Among the recent crop of good books is Sharon Olds's Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002. This poet's "genius for observation," in Louise Gluck's phrase, is abundantly displayed, along with Olds's special kind of observation -- the quality that has made her poems not only memorable, distinctive and admired but also decried and attacked.
In other words, Sharon Olds must be doing something right.
The great appeal of her work has to do with her capacity to recognize and report kinds of experience: bodily, domestic, profoundly psychological and also insistently ordinary. In "The Unswept" she deploys a word that helps define her characteristic territory. It is a word that nearly every reader will need to look up, as I did when I first read the poem. The poem seems to ask us to look it up, as a way of recognizing a vital overlap between our arcane labels and gritty realities:
Broken bay leaf. Olive pit.
Crab leg. Claw. Crayfish armor.
Whelk shell. Mussel shell. Dogwinkle. Snail.
Wishbone tossed unwished on. Test
of sea urchin. Chicken foot.
Wrasse skeleton. Hen head,
eye shut, beak open as if
singing in the dark. Laid down in tiny
tiles, by the rhyparographer,
each scrap has a shadow -- each shadow cast
by a different light. Permanently fresh
husks of the feast! When the guest has gone,
the morsels dropped on the floor are left
as food for the dead -- O my characters,
my imagined, here are some fancies of crumbs
from under love's table.
A "rhyparographer," says my Oxford English Dictionary, is "a painter of mean or sordid subjects." There's a defiant wisdom in the poet's use of this almost preposterously special term: The visual work of art described here has both a literal and a symbolic power. That is, the tiny rectangles, each depicting a scrap made "permanently fresh" by the painter, have evocative power. But figuratively, the phrases "each scrap has a shadow" and "each shadow cast by a different light" suggest a poetic as well as a moral paradigm: attending to the darkness cast by every least thing, and honoring the different lights in which each thing can be seen.
Olds's intellectual energy links that passage of darkness and light, shadow and attention, to the force of a superstition: The morsels that fall under a table are left "as food for the dead." The implication is that attention to what is "mean or sordid" may be a means of elegy: a way to honor the past. The fish bones and chicken heads are left over from the joy and sustenance of a meal, and they are emblems of death and how closely it relates to our joy and sustenance. In a similar way, the poem links the mean word "crumbs" to the evocative word "fancies" with its suggestion of different kinds of imagining and eating and writing and decorating.
Readers tend to recall Olds's poems about specific body parts: the pope's penis, her own rear. Sometimes, the approach seems formulaic. But "The Unswept" warns us not to dismiss those poems. And sometimes Olds reverses the process -- beginning with the terrifically large, and comprehending it by imagining the ordinary, as in "Bible Study: 71 B.C.E" with its seemingly innocent musings on the statement that Marcus Licinius Crassus crucified 6,000 men. The "sordid" mass torture and murder is realized in Olds's remarkable poem; she can imagine the unaware criminal Crassus in
his ecstasy of feeling
nothing while so much is being
felt, his hot lightness of spirit
in being free to walk around
while others are nailed above the earth.
She imagines Crassus comprehending the pain in a single victim, then dismisses the likelihood with a kind of superb, penetrating banality, a faux-naif wisecrack: "But then he would have had/ 5,999/ to go."
That daring, horrible and comic enumeration indicates the countless angles of every shadow cast by every graceless thing. By implication, it suggests ways that the rhyparographer's meticulous, unflinching art is a corrective to the worst in us. (Sharon Olds's poems "The Unswept" and "Bible Study: 71 B.C.E." are from her book "Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002." Knopf. Copyright © 2004 by Sharon Olds.)