Mar 27, 2012

The Father and The Wellspring by Sharon Olds

The Father by Sharon Olds

Today is the last Tuesday of the month, which means it’s time for Lu and Kelly’s monthly Read More/Blog More Poetry event. This month I decided to revisit one of my all-time favourite poetry collections, Sharon Olds’ The Father, and to accompany it with a new-to-me collection by the same author, The Wellspring. This turned out to be an excellent idea – the two collections complement each other so well they’re almost like two sides of the same coin.

The Father is a collection of poems about the speaker’s experience of watching her father die of cancer. As I said when I blogged about it briefly two years ago, it’s a harrowing book, but it’s also a beautiful one. Olds turns her attention to the physicality of dying, and uses raw and direct language to express her sense of connection to a body that is weakening day by day.

The Father reads like a diary of grief, and that alone is painful enough; but the book’s emotional landscape is further complicated by the speaker’s relationship with her father, which is far from straightforward. Poems like the amazing “Beyond Harm” (which still never fails to make me cry”, “I Wanted to be There When My Father Died” [.doc link] or “Last Words” capture all these conflicted feelings flawlessly.

I really appreciate the fact that Olds documents a kind of emotional experience that falls outside the fictional but nevertheless socially powerful and constrictive script of illness, death, grief, and mourning. We all have set expectations about how this sort of process is supposed to go, both for ourselves and for others, and this book bulldozers them all. Books like The Father expand the sort of narratives we tend to guide ourselves with: by voicing a very complicated emotional experience, they make it seem less lonely and more permissible, and that alone is a very valuable thing. The only two things I can think to compare this book to are a) the Mountain Goats album “The Sunset Tree”, which covers analogous emotional terrain and b) A Monster Calls, which also illuminates some of the complications of grief (though complications of a different sort).

Here’s a poem I particularly liked, “Death and Mortality”:
My father’s dying is not evil.
It is not good and it is not evil,
it is out of the moral world altogether.
When the nurses empty his catheter bag,
pouring the pale, amber fluid
into the hospital measuring cup, it is
neither good nor bad, it is only
the body. Even his pain, when his face
contracts, and his mouth makes a sucking snap
when his jaws draw back
is not wicked, no one is doing it to him,
there is no guilt, and no shame,
there is only pleasure and pain. This
is the world where sex lives, the world
of the nerves, the world without church,
we kiss him in it, we stroke back his gunned
hair, his wife and I, one
on either side, we wipe the flow of
saliva like ivory clay from the side of his mouth.
His body feels us attending him
Outside the world of the moral, as if
We are making love to him in the woods
And we hear, far away, in a field,
The distant hymns of a tent-meeting,
Smaller than the smallest drops of green-black
Woods dew on his body as we dip to touch him.
The Wellspring by Sharon OldsIn the more recent collection The Wellspring, Sharon Olds turns her attention to life. When I say this collection complements The Father perfectly, I’m not saying it because I don’t want allow a book room to be unrelentingly sad; but rather because it was interesting to me to see the same poet turn her attention to other types of emotional experience. In The Wellspring, Olds focuses on the same kind of physical details as in The Father, but this time in relation to puberty, to sexuality, to motherhood, to a child’s illness. The unapologetic physicality of her poetry is one of the things I appreciate about it the most. Let me use an excerpt from “Her First Week” to show you what I mean:
It was in
my care, the creature of her spine, like the first
chordate, as if the history
of the vertebrate had been placed in my hands.
Every time I checked, she was still
with us – someday, there would be a human
race. I could not see it in her eyes,
but when I fed her, gathered her
like a loose bouquet to my side and offered
the breast, greyish-white, and struck with
miniscule scars like creeks in sunlight, I
felt she was serious, I believed she was willing to stay.
Or another one, from “Bathing the New Born”:
I love that time
when you croon and croon to them, you can see
the calm slowly entering them, you can
sense it in your clasping hand,
the little spine relaxing against
the muscle of your forearm, you feel the fear
leaving their bodies, he lay in the blue
oval plastic baby tub and
looked at me in wonder and began to
move his silky limbs at will in the water.
I’m not a mother and am not personally interested in becoming one, so a lot of what The Wellspring covers falls outside of my experience. But reading is about far more than merely finding echoes of yourself, after all: I loved this collection exactly because Olds focuses on female experiences that have been historically marginalised, and because she does such a wonderful job of conjuring them in vivid sensorial detail. You can find another one of my favourite poems, “High School Senior”, online here.

