Sharon Olds : Trauma and the Secreted Self

 

How can art made in the present re-engage with past experience? The question has a particular urgency for works responding to severe trauma – because their task is to bring into the reader’s domain material that may seem incomprehensible, and therefore alienating.

Sharon Olds signs up for this challenge in ‘How It Felt’ – published in the April issue of Poetry. [1] The poem’s business is the severe beatings experienced in the first twelve years of the speaker’s life, when “my breasts-to-be/ accordion-folded under the skin of my chest”.

In a similar way to how Fiona Benson’s translation of rape in ‘[Zeus] Anatomical Dolls’[2], conjures “details under their pants you wouldn’t believe” – Olds’ description confers a de-familiarising strangeness on the pre-pubescent body, and through this lays down a marker for the qualities of resistance and survival that ‘How it Felt’ explores.

Organised into four continuous free verse sentences – respectively 12, 5, 5, and 13 lines long – ‘How It Felt’ opens with gestures of folding and unfolding as the speaker states “Even if I still had the clothes I wore,/ the clothes would take off before my mother / climbed the stairs towards me: [….] I think I could not get back to how/ it felt.”

The clothes themselves form Proustian receptacles of memory – a marvellous “glassy / Orlon[3] sweater”, smocked, sashed dresses, and the “cotton / underwear like a secret friend.” Registering the innocence of the child who wore them, the clothes also bear out the resonance of even the smallest details in childhood, whether good, or bad.

‘How It Felt’s second sentence questions whether the difficulty of return hinges on the changes brought about by the gap of years between ‘then’ and ‘now’, or the alterations effected by each beating.

 

I study the stability
of the spirit – was it almost I who came back
out of each punishment,
back to a self which had been waiting, for me,
in the cooled-off pile of my clothes?

The fracturing recognised as inherent to trauma is here posited as a strategy of survival – as if the clothes themselves anchor their wearer to the upper world no matter where her naked body may have been taken by her mother.

Having gifted both reader, and speaker, the ‘safe place’ of the “cooled-off pile” from which to inhabit the action, the poem then drops down into its core, which is held within the third sentence.

As for the
condition of being beaten, what
was it like: going into a barn, the animals
not in stalls, but biting and shitting, and
parts of them on fire?

Where better to site the betrayal that is an assault by a parent on a child than in the farmyard – traditionally the source of life-giving nourishment? With a terrifying doubleness, which embodies a world where all safe boundaries have melted, the animals are both abuser and abused – beater and the beaten. Because we cannot determine whether the “biting” and the “shitting” figure the acts of desecration and violation of the beating, or the terrified attempts at self-defence of the child/animal/victim, meaning oscillates in a moment of continuous horror.

After making a form of expression for the experience of being severely beaten – by holding it within a sequence of imagery which bears witness and makes it accessible to a wider audience – the poem concludes by working towards a final thirteen line sequence of tentative redemption.

Having the speaker check herself “10 fingers, 10 toes”, and also “whatever I had where we were / supposed to have a soul”, the poem shows this act of self-cognisance, and bodily reclaiming, as the gateway to the child’s final, hesitating, speculation that “in some / tiny chamber my mother could not / enter – or did not enter – I had not been changed.”

Veteran excavator of personal history, Olds in this poem speaks beyond herself to the millions, past and present, attacked as defenceless children. She offers them a form of language which has the capacity to interrogate, and illuminate, the “ground” of their being – and still find a safe way home.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/146221/how-it-felt

[2] published in the Spring issue of Poetry Review

[3] a durable, synthetic fibre, introduced during the 1950s, capable of holding its shape, and taking richly coloured dyes.