[(essay date 1995) Ostriker is an American poet, critic, editor, and educator. In the following excerpt from a comparative essay on Olds, Elizabeth Bishop, and Wallace Stevens, she examines Olds's treatment of the theme of Eros, or erotic love. Ostriker concludes that although there are similarities between Bishop's and Olds's concepts of Eros, Bishop successfully addresses this theme and Olds does not.]
I would like to talk about erotic discourse in poetry in its widest and most archaic sense, beginning with the proposal that what Adrienne Rich today calls "The drive / to connect[,] The dream of a common language" ("Origins and History of Consciousness") has for millennia been understood and experienced as the body and soul's desire, as simultaneously natural and divine, and as source of intense pleasure, intense pain. As in the Song of Songs: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for thy love is better than wine. . . . Let my beloved come into his garden and taste his pleasant fruits" (1:2; 4:16). Or Sappho: "Mother, I can't finish my weaving. You may blame Aphrodite, soft as she is, she has almost killed me with love for that boy" (frag. 135). Or Catullus, inventing introspection and passionate ambivalence in the same moment: "I hate and love. I don't know how, but I feel it, and it is excruciating" (no. 85; my translation). Or Andrew Marvell, at the close of "To His Coy Mistress": "Let us roll all our strength, and all / Our sweetness up into one ball, / And tear our pleasures with rough strife / Thorough the iron gates of life. / Thus, though we cannot make our sun / Stand still, yet we will make him run." In and from the poetry of the ages, I would stress the idea of connection, the impulse to connect, to perceive unities across the conventional boundaries of separation, as always implicitly erotic, always a form of making love.
Making love. Poetry. An odd combination, some will think. For in postmodern, media-drenched America, eros equals pornography, both for its advocates and its attackers. Pornography, or perhaps possession, a consumer product. Many poets, and almost all critics, avoid it (except in the special category of AIDS writing, where eros equals mortality). What most contemporary critics seem to want is less body and less feeling in poetry. Less sensuousness. Less desire--these topics are so sticky, so embarrassing, so impolite, so troublesome--can't we, please, have a poetry that's clean, with the messy and horrifying fluids and passions scrubbed off it?
Not that academic disapproval of eros is new. It is as old as the discontents of civilization and the need to subdue desire in the name of an efficient state. Freud properly observed that libido is precisely what socialization represses. Yeats rhymes entertainingly on the scandalousness of poets to pedantss: "Lord, what would they say / Did their Catullus walk that way?" ("The Scholars"). . . . Modernist poetics, insofar as it pursues the ideal impersonality recommended by T. S. Eliot or bows to Pound's distaste for "emotional slither," constitutes perhaps an apex of anerotic sublimation--however undermined by the practice of poets such as Frost and Williams. It is surely not coincidental that of the major women modernists, the only one to be respectfully canonized was the sexually respectable Marianne Moore, while the deviantly sexual H. D., Loy, and Stein--not to mention conventionally amorous lyricists like Millay--remain outside that particular pale. His impassioned and explicit exploration of the erotic is probably one of the many causes that keep Robinson Jeffers in critical limbo, a potential embarrassment. In our own time, as women poets occupy the terrain of eros in massive numbers, uttering both heterosexual and lesbian desire and drawing radical connections between love of bodies and love as a potential principle for the body politic, it is not surprising to find a backlash of critical opinion emphatically preferring the abstract to the sensuous, the cerebral to the emotional. In part for this reason, the austere poetry of Elizabeth Bishop is universally praised, and the physically and sexually charged poetry of Sharon Olds commonly attacked. At the same time, while critical discussion of Wallace Stevens has until very recently avoided or evaded the issue of the erotic in his poetry, it is interesting to note that several recent volumes of Stevens criticism address precisely--or almost precisely--this issue.
In the following triangulated discussion of Bishop, Olds, and Stevens, I will cite at some length the critic Vernon Shetley, who concludes his chapter on Elizabeth Bishop in After the Death of Poetry by describing Sharon Olds as a representative mainstream poet who fails to live up to the Bishop tradition. I will argue first that Shetley's view of Bishop is skewed toward the erasure of eros in her poetry; next that his dismissal of Olds derives from a horror of eros in hers; and third, I will suggest that notwithstanding apparently polar differences between Bishop and Olds, including where they locate themselves on a continuum of erotic desire and dread, the two poets share an understanding of what eros is. Finally, I will propose a tentative view of erotic discourse in Stevens that would locate him elsewhere. . . .
Nobody would say Sharon Olds disguises the erotic in her poems. The erotic in her work is ubiquitous, joining bodies of flesh, generations, natural cycles of procreation and decay, human to animal, animal to vegetable, male to female, profane to sacred, life to art, sex to food to writing. The title poem of Olds's first book, Satan Says, announces the program of her art. Trapped inside an ornamental box she is trying to "write [her] way out of"--her childhood, her body, a sentimentalized tradition ornamented by tacky shepherds--she is tempted by Satan to escape by saying things like "fuck," "shit," and cursing her parents; she obeys, but as the lid of the box opens and she is about to exit into Satan's mouth, she remembers, "I loved / them, too," and the lid closes. The poet will remain locked in the box that is now her coffin, but she hardly cares, as freedom to articulate rebellious hate precipitates "the suddenly discovered knowledge of love." Olds chooses to be a poet ambivalently but firmly attached to parents. Several other poems about writing in this first volume announce corollary facets of her agenda. In "Nurse Whitman," Whitman's and Olds's love of men is at once compassionate and sexual, embodied and imagined, while a fusion of present and past joins a fusion of genders in an act of writing that is also an act of conception and birthing:
In "The Language of the Brag," a poem that follows several poems describing the intensely absorbed animal life of "Young Mothers," Olds asserts the act of childbirth as a "heroism" equivalent to phallic power ("I have wanted excellence in the knife-throw . . . the haft slowly and heavily vibrating like the cock") and to the creation of poems. Having lain down and passed blood, feces, water, and a new person covered with "language of blood like praise all over the body" into the world,
That the poems are intended to be both transgressive and sacred is made clear. "Station" describes the poet's husband, left to mind the children while she writes, gazing at her with "the poems / heavy as poached game hanging from my hands." "Prayer," the final poem in Satan Says, defines "the central meanings" through linked images of copulation and childbirth, closing with a Whitmanlike vow: "let me not forget: / each action, each word / taking its beginning from these."
Where Bishop writes as a voice of loneliness, fearing and desiring connection, the self in Olds is never represented in isolation but always in relation, penetrated and penetrating, glued by memory and gaze to others. She scandalously eroticizes the bodies of children and parents, genitals and all, describes the sex act with explicit attention to a variety of orifices, is obsessed with the foodlike and procreative possibilities of human bodies, loves images of animals, soil, blood and eggs, represents her sexually greedy body as a tiger's, an anteater's, that which "takes him in as anyone in summer will / open their throat to the hose held up / hot on the edge of the sandlot," and insists "I am this, this" (The Gold Cell). Cross-gendered imagery recurs through her work, as she invokes "My Father's Breasts" (The Dead and the Living) or speculates that her mother made her deliberately in the image of the powerful father: "I feel her looking down into me the way the / maker of a sword gazes at his face in the / steel of the blade" (The Gold Cell). Sperm is recurrently described as milk, sexual gratification as eating and drinking, sex as power: "The center of your body / will tear open, as a woman will rip the / seam of her skirt so she can run," she tells her daughter (The Dead and the Living). Olds's sacralizing of the sexual and procreative body is sometimes explicit, sometimes textually hinted, as when the daughter's maturing body is described as rising bread in a way that half represents the girl as Christ ("Bread," The Dead and the Living).
Olds's critics complain at times that she sensationalizes the dysfunction of her natal family--cold, alcoholic grandfather and father, searingly clinging anorexic mother--overlooking the complication of the daughter's insistently expressed desire for, worship of, and identification with the father's body, which persists throughout her recent volume about his dying and death. The sensuous profusion in Olds stands in stark contrast to the austerity of a writer such as Bishop. Some readers conclude that such rich surfaces cannot possibly coexist with depth. Yet there may be important unsaid, unsayable, matter in Olds just as there is in Bishop. Consider "Sex Without Love," the single Olds poem Shetley discusses, which he claims uses metaphor merely ornamentally
The poem's opening "How do they do it?" may be construed as wondering either about technique or about morality. The question lets us know that the speaker doesn't do it, but not whether she envies or deplores. The following swift succession of similes implies a slippage from admiration--what we might feel if our ideas of sex without love came from watching, say, James Bond movies--to something closer to horror or pain. Sex without love is attractive in the style of art or sport, athletically and socially attractive, then it is a bit like the hanging carcasses in a Francis Bacon painting, then it parallels food, then for a brief instant it shockingly resembles the most shameful abandonment of the helpless. Significantly, Olds does not dwell on this instant, although in another poem ("The Abandoned Newborn,") her topic is the condition of an infant left wrapped in plastic in a dumpster. The simile nonetheless jars and reverberates, for the mother-infant image simultaneously connotes and negates the vulnerable and utterly satisfied infantile eroticism that we strive to retrieve in adult sexuality (several other Olds poems also make this connection). The line-break reinforces the poignance of expectation dashed, the full stop signals a dead end along one line of thinking. At the edge of the image, or our consciousness of it, especially if we happen to be mothers ourselves, might be the fact that all mothers (including the mother of Jesus, who was Love) give their babies away, if not sooner then later. The pain of this abandonment is not accidentally but systematically a corollary of a culture in which sexual pleasure is divided from procreation, and motherhood is sentimentally honored but institutionally disempowered and without status. It is, in other words, a real effect of "sex without love." Shetley's comment on this simile calls it "entirely gratuitous; since babies whose mothers are going to give them away are exactly as wet, no more and no less, as babies whose mothers are going to keep them, this elaboration serves no purpose but to remind us that sex without love may lead to unwanted pregnancy, a message better suited to public service announcements than poetry." Both tone and content of a sentence like this suggest to me a reader deeply out of touch with his topic.