Many thanks to Lu and Kelly for encouraging me to make time for poetry again. It’s been a wonderful experience so far, and I can’t wait to see what I’ll revisit or discover next month.

Read More Blog More poetry button

(Have you posted about any of these books too? Let me know and I’ll be glad to link to you.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. Ana, these are indeed such beautiful poems, and seem to capture the essence of loss and death in such vivid and striking ways. The other book that deals with the lives of her children is also very emotionally complex and resonant to me. This post has inspired me to get a little more serious about checking out some poetry. It's always something that I say I am going to do, and then I utterly fail at doing it!

  2. I haven't read any poetry this year! I really should. Maybe I'll visit old favorites Plath and Sappho, that's what I usually do when I start feeling I would like to read some poetry. :)
    Olds' poems sound really interesting. I will check if my library has anything by her.

  3. Those sound like they're a bit like ying and yang. I'm really impressed you put yourself through this reading experience, especially regarding "The Father". It sounds so deeply sad.

  4. I am always looking for new poets I think this is definitely a poet I should make a note of. The Father sounds pretty harrowing and maybe not the one I'd start with but I feel really drawn towards The Wellspring. Thank you for sharing Ana. I'm currently working my way through Shakespeare's Sonnets and enjoying it, but would like to read a mix of old and newer poetry this year.

  5. Zibilee: I tend to do the exact same. Which is why I'm so grateful for this blogging event - so far it's been giving me that extra motivation that I needed!

    Tiina: I definitely need to get around to reading Sappho, especially the Anne Carson translations everyone says wonders about. As for Olds, I hope your library has something!

    Bettina: It's a sad book, but it's not completely hopeless or bleak. I was able to cope with it okay, though I know different readers have different limits.

    Jessica: I enjoyed your post on Sonnet 18 the other day (I've been horrible at commenting lately, but I'm still here reading). I look forward to hearing more about your poetry reading!

  6. Thank you for these. Taken together, they speak of the experience with caring for my son at home in his last days.

    I have yet to write about it and now I understand why. I don't mean to bring anyone down; this is a positive thing.

    I don't have the words to share it with - both an ending and a beginning. Sorry.

  7. Snowball, please don't apologise! Absolutely no reason to. I am so glad to have introduced you to a piece of writing that helped you articulate something you hadn't been able to before. I won't pretend to understand such painful experiences, but I do know the feeling of reading something that really helps you by coming along at the right moment.

  8. I don't think I'm ready to read The Father, but I think I'll look for The Wellspring. I've loved Sharon Olds since she came to University of Maryland, College Park in the 80s and shocked everyone by reading, among other things, her poem "The Pope's Penis"

  9. Some beautiful poetry that serve as bookends for either end of our existence, thanks.
    another writer that writes on a similar subject matter is Nuala Ní Chonchúir, this is from her latest collection The Juno Charm

    Die Schwangere
    ~ pregnant in Karlsruhe ~

    The other poets drink damson schnapps
    from thistle-head glasses,

    My baby flicker-kicks
    with all five ounces of her weight,
    with all four inches of her length.

    I dream her hand
    pipping from the egg of my belly
    like a wing through shell,
    I hold her embryonic fingers,
    thrilling at her light touch.

    Delighting in my blooming belly,
    I feel my nestled passenger,
    she flicks and settles, settles and kicks;
    her cells gather, graceful as an origami swan
    in perfect folds and re-folds.

    In perfect folds and re-folds
    her cells gather, graceful as an origami swan
    she flicks and settles, settles and kicks;
    I feel my nestled passenger
    delighting in my blooming belly.

    Thrilling at her light touch
    I hold her embryonic fingers,
    like a wing through shell,
    pipping from the egg of my belly,
    I dream her hand.

    With all four inches of her length,
    with all five ounces of her weight,
    my baby flicker-kicks.

    From thistle-head glasses
    the other poets drink damson schnapps.

  10. I've never read Sharon Olds before today, but it was like meeting a friend I've always been meant to have, but we just haven't found each other yet. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I love these poems. I love the focus on the physical. So beautiful, so heartbreaking. Just perfect. Thank you for participating.


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