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Review: ‘Arias’ by Sharon Olds

Arias is a collection that sings both because of death and in spite of it. In this song of herself, Sharon Olds locates the pain that gives rise to song, offering readers the depth of perspective and celebration of life that the end of life can bring.

The paperback version of Arias has a satisfying heft for a single volume of poetry (there are two-hundred and eight pages) giving this collection the overall look and feel of a hymnal. And as one would expect of a publication that feels like a book of psalms, many of the poems have exultant or musical elements — the apostrophe ‘O’, elongated syllables or consonants, inclusion of American patriotic songs, nursery rhymes and ordinary sounds depicted as music.

The dictionary defines an aria as ‘an elaborate melody sung solo with accompaniment, as in an opera or oratorio’ and Olds makes use of this definition on a variety of levels. For example, the buzz of bees is reimagined as melodic, and it isn’t too much of a mental leap to make. A soft buzzing noise could sound like humming. Another example of unexpected music comes from the poem ‘Boyfriend Blues at 55’:

So I’d lie pretty still, and attend

the concert of his snoring, as if I were hearing

the edges of the solid world

torn by the liquid.

Amongst the seemingly unpleasant sounds reconfigured as music are the childhood beatings that Olds received from her mother which are thought to have had a 4/4 time signature. Olds credits these beatings for her love of scansion and asserts that the beat of a poem is indicative of its passion. In Arias, almost anything can be interpreted as music, which offers the reader an experience reminiscent of a phenomenon that Rumi described in his poem ‘Where Everything is Music’:

Don’t worry about saving these songs!

And if one of our instruments breaks,

it doesn’t matter.

We have fallen into the place

where everything is music.

Although Olds claims not to know what the term ‘sacred’ means, due to its overuse in her childhood household, she’s adept at creating her own version of it. Like the place of wonderment that Rumi describes, Olds also uses language to direct the reader’s attention towards enchantment. But unlike Rumi whom implores his readers not to save these songs, Olds composes her poems in order to preserve not only the music but its themes:

I never understood that at the

end of the world, the songs would die

too, all the poems will die,

all the art. The maker of

the ashen pyriform of paper

dangles, still, this morning, early

proof of death without birth.

(‘Seas to Rise Forty Feet’)

The ‘ashen pyriform’ to which Olds refers is a paper wasp that died in a spider’s web. The event is offered as forewarning of the end to all life. This poem also contains the main themes in this collection: death, birth, sex, protest. Earlier in ‘Seas to Rise Forty Feet’, Olds mentions the paper wasp’s golden arm raised in protest and the speaker proclaims ‘But death gave us/ sex! and birth!’

Disseminated throughout this collection are the gifts that death brings: sex and birth. Whether Olds is implying the ‘little death’ of the orgasm or Aristotle’s understanding that to have sex lessens the life force, sex, death and birth encircle each other and exist in close proximity in Arias. The mention of eggs, representing new life or its potential, appear in some of the most unexpected places, such as when the speaker is forced to drink buttermilk, of which she writes ‘I had to swallow all the little embryos’. Olds refuses to mention a death or abusive incident without bearing witness to the life ensnared by it. Often in surprising ways, death and life intertwine.

Through the magic of song, Arias aims to break generational cycles of abuse and taboos. In the poem ‘My Father Happened on a Poem of Mine in a Magazine’, the tampon brand ‘Kotex’ is used as a euphemism for sex by Olds’ father in order to reprimand her for writing about sex. Olds fuses the euphemism with its proper term and splits it into syllables, thereby breaking the spell of the word and turning it into a blessing:

father’s schoolboy printing! The X

of respects, and the boxing ring’s KO,

and the menstrual text — my father said,

in Kotex code, I break the hex, I

brek-a-kex-kex, I bless your art,

I bless your sex.

Elsewhere the word ‘hexagon’ when describing honey or bees is re-named ‘sexagon’ as if to remove any latent hexes that could be lurking in language, an act of reclamation and blessing.

In addition to containing Olds characteristic excavation of familial life and her uncompromising look at subject matter, this collection claims the responsibility to bear witness to invisible or underrepresented subject matter in Western culture. In ‘Silver Spoon Aria’, the speaker asks ‘And who would I be to ask forgiveness? I would be a white girl.’ With honesty, skilfulness and humour, Olds brings added visibility to the taboo subject of discussing one’s own whiteness and privilege. In ‘Looking South at Lower Manhattan, Where the Towers Had Been’ she includes a disclaimer:

if you see me starting to talk about

something I know nothing about,

like the death of someone who’s a stranger to me,

step between me and language. This morning

I am seeing it more clearly, that song

can be harmful, in its ignorance

which does not know itself as ignorance.


I am singing, I am singing against myself, as if

rushing toward someone my song might be approaching,

to shield them from it.

This poem follows after one in which Trayvon Martin is mentioned; Martin’s murder was a catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement. Here Olds acknowledges that there are limitations to her ability to discuss another’s experience and asks the reader to hold her accountable, i.e. to step between her and language when she gets it wrong. Critiquing whiteness and privilege from her position of whiteness and privilege is one of the most important acts of protest in the collection — a rare occurrence in poetry.

Olds gives the impression that song can unmake and remake the individual, the soul, the culture and society at large, as well as provide a renewed reason for living. She shows us the pain of music, the danger of it, its ability to rise up out of any good or unfavourable thing.

Find out more about Arias by Sharon Olds.

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