Speaking the unspeakable with Sharon Olds


Another of Mike Flemming’s beautiful photographs 2020



This  may appear paradoxical, considering the poet is necessarily ‘speaking’ [writing], however, even if the locus of the subject is ineffable, there remains space around it to speak towards the issue, even if this speech switches between negative and positive polarities. The compounding of the phrase ‘almost-no-longer’ illustrates how the poet is caught in an in-between state: neither truly married nor yet divorced, Olds is caught within a hyphenated world within which she still has desires, and yet is unable to act upon them. Furthermore, the use of this elongated phrase shows a reluctance to truncate their relationship into the simpler realm of ‘ex-‘: the phrase is not yoked to the noun ‘husband’, but stands distinct from it, demonstrating how the husband/wife roles are compromised.

However, despite the poem chronicling the loss of love, there is a profound tenderness in its images. Once again brought back to the experience of emotions in the moment, through the reference to ‘the alarm’(ll. 14) Olds writes that, ‘my hand feels like a singer | who sings along him’(ll. 15-16), bringing the attention to both the temporal and the physical. The verb ‘sing’ is articulated in three different conjugations across three lines, both as noun and verb. While it is her hand that is described as a ‘singer’, it is ‘his flesh that’s singing’, suggesting a transference of agency – she initiates the action, the noun is used to describe her body part: her identity is associated with singing, and yet it is his body that is ‘singing’. This association of female identity with the action of the male body gestures towards what might be at stake should ‘his flesh’ stop ‘singing’, and therefore leave the singer to sing alone. The extension of the metaphor into his spine – ‘tenor of the higher vertebrae, | baritone, bass, contrabass’(ll.18-19) – uses musical terminology to trace the path of her hand down his back, her hand going lower in accordance with the descending vocal ranges.

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