The Sunday poem: No 14 Sharon Olds

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Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work. No 14 Sharon Olds

An American poet whose second British collection, The Father, was about her father's death and abuse of her as a child. The confessional voice looks deceptively easy; her risky line-breaks (who else would end a line on "the, its, as if to"?) break all British rules. But she gets away with everything by her perfect control of tone, her trademark mix of total frankness, moral strength, delight in sensual vividness, and utterly balanced emotional structuring.

This seems a classic parents' poem like Larkin's "They fuck you up, your mum and dad". It gets extra, terrible weight if you know her later book The Father, but doesn't need it: by the end you are convinced that whatever went on was pretty bad. Yet the poet accepts complicity in her parents' crimes. In Larkin's poem the forgiveness comes instantly. ("They may not mean to, but they do"). Here it comes in the way she presents her parents' "dumb" youthful innocence. ("They are kids... all they know is ..."). But the poem moves from pity to ferocity; the poet takes the horror on herself.

She wouldn't stop them if she could ("I don't do it"). She accepts the "bad things" that will come to her ("I want to live"). The violence of that decision comes over in the image of banging together. At first the two figures are "paper dolls"; when banged together they turn into "chips of flint".

You start with the mute still, two kids in early summer, the "May" of the world and of their lives. The bright colours incarnate a menace of which they are completely unaware. There they are, classic male and female pose: the boy moving, "strolling" under a wedding-like arch, the girl static by "tiny bricks". (If this were a wedding photo, "tiny" would be for stitches on her dress.) But "behind" each is violence. For him, "glinting" blood. For her, "wrought-iron" with "sword-tips black in the May air". Heartbreakingly, that gate is "still open": she could still escape.

These first 12 lines are all innocence. The chime words which hold them loosely together resonate with the rites of American youth: "gates /plates /gate/graduate, colleges / head / married / kids". But the run of "hip/ bricks / sword-tips" is not the ideal omen for an engagement, and "hips" will come violently back at the flinty, fiery end.

In the second 12 lines, there are a few vowel harmonies ("wrong / things / imagine / children") but the main poetic tool here is rhythmic vigour. Action breaks in on innocent stillness ("I want to go up to them and say Stop"). The broken rhythm, the new personal perspective, the urgent talk after description ("don't do it - she's the wrong woman") lead in to something else new: those incantatory lists. Four lines (beginning "you are") list what they will do, four lines (beginning "her," "her," "his," "his") list their untouchedness then. She repeats "turning to me" as if the whole thing - whether they become monsters through tragic unsuitability or not - is up to her.

In the last six lines, she decides "I want to live." The "I" at the end rhymes with the culmination of those warnings: "You are going to want to die." We are talking live or not-live here: their death (or moral death), her life. People are selfish. They choose life, whatever the cost. She assents to the "bad", "takes up" the whole burden - living, her parents, Adam and Eve, "male and female", the Fall, sin, sexuality, knowledge of evil. As she decides, the language gets lippy and sparky. "Hips", "chips", "flinty" in one line, then the Ks of "strike" and "sparks" before that famous, momentous last line.

You thought it was a flood of artless feeling? It is immensely structured. Two groups of 12 lines, then a six-liner: moral decision takes half the space of cinematic description or pitying warnings. The movement is orchestrated emotionally as well as musically.

It starts with formal awe at the parents' former selves ("formal gates" in the first line open on "colleges", that clean American beginning of the adult learning curve). It ends with "taking" active responsibility for what her parents did. The victim takes control, saying: This in where poetry comes in. It cannot cancel pain, guilt, wickedness. It accepts them all, takes over, and "will tell about it".

c Ruth Padel

`I Go Back to May 1937' appears in The Sign of Saturn (Secker)

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