I read Sharon Olds’ lauded Stag’s Leap last Summer and though I loved the idea and the poetry of her verse exploration of a divorce, I found the emotional crux a little too difficult for me to find. I think, I thought at the time, that this was an “age” thing. I’ve never been through a serious break-up, the ending of a long co-mingled existence, and though I adored her honesty and the calibre of her poetry, I just couldn’t… connect. And that may, in hindsight, be my own fault. Also, it was one of the first books of poetry I read when consciously trying to expand my knowledge of the form, so my reading eye may have still been, at that stage, a little off. I will read it again, tomorrow, because The Father I read (twice) today, and absolutely loved it.
The Father is Sharon Olds’ reflection on the death (by cancer) of her father. It is personal and moving and bodily and beautiful and visceral and serious. It is funny in places, touching in others. Subtle poetic metaphors follow detailed anatomical descriptions of her father’s cancer-ridden body. A focus on the physical side of death is what really resonates here.
The reader briefly sees his decline, his last words to her, her return to him (days, weeks, it’s unclear but irrelevant, later) at his deathbed, her vigil waiting for his last breath, the funeral, burial, a little bit more – seeing a man who looks like him on a plane, for example.
She evokes serious and moving moments of life and death in a mood of not reverence, but seriousness. She isn’t sombre, it’s a moving rather than a sad collection. The classic contrast between sex and death is evoked a few times, particularly strikingly in her description of the moment Olds and her father last make eye contact.
The book made me cry several times*, made me laugh, smile wryly and think on important and serious issues. Olds holds together a consistently strong collection here (there was one I didn’t like about watching a rat from a subway station, but other than that I enjoyed every piece) with a solid and universal topic. It is death, and it is family and it is movement of place and people and the importance of different things at different points in life.
It is focused, it is concise, and it is excellently executed. A great book of poetry. Gripping, which I don’t think I’ve said about a collection of poetry before. I didn’t want to stop reading.
* And for far better and less depressing reasons than the Malcolm Lowry biography I read over the week prior to this made me cry…