deeply present...

from my anthology of must read (a)merican poems

Sharon Olds

His Costume

Somehow I never stopped to notice
that my father liked to dress as a woman.
He had his sign language about women
talking too much, and being stupid,
but whenever there was a costume party
he would dress like us, the tennis balls
for breasts—balls for breasts—the long
blond wig, the lipstick, he would sway
his body with moves of gracefulness
as if one being could be the whole
universe, its ends curving back to come
up from behind it. Six feet, and maybe
one-eighty, one-ninety, he had the shapely
legs of a male Grable—in short
skirt, he leaned against a bookcase pillar
nursing his fifth drink, gazing
around from inside his mascara purdah
with those salty eyes. The woman from next door
had a tail and ears, she was covered in Reynolds Wrap,
she was Kitty Foyle, and my mother was in
a tiny tuxedo, but he always won
the prize. Those nights, he had a look of daring,
a look of triumph, of having stolen
back. And as far as I knew, he never threw
up, as a woman, or passed out, or made
those signals of scorn with his hands, just leaned,
voluptuous, at ease, deeply
present, as if sensing his full potential, crossing
over into himself, and back,
over, and back.


From Satan Says to The Gold Cell to The Unswept Room, I’ve been enriched by the poetry of Sharon Olds. Her language and tone are inviting, direct, exposed. After reading an Olds’ poem, I have no doubts about her intention, theme, or content. The father, as a significant image and subject, surfaces in much of her writing.

What is most pleasing about “His Costume” is the speaker’s empathy for the father. In the harsh and conscious world of reality, he is cruel and out of balance – and I’ll add ... not willing to understand the self. Note “sign language,” “being stupid,” and “scorn”. But, these references do not define his true nature or charcter. When he moves outside or breaks free of the world he has made, he finds a settled place for his motions, for his acceptance – a place that has always existed:

                            he had a look of daring,
a look of triumph, of having stolen

The father is, as a sign of hope, able to steal back all that has been lost. On those occasions, his intoxication becomes a different sort. As a woman, he finds a constructive order to his living, characterized, not by power or cruelty, but by certainty and acceptance. He leans… “voluptuous, at ease, deeply / present”.

Throughout the poem Olds uses enjambment to illustrate, in a physical way, the break the character has with an old, destructive, and expected way of living. “Crossing / over” a definite line of resistance and fear, the father finds a way of possibility. And, for a time, he is able to stand – or the wonderful image: lean – in a different way, in a different world. Olds’ ending the poem with the word back – showing the reader that the ease is short-lived and not sustainable for the father – adds a gentle sadness to his character.

A beautifully written poem about potential, about finding the deepest part of self, about acceptance – not tearing down, but leaning into.


Collin said...

Olds comes right after Sexton for me as my main poetry influence. I cut my teeth on her work. I've always admired her for breaking the "rules" with her enjambment and line breaks. She's never been afraid to leave "the" dangling off a line or to use one single word on a line to make her emphasis. Thanks for posting this one.

Dennis said...

An interesting piece Sam. Initially the subject put me off, but almost as quickly became compelling. