"Terrible, Eyes Peeled Back": Translating Sharon Olds
How should one describe reading in Sharon Olds? Maybe, like this: the entrance to the poem is almost always an entrance into a tense, troubled, charged area, a field of intersecting magnetic currents in air growing thicker and thicker. Slowly, from one line to the next, a sheer silky tie seems to be wrapped around the neck, tightened up to tears. The poem proceeds toward its end; soon, the reader tells herself, suffocation will wane, heaviness will dissipate, relief will come. Still, almost always the ending catches her unprepared, conceals another surprising bend, the blow of the last lines, sometimes the very last words, just three or four of them—and leaves her breathless.
In 2017 I published a collection of ninety-three poems by Sharon Olds that I had translated into Hebrew (The Floor of Our Life [Tel Aviv: Afik and Helicon, 2017]). I have been translating her for years, from the moment I encountered her poem "Sex without Love," which amazed me and offered such a delightful challenge that I just had to go on. At first, I only did it in order to hear this poetry better, as if from within me, in my own language. I never felt the need to meet her in person, because the poems themselves evoke such a lively presence, so tangible, flesh and blood before my eyes. I let her carry me away in her flow, choke my throat, and stop my breath.
Olds burst out as a poet relatively late in her life. When her first collection was published, she was already thirty-eight years old, married to a psychiatrist and a mother of two, having studied at Stanford and Columbia Universities and having written a dissertation on the poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In one of her interviews she said: “I was a late bloomer. But anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky.” In interviews, she hardly speaks of her personal life, her family, or her childhood. Details can be drawn from the poems themselves, which invoke memories and experiences of a forlorn childhood in a puritan family. Olds was the daughter of a failing father, an alcoholic, himself the son of an alcoholic, and a moralistic mother. Her childhood and adolescence were full of disappointments, violent punishments, and erotic extortion, next to a sister and a brother who, unlike her, did not know how to save themselves from repeating a destructive fate. Moving to New York from California, in the 1960s, she experienced the wave of the “flower power” counterculture and took part in the protest against the war in Vietnam. Years later, in an interview, she told about a constitutive moment in her rising as a poet: it was a poetry reading against the war, with the poets Muriel Rukeyser, Adrian Rich, Robert Bly, and others.
Her first poetry collection, Satan Says (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980), won immediate recognition and praise and astonished readers with its uninhibited penetration deep into the repressions of the familial cell, with its open, occasionally scathing writing about sexuality, motherhood, desire, and violence, which was tough on readers' sensibilities, especially when coming from a woman's mouth (true then and maybe now as well). Afterward, Olds went on to publish poetry collections every few years, quite steadily, where she daringly and originally wrote about the most intimate aspects of her life. The praise she achieved, as well as the sometimes fierce criticism, mainly concerned the radical, graphic frankness of her poems and the sensations they instigate.
All her books also touch on current issues of social justice, political wrongs, and the violence of history. But in my view, her strength lies in portrayals of the couple or the familial nucleus as the most dramatic, intensive, and dangerous arena of an individual's life, a place where one is intensely molded by the deepest and most fundamental experiences: birth, sex, and death, loneliness and abandonment, love and hate, grief, rage, and pleasure. The astonishment her poems evoke is first and foremost due to the fearlessness of her writing. Olds is fearless but also merciless: she spares none of her subjects or addressees, direct or indirect ones, nor her anonymous readers, let alone herself.
Olds always talks to us, turns to us directly, naturally, neither embarrassed nor apologetic, as if she were talking to old friends. Her language is rooted in daily experiences, even when these are suddenly illumined, through her unique sensitivity, by an unexpected meaning, sometimes metaphysical even, almost prophetic. She writes about her relationships with the closest people—her mother and father, her sister and brother, her husband, her daughter and son—in a way that seeks to tear down all partitions between people but is yet full of respectful awe toward the contours of one's inevitable solitude. "I have always wanted to cross over / into the other person, draw the / other person over into me," she writes in the poem "West" (The Wellspring [New York: Knopf, 1996], 83), but she also writes of "the truth, which is the / single body alone in the universe" ("Sex without Love," in The Dead and the Living [New York: Knopf, 1984], 57), or "and like me you are alone / on earth, you're related to the grey eel / as I am" ("Then," in Blood, Tin, Straw [New York: Knopf, 1999], 100). The swelling emotion in the poems is never one-dimensional: the blinding rage already conceals the seeds of absolution; the paralyzing fear is inseparable from intense attraction, defeating all resistance. Hate or anger toward someone else already contains deep understanding of them. Even when it initially appears as if the poem is soaked in joy and tenderness, a second glance reveals the deeper streams that constantly violate the illusory peace. Moments of blissful pleasure spin on the verge of pain, and impressions of exciting love hold within them a sudden, violent force or dark despair.
Despite the confessional character of many of her poems, Olds’s work cannot be easily classified under the American school of "the confessional poets." Even among typical confessional poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, or Anne Sexton, her poems stand out as unusual, too free, too direct, too accessible, too narrative, too personal, too exposed, too open, too specific, lacking any commitment to formalities or cultural heritage of any kind. It seems that they go beyond the emotional confession and look for an even more internal truth, not only the truth of the body but perhaps also of physicality itself, the very rawness of matter. Indeed, it is no accident that Olds's poems act upon readers physically: the physicality of the reading experience is tightly connected to the intense physicality of the poems and the rich, tangible, material, and sexual sensuality of her voice.
This materiality in no way eliminates spirituality—quite the opposite. The merging of bodies as substances dissolve into each other is understood as a spiritual experience but one that cannot be separated from the corporeal. Making love will not be represented as an elevated feeling rising above the physical being but, on the contrary, as diving deep into the earth and emerging out of it: "we were flying head / first into the earth and out" ("A Time of Passion," in The Unswept Room [New York: Knopf, 2002], 109). Knowledge of the surrounding world arises mainly through the body, which moves and touches, experiences, bruises, recovers, remembers and learns, and not through abstract thought processes. In this respect, Olds suggests an anti-Cartesian outlook, where no division between body and spirit is entertained, a mode of existence in which the knowledge that “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” is not an intellectual matter but rather a reality embodied in physical matter.
Alongside strong visualization—usage of the full spectrum of color, different levels of light, and an acute sense of form—Olds highlights the other, less-remarked-upon senses: taste, smell, hearing. Her poems are rife with scents, sounds, and background voices, tastes that seem to assume a body of their own ("You are drinking gin, / night-blue juniper berry / dissolving in your body, I am drinking Fume, / chewing its fragrant dirt and smoke," she writes in "The Promise," in Blood, Tin, Straw, 3). Sometimes they all blend together in synesthesias that cancel any distinction. Above all, the tactile sense, the feeling of touch, is always present in the preciseness of textures, compressions, pressures, states, temperatures. The dense variation of senses turns the poems into bodies humming with motion, lively creatures in constant sway.
Throughout the poems, Olds sustains the tension between the unrestrained, energetic, almost colloquial flow of the text and braking for a concentrated, nearly meditative attention to enlarged elements. The monologue streams onward naturally, as it would with someone who tells her story, with line cuts that, as she said in one of her interviews, try "to imitate what it feels like to be alive,... not end stopped." And inside these lines, ever more delays and clinging to unexpected details, sometimes terribly specific—a skin fold, a Band-Aid on a cheek, the pattern of a print on cloth fabric, the temperature in the room, the murmur of a curtain, a thread unpicked from the cuff, the direction of hair growth, the label on a bottle of wine—it is almost a surrealistic dimension in her poetry, even when it seems mundane and realistic: details can sometimes grow disproportionally against the set or the scene in which they are located and attract a special telescopic attention, symbolic or symbolic-like, that extracts them from their usual function and imbues them with excessive significance.
Apparently nothing escapes this obsessive eye. "And I don't care that I'm not only / sweet," she writes in her poem "Then" (Blood, Tin, Straw, 100); "I always knew that I was / terrible, and I am terrible, / eyes peeled back." This all-seeing gaze, with its exaggerated resolution, to the degree that one nearly sees the pixels—a gaze focused even on what urges one to turn away one’s eyes—seeks to go all the way to the end of description and beyond it, to reveal everything, to know everything, to remove all veils from the eyes, and yet, miraculously, preserves an undeciphered mystery that is perhaps the most vital element for such a heart-wrenching poetry.
How was it, for me, to translate Sharon Olds? It was not only the rewarding and frustrating process of constantly colliding with the walls of language, with its resistance, its faults, and also with its unexpected gifts. Often I felt like I was riding her pulse, joining her heartbeats. Like a parasite, like a leech, I clung to her strong back to write my most inner voice, to write—in a way—my own secret poems.