Friday, February 11, 2011

Dead on the Page

I used to dash off fast poems from an Underwood 5 manual typewriter and then quickly show them or read them indulgent friends who were kind enough to put with my assumptions about how flawless my  writing talent was. The response wasn't always pleasant;  one friend told me that the quick verse I had him read made him think that I spent no more than ten minutes writing it. 
 "Slow down" he said, and handed me back the sheet of paper .
Pain I Did Not by Sharon Olds has that ten minute feeling to it, something produced in a hurry, not an inspired hurry.
I've read this a few times and sought out some of the subtler virtues, but nothing I could come up with got beyond the gut feeling that this is an awful poem. It is awkward in the first sentence, yes, but it is awkward through out the paragraph--I can't bring myself to dignify this piece as anything other than a botched diary entry. It has the dull , familiar echo of a traumatic experience one has pondered and talked about for an inordinate amount of time that has lost its resonance ; rather than helping to recognize the variables involved in a recent history of erring assumptions , disappointment and bad guesses, the grim sequence of words and deeds said and done as people grow apart, and then move forward with the next chapter of one's life, it instead becomes standard operating procedure.

When my husband left, there was pain I did not
feel, which those who lose the one
who loves them feel. I was not driven
against the grate of a mortal life, but
just the slowly shut gate
of preference.

Olds perhaps wants to suggest  the stammer of someone reaching within themselves to find phrase formations to give voice to things she’d rather not talk about, a sidelong approach to the sensitive  parts of the living memory,  but there is a stumble here;  she gives us  fog when a clear situation should be visible. The summation comes first of all instead of developing organically from a sequencing of  events and words—the concrete is subjugated to a murky tone that is announced instead of presented. Olds evinces a conceit that  mental construct precedes materiality; there are no things  but in ideas.

And so he went
into another world—this
world, where I do not see or hear him—
and my job is to eat the whole car
of my anger...

There is the attempt to add a mystifying layer over banal detail , the effort just goes slack. It is the same as the mumbling teenager who can’t explain why he or she lied to their parents ; the poem , like the teen,cannot look straight in the eye.  There is a sense that this abstruse memory of dissolution has something to do with a car that was a potent sticking point between her and her ex husband, and that the car here should operate as a metaphor for the narrator having to accept what has happened, to stuff her resentment, to  regret the emotional qualities she invested in this thing that’s come to symbolize their life together. Bad writing wins out, though, as the phrase “ eat the whole car of my anger” is comically overwrought  and resolutely imbalanced; it is not a phrase that comes off the tongue without the reader sounding as if they’re prone to emotional bombast. It also provides misdirection that undermines any potential effect—one can’t help but make light of  phrase that invites snickering  remarks auto-eroticism or, more cleverly, whether the poet’s imagined meal  was an Oldsmobile. The last item, to be sure, suggest  a self-consuming obsession with what went wrong, but that suggestion lacks power due, sadly, to  ill-fated wording. What you end up discussing here is what Sharon Olds meant to say . This is poem requires not an interpretation, but an autopsy.

The poem hasn't a clear insight or a perspective altering metaphor or image in it; the inclination here is not clarity but rather obfuscation. The rationale,perhaps, may have been to give this wedge of irritating syntax an air of abstraction, the hope being that the unmoored and imprecise metaphors might add mystery to this misery and hint at larger traumas within the family, the neighborhood, the culture at large.
 Credible abstraction,though, evokes at things larger than the concrete particulars on the page; Olds simply had nothing to say and appears guilty of padding this poem with the extraneous , the gratuitously odd. It is pretentious and dishonest , from the readings. Something leaner, starker, more skeletal would have suited the topic; a marginal wave of regret , post-marriage, needn't be propped up with a writing style that only buries whatever idea might have been worth a poem of its own.

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