Sharon Olds and the Human Stain

by Elie, Managing Editor

4/2 - Richard Siken Tells Me We'll Never Get Used To It, by Po, EIC
4/3 - William Carlos Williams: This Is Just To Say, by Layah, CD
4/4 - We Are All Writers On the Same Dreadful Typewriter 
as Allen Ginsberg, by Jenny, EE
4/5 - Pablo Neruda and the Quest for Surrender, by Elie, ME
4/6 - Let's Shake the Dust, Anis Mojgani, by Layah, CD
4/11 - Terrence Hayes, Kanye West, and How to Get Through Winter, 
by Elie, ME
4/12 - Sylvia Plath Died Before I Had Time, by Po, EIC 
4/16 - Billy Corgan Blinks With Fists, by Jenny, EE 
4/17 - Andrea Gibson Just Takes Me, by Po, EIC 
4/18 - Famous Like Naomi Shihab Nye, by Po, EIC
4/19 - Tell Me What Is, Tadeusz Rozewicz, by Layah, CD
4/23 - Crossing the Bridge with Yehuda Amichai, by Elie, ME
4/24 - The Whole World Rhymes With Shel Silverstein, by Layah, CD
4/25 - E.E. Cummings Twists On His Way To Nowhere, by Po, EIC
4/27 - Sharon Olds and the Human Stain, by Elie, ME

Human beings are filthy creatures. We’re petty, we steal, we lie. We’re boxed in, often tempted by unrelenting desires we cannot act upon and flooded with longing for things we cannot have, and yet we find ourselves contributing to a culture that encourages and distributes such currents. Beneath the surface of the clean façade we project lies raw, stinging flesh that wants nothing else other than to sting, wound, fuck, and kill. We need to hide it away, this filth.

And yet sometimes we can’t. Sharon Olds knows and embraces this. Her poetry is of the ugliness of human life. She celebrates human depravity, filth, and squalor.

With the second drink, at the restaurant,
holding hands on the bare table,
we are at it again, renewing our promise
to kill each other. You are drinking gin,
night-blue juniper berry
dissolving in your body, I am drinking Fumé,
chewing its fragrant dirt and smoke, we are
taking on earth, we are part soil already,
and wherever we are, we are also in our
bed, fitted, naked, closely
along each other, half passed out,
after love, drifting back
and forth across the border of consciousness,
our bodies buoyant, clasped.

-“The Promise,” 1-14

She writes of the ugliness of abortion:

There are creatures whose children float away
at birth, and those who throat-feed their young
for weeks and never see them again. My daughter
is free and she is in me–no, my love
of her is in me, moving in my heart,
changing chambers, like something poured
from hand to hand, to be weighed and then reweighed.

-“High School Senior,” 24-30

Of divorce:

And when I woke up, I found myself
counting the days since I had last seen
my husband-only two years, and some weeks,
and hours. We had signed the papers and come down to the
ground floor of the Chrysler Building,
the intact beauty of its lobby around us
like a king’s tomb, on the ceiling the little
painted plane, in the mural, flying.

-“A Week Later,” 9-16

Of murder:

Then dirt scared me, because of the dirt
he had put on her face. And her training bra
scared me—the newspapers, morning and evening,
kept saying it, training bra,
as if the cups of it had been calling
the breasts up—he buried her in it,
perhaps he had never bothered to take it
off. They found her underpants
in a garbage can.

-“1954,” 1-9

She writes of the stark ugliness of what it is to be human, what it means to prance about as foxes disguised as sheep, as animals out of place in their slick costumes. To be a part of society requires a lot of self-suppression, a closing off of much of our inherently base nature.

I remember reading about the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, how one student found himself capable of shooting 57 people, killing 32 of them. How can such evil, such illness, be contained in one person? I wondered.

I remember vividly—though I wasn’t yet born — a frosty evening in December of 1980 when a singer was shot dead. How the masses thronged to sing and crunch through the snow, to comfort each other in the most dead of moments. How can one person commit a single act that affects so many? I thought.

How? That’s how it is, Sharon teaches. That’s how it is when we shirk off the mask, stop taking our meds. There is beauty here, yes, but there is also true ugliness. And it’s often overlooked.

Which is a shame, because it gives the beauty such a remarkable sheen.



  1. Carly Willow says:

    Nice piece. I am intrigued.

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LANDFILLS is a grassroots literary, arts and culture online collective based in Chicago. All work is original, except the featured images that accompany text posts (which are blatantly stolen from Complaints should be directed to Po via Twitter.
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