Secrets of the Flesh
Tender, Unsparing Poems On the Art of Forgiving
One Secret Thing
By Sharon Olds
112 pages; Knopf
Sharon Olds has a remarkable feel for just how it is to be a body. In her new collection of poems, One Secret Thing (Knopf), no part of physical experience seems to escape her attention, whether she remembers childhood summers when
I would dive into the lakeor describes the painfully funny adult experience of seeing one's own none-too-solid flesh reflected in an unforgiving hotel mirror:
—immediate, its cobalt reach and
I believe what I am seeing, a 54-year-old
rear end, once a tight end,
high and mighty...
Maybe it's because these poems are so attentive to the body that they seem so rife with emotional life, shifting beautifully from laughter to longing, rage to sorrow. Trying on a first bra, salving an elderly parent's lips with Vaseline, the poet brings to unlikely moments a terrific tenderness. Love, in fact, is this book's central subject. Olds' struggle is to seek what can be loved and honored in even the darker parts of a life, the difficult memories that refuse to go away. The violence of the past leaves a painful legacy, but our parents, she writes, start to look different as we ourselves age:
Now my mother sounds like me,
the way I sound to myself—one
who doesn't know, who falls and hopes.
One Secret Thing brilliantly examines what it is to love an aging, difficult parent, and to undertake the tough, grown-up work of forgiveness. "I had thought I would falter," she writes, "if I forgave my mother, / as if, then, I would lose her." Olds' chronicle of that struggle illuminates these hard-won, moving poems. What on earth in our experience teaches us how to forgive? The title poem—one of many "secrets" the poet illuminates in this brave and forthright book—remembers an unforgettable moment of exchange between the speaker and her dying mother, a moment of exchange between the speaker and her dying mother, a moment of startling, almost unbearable intimacy. How to love the fallible, errant body, how to find the strength both to grieve and to laugh: These are Sharon Olds' gifts to her readers.