and faintly golden'; he reaches for it 'like a god producing food from his own mouth'. To his daughter, staring at its transcendent ordinariness, it becomes

a model of the solar system

turning around the sun,

my father the old earth that used to

lie at the centre of the universe, now

turning with the rest of us

around his death, bright glass of

spit on the table, these last mouthfuls.

Drips, catheters, hospital beds, glassfuls of sputum: the art of this collection is the way that, without prettifying, Sharon Olds transforms such things into poetry. She does not spare us the details, because she knows the details are what will move us: 'we wipe the flow of / saliva like ivory clay from the side of his mouth.' She can make the anguish of a bedside vigil - the feeling of being 'held in a flower-press', or of being 'like someone in a rowboat / staying abreast of a Channel swimmer' - seem a lovely thing. Even the lumps on her father's neck prompt her to simile: 'he is like a stocking stuffed with things.'

What brings a lump to the reader's throat is that there isn't one in the author's. Death may be a proper subject for poetry, but to recount the physical details of dying requires impropriety - an icicle in the heart. For Sharon Olds, impropriety is perhaps a matter not of courage but of instinct. The poems which made her name in America - about her screwed-up childhood, her first love affairs, her miscarriages, her marriage, her children - were written with a directness that can make Sylvia Plath seem buttoned-up. Out it all came, breathless and unblushing, in a chant of monosyllables (fire and fruit and cock and come), and in a free verse whose art was to throw off (or to seem to throw off) the usual restraints.

The no less urgent candour of The Father is evident in the book's flurried enjambement, its rush from line to line. But whereas the Olds of earlier books could be brash and even triumphalist, now she is chastened, feeling guilty, for instance, that the cigars she used to give her father may have helped to kill him. Her naming of his parts - 'the folds of skin like something /

poured, a thick batter', the 'mild sluices of shining' in his eyes, the 'old soiled sweetness' of his breath - is a doomed attempt to hang on to him. She lacks the comforts of religion: his afterlife, she believes, will be blank and 'griefless', 'a trance of matter'. But there is another frantic sort of hope - that he will live on in her.

The book is about more than grief. The poet has to share the nursing and tending with her father's second wife, and slowly the book opens up his troubled, alcoholic past. Mourning becomes electric as the betrayed daughter - losing weight, losing purpose, wasting away as her father did - voices her contempt for his destructive bingeing ('a man who had removed his own / liver and brain and put them on the table') and admits the possibility that 'I wanted to watch my father die / Because I hated him'. It's only in the penultimate poem that she comes to terms with her smoking adolescent resentments. The last poem of all, spoken in her father's voice, reciprocates her almost sexual love for him, and sets her free.

Few poets have been as intimate with death as Sharon Olds is here. Few have evoked the strange amorality of the terminal ward - 'the world where sex lives, the world / of the nerves, the world without church' - with such accuracy. The poetry is not just in the pity; it's in the desire, anger, embarrassment and degradation, too.