Shetley fails to comment on lines 8-13, in which the speaker cannot quite articulate what sex with love is. But this is the core of the poem. "Come to the come to the God" works doubly. It stumbles over the inexpressible and exclaims over its own inarticulateness, much as Bishop stumbles and exclaims in "One Art." It also half implies that what love "comes" to is, precisely, God. "Still waters" reinforces and deepens this implication while echoing and redeeming the wetness of sexuality and of the newborn. Each a pool from which the other drinks, we taste a shared water of life. Sex, the speaker suggests, brings us to the pastoral oasis of the Twenty-third Psalm, our animal innocence, our divine protection. It restores our souls. Loving whoever comes to such a space with us would itself be natural. Sex, birth, nature, innocence, God, and a revisionary re-reading of scripture are all involved here. The image of light rising like steam from the lovers' "joined skin" imaginatively turns the fact of perspiration into a signal of the holy. The experience lies, however, outside the poem's discourse: the poem offers a silence that the reader must fill in.
The remainder of the poem appears to repudiate or transcend the oasis experience. Loveless lovers know better, we are told: they don't make the mistake of substituting the priest (the sexual partner) for the god (the pleasure). The true religion of eros is strenuously self-absorbed; the extended final metaphor of sex as running against one's own best time (one's own best orgasm) insists on our absolute isolation.
Shetley's comment on Olds's "Sex Without Love" calls its metaphors "descriptive rather than cognitive." Clearly they have not made him think; the assumption that women who write about sex must be brainless is a very old one, which I have documented elsewhere. His commentary concludes as follows:
But ultimately, the poem's challenge to conventional values, both sexual and poetic, is recontained through the distance and isolation in which the poem envelops these in some sense unimaginable persons. The poet professes to admire these exemplars of lucidity. . . . But ultimately, [she] consigns them to their aloneness, professing her incomprehension; she . . . prefers to remain within the emotive comfort of false beliefs. By the poem's end, its initial challenge to conventional values of emotional warmth and mutuality has been entirely defused.
This reading seems willfully incorrect in several respects as well as tautological. Olds's "in some sense unimaginable persons" certainly exist, and sometimes might be any of us; the poet initially professes incomprehension but in the end undertakes to explain them rather convincingly. More interesting is that the sharp, best-case understanding of the loveless lovers whom she continues to call "they" means the speaker simultaneously is and is not like them. It might seem that her empathy overrides and invades their loneliness, in order to understand their experience from within. Or is it rather that their perfect and superior loneliness rebukes and explodes her empathy? Two kinds of lovers, two concepts of God, two ontologies of self, constructed as "undecidable alternatives" not unlike those we admire in Bishop, govern this poem. And although it is an atypical poem for Olds because it does not use the first-person singular, it is typical in its capacity to represent sexuality as both desirable and frightening.
In the final portion of this essay I wish to ask two questions. What sort of erotic discourse do Bishop and Olds share? And can Wallace Stevens be seen as belonging to the same general discourse, or must he be otherwise located? The first question can be answered briefly on the basis of my readings. Bishop mostly evades, Olds mostly asserts erotic connection--but for both, the erotic is a power preceding and defining the self; for both, it exists at the liminal border between language and the unsayable; for both, it abuts on a realm we may call spiritual. Technically, the metaphors of both poets enact the erotic. Olds's do so, as I hope I have shown, first of all by their excess, which is mimetic of the procreativity Olds identifies with eroticism; second by requiring us constantly to register interplays of likeness and difference across categories, and in particular by repeatedly collapsing the categories of the human, the natural, the divine, and the artistic while reminding us of their conventional separation. To say "I am this," and mean the body, is in Olds to claim complete connection with the world. Bishop's metaphoric technique works differently and so subtly that one of her most characteristic and unique strategies has scarcely been noticed. From the beginning to the end of her work, Bishop has a habit of letting metaphor attribute life and motivation to the inorganic, humanity to the inhuman.