Sharon Olds’ Disgusting and Beautiful “Odes”: Cleavage, Menstrual Blood, Stretch Marks

Sharon Olds' Disgusting and Beautiful "Odes"
Sharon Oldsʼ 2016 book: “Odes”

I love to be a little
disgusting, to go as far as I can
into the thrilling unloveliness
of an elderwoman’s aging. (78)

To go as far as she can, and yes, to be a little disgusting too, is the project of Sharon Olds’ “Odes.” The poems dig deeply into the thrilling un-loveliness of aging, made lovely by her classic, single stanza poems. The classic form was introduced to many of us through Keats. What is considered ode-worthy—nature (“To Autumn,” “Ode to a Nightingale”), art (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”), and young love (“Ode to Fanny”)—has changed in contemporary poetry, but perhaps with this collection Olds has taken it furthest, with praises to the clitoris, penis, condom, tampon, withered cleavage, menstrual blood, balls, blow jobs, female reproductive system, douchebag, vulva, toxic shock, fat, stretch marks, merkin, vagina, glans, a composting toilet, dirt, multiple orgasms, and hymen (twice). Think of every word your mother ever shushed you after saying, and to each of these she has written a devotion.

Olds refusal to be subtle is a move of confidence, and one that’s her signature style. And in her 74th year, after a Pulitzer, 10 books, and a strong footing in the canon, she has more than earned this right. To the seasoned reader of Olds: this book dwells far less on the childhood trauma and the parents that caused it than did her works past. “Odes” instead depicts an Olds triumphant, the sins of her father never dictating her relationship to her body, sexuality, and worth.

What is most satisfying about this collection is its repeated refusal to allow the male gaze to dictate female beauty. It’s a celebration of the seams, the smells, the sacs, and the aches of the flesh. Wrinkles and spots and collections of fat and everything we’ve long been told to defend against, Olds makes worthy of art and praise. It’s not a new idea, but said again and again with humor and grace, Olds begins the work of reversing the years of societal messages that have suggested otherwise.

Perhaps “Ode to Stretch Marks” says it best and most plainly, and with commas that shorten our breath, and allow us to experience with her this “enduring”:

So the language of aging
the code of it, the etching, and the scribbling
and silvering, are signs, to me,
of getting to live out my full term,
enduring to become what I have loved.

This reflection on aging, the female body, and sex is a celebration of the body’s habitation of the present. It’s an affirmation of the long life Olds has lived, and the skin that wears the evidence.

This book review originally appeared in the Body issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Body issue here or read My Hairy Legs and Me: A Puberty Story.

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