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Jennifer Alessi on the author she turned to during difficult times.
I first discovered Sharon Olds at Golden Donuts in Anchorage. It was January, 1995. A graduate student, I’d sit in a red vinyl booth, a white cup of coffee before me, transfixed by her clear, bold lines. On a boxy wall TV, the OJ Simpson trial aired endlessly. Like most Americans, I was gripped. But page after page, Satan Says pulled me back in.
In the titular poem, the speaker, a young daughter, is trapped inside a coffin. To escape she must besmirch her parents. Satan goads her to the impudent and profane. She doesn’t want to wound, but only to say “what happened…in the lost past.” She mouths the words, then writhes under a crushing parallel of love.
I was twenty-five. Reading Olds, I felt my own shame crack from a stone beneath my breastbone and wriggle out. Like her, I faced a mirror where “self-loathing gazed at sorrow.” My parents’ faults were a husk I couldn’t wiggle out of or separate from my own skin. Unlike Simpson’s, hers was a trial of introspection and anguish, whatever the penance.
Now I am fifty. In the Los Angeles lockdown, when my husband’s work booted me from my office, I brought Olds to the kitchen table with me. Those first few weeks, news was a constant, distracting me from whatever world my young daughter was building on the carpet. I’d track the mounting death tolls, stark white on red graphics, with the same scourge of emotions I felt when hearing the Simpson verdict: disbelief and horror; outrage and impotence.
This condo has become my daughter’s box. Her words have become “the germ” and “Purell.” Her mother is reading a poem, while pink and purple butterfly clips and a line of dolls wait in an imagined salon. So for now I close Olds, kneel down beside her, and play.
Jennifer Alessi’s essays have appeared in Hippocampus, Mothers Always Write, Passages North, River Teeth, and elsewhere.
Sharon Olds (1942-) is a contemporary American poet. Her work has earned a Pulitzer Prize and National Books Critics Circle Award. Her work is known for its free verse style.