Sharon Olds,
The Gold Cell
(Knopf, 1987)

The rites of passage, the cycle of life are treated with startling candor and beauty in the poetry of Sharon Olds. Her third book, published in 1987, is titled The Gold Cell.

Confessional in nature, her poetry is masterfully crafted. Her talents have won her much praise.

Her poems reflect a strong sense of family. Relationships between parents and children figure prominently in her books. Embracing life, her poems trace its course, from childhood to first love to sex to miscarriage to birth to injury and, finally, death. Death and life are forever intertwined in her work.

In her poems she honors the dead, public victims of crucifixion, suicide, torture, execution and abandonment. She also remembers the quiet, private deaths of relatives, friends and lovers. Olds is a poet for whom nothing is sacred ... or perhaps, for whom all is sacred.

She treats her subjects with such honesty and power, that what might have seemed vulgar or cruel, becomes breathtakingly beautiful. A photograph of a starving girl, approaching puberty, moves her as does the moment of her own first menstruation. A scene in an office of sex-change operations exhibits loss as does the funeral ceremony of her children's gerbils. Child abuse evokes an intensity of hatred that is also found in chronicling political crimes.

She writes of life in its entirety; the good with the bad. She feels free to discuss anything.

Fascinated with the past, she shows how history repeats itself, how evil perpetuates evil. She shows that it is possible to forgive. She shows how to live through the pain and survive. "Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it," she writes.

Beauty is the redeeming force in her poetry. Olds notices the little things in the world, how maple syrup crystallizes when its left out, how delicate skin is when peeled back from a sunburn, how an elegant twist of twine holds shut a body bag. She celebrates the body of a woman, its ability to give life. She celebrates the bodies of children, the beauty and strength in each sex as they grow and mature. She celebrates the body of a lover, the sheer physicality of it. She touches on what is real and true in each of us.

The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, her poems have appeared in many magazines including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Nation, Poetry and Atlantic Monthly. Her first book of poems, Satan Says (1980), received the inaugural San Francisco Poetry Center Award. Her second, The Dead and the Living, (1984) was both the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1983 and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

[ by Daina Savage ]

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