Odes by Sharon Olds review – in praise of tampons and other taboos

A new collection from the TS Eliot prizewinner finds beauty in the outrages visited on ageing bodies

Sharon Olds’s inspired new collection alerts us to taboos we barely think about ordinarily. The book is exposed – in more ways than one – and could only have been written by a woman: bold, no longer young and inextinguishably curious. In one poem she reports that her partner mocks her: “My partner says that what I write / about women is self-involved. You’re sixty / something years old,” he exclaims, “and still/writing about the first time you got laid!”

Actually, Olds is now 73. And here is a test: if, on reading her Ode of Withered Cleavage, you squirm, you will need to fortify yourself further before sampling the neighbouring poems: Ode to the Clitoris, Blow Job Ode and Douche Bag Ode. And now take a second look at the cleavage ode and reflect that it is Olds herself recoiling with reflex distaste at what age does to a woman’s body, made trickier because the woman in question is her mother.

And yet – eventually – it steadies itself and finally earns its keep as an ode. There is self-petitioning: she will unthink her thoughts, she will praise, accept and attempt to love. Not that any of this is comfortable. Imagining herself as “hardly human” is shocking. She writes about age’s alliance to death – just one of the taboos she breaks – with a driven perkiness.

Her last collection, Stag’s Leap, won the 2013 TS Eliot prize and was, you might think, an impossible act to follow. But the spirit and flow of this new book suggests that, on the contrary, her earlier triumph has been a spur. She never censors herself: her subjects are those poetry ignores. A tampon will never be in receipt of a more lyrical ode as she refuses to look the other way:

“Inside-out clothing;
queen’s robe;
white-jacketed worker who clears the table
prepared for the feast which goes uneaten;
hospital orderly, straitjacket/
which takes, into its folded wings,
the spirit of the uncapturable one;
soldier’s coat;
dry dock for the boat not taken;
seeker of the red light of stars
which have ceased to be before we see them;”

It is the unlikely romancing that takes one aback. And Hip Replacement Ode, the poem that follows, is another trio of words you never expected to meet. In the first of two Odes to the Hymen, she goes as far back as she humanly can to envisage her body inside her pregnant mother and, addressing her hymen, writes: “Thank you for your life and death, / thank you for your flower-girl walk / before me, throwing down your scarlet / petals.”

There is much comedy here too, a sparky affection for body parts – female and male. In Ode to the Penis, she writes airily: “… But you are /innocent, you are not your own man, / you are no more responsible for your actions / than the matter of the brain for its thoughts.” There is a poem about her irregular legs (right fat, left not) in Unmatching Legs Ode. There is a poem, Ode to My Fat, which ends in hyperbolic ecstasies: “fat of wonder, fat of bright /survival, O tapioca, O foam /of Aphrodite, O cellulite!”

Throughout, there is a bold sexiness that goes beyond sex, that borders on camp, fey or funny– and is risky too. There are also marvellous odes on more conventional subjects: her sister, the wind, harmony. In an interview, Sharon Olds once told me she wanted her poems to be “useful”. These odes, because they illuminate what it is to live inside a body and survive its outrages, are useful – and beautiful too.

Odes is published by Cape, £12. Click here to buy it for £9.84

Ode of Withered Cleavage

When I saw it for the first time,
I was baffled that anyone would walk out her door
showing that – the vines, the snakes,
the ripples, the nest of nestlings’ necks!
And to think that on an ancestor
of that – if withered cleavage is
a descendant of fresh, young breasts –
I had spent some early hours of my life,
learning to adore the curves of the creamy
moon. My mother’s desire to be touched,
late in her life, was so intense I could
almost hear it, like a keening from the hundred little
purselets of each nipple, each like a
rose-red eraser come alive and starvacious.
And now my own declivity is
arroyoing, and if I live long enough
my chest over my breastbone may look like
an internal organ, a heart trailing its
arteries and veins. I want to praise
what goes one way, what never recovers.
I want to live to an age when I look
hardly human, I want to love them
equally, birth and its daughter and
mother, death.


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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