The American Sharon Olds goes where many poets would fear to tread and others not dream of treading. Like a curious child, she wanders past No Entry signs on to private land. Or, at home, she alights on subjects not expecting attention.
In Go, she writes about finding an ex-lover’s hair on top of a hard-boiled egg in her fridge. Ridiculous, you might say – but she makes a super-charged poem of it. She is flirtatious, outlandish, deeply serious.
In Odes (2016), she wrote about parts of the body not usually dignified by poetry (risking ridicule, avoiding it). In this new collection, her 13th in four decades, her range is wider – from bedroom and kitchen to the cosmos. Arias is a phenomenal achievement, the most moving collection of her career, the most open of books.
Olds writes to find out what she thinks. She is ingenuous and wise and there is no way of knowing where she is going before she gets there. In separate poems, she wonders what becomes of sex, ash, breath. She wonders about the world:
When I understand
that the world will end, that we will have made it
unlivable for ourselves, the birds
look so smooth, the sloped shoulders of the
woodpecker motionless on the mound of suet
who sleeps, like a baby on the breast – head
up, eyes shut, she sleeps,
at peace, near the end of the world.
The new context for peace is agonising, but Olds has never been sentimental (see the determination to avoid glib conclusions in What Thou Lovest Well).
At 77, she looks back as well as forward, focusing several poems on her mother, trying to make sense of the repeated beatings she received as a child. Humour fortifies: “My mother beat me to the meter of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’.” But writing cannot right ancient wrongs.
This is not poetry as revenge – Olds’s compassion, evident in so much of what she writes, wins the day. In the beautiful, fluent Hospice-Bed Song, she is at her mother’s deathbed and braids her words with Yeats’s The Lake Isle of Innisfree as a terminal lullaby: “Her face became smoother and smoother, for /peace comes dropping slow…” (Yeats’s version of peace more comforting than her own).
Her arias are arranged in alphabetical order. She brings form to free verse, but this is not a book about order: these are poems of conscience – public and private – in all its unruliness. Her themes are strangeness and intimacy: what it is to feel close to – or humanly responsible for – someone we do not know; how it is to feel estranged from people we love.
The opening poem, For You, is a moving, eccentrically contrived dedication to the murdered black teenager Trayvon Martin. Meeting a Stranger describes being waited on by an African American woman and feeling the burden of history like a discomfiting intimacy. In After Divorce she hugs her ex-husband – like “a child embracing a tree” – the sexless neediness of the image perfect for describing an embrace with a familiar stranger.
There is a wonderful poem about not wearing makeup. Her poems – naked and true – do not wear makeup either. Yet in spite of her disregard for convention, Olds has the keenest poetic boundaries. In the collection’s most arresting poem, Looking South at Lower Manhattan, Where the Towers Had Been, she asks that someone “step between me and language” to honour the unspeakable:
I am singing, I am singing against myself, as if rushing toward someone my song might be approaching to shield them from it.
• Arias by Sharon Olds is published by Jonathan Cape (£12). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15
I Cannot Say I Did Not
I cannot say I did not ask
to be born. I asked with my mother’s beauty,
and her money. I asked with my father’s desire
for his orgasms and for my mother’s money.
I asked with the cradle my sister had grown out of.
I asked with my mother’s longing for a son,
I asked with patriarchy. I asked
with the milk which would well in her breasts, needing to be
drained by a little, living pump.
I asked with my sister’s hand-me-downs, lying
folded. I asked with geometry, with
origami, with swimming, with sewing, with
what my mind would thirst to learn.
Before I existed, I asked, with the love of my
children, to exist, and with the love of their children.
Did I ask with my tiny flat lungs
for a long portion of breaths? Did I ask
with the space in the ground, like a portion of breath,
where my body will rest, when it is motionless,
when its elements move back into the earth?
I asked, with everything I did not
have, to be born. And nowhere in any
of it was there meaning, there was only the asking
for being, and then the being, the turn
taken. I want to say that love
is the meaning, but I think that love may be
the means, what we ask with.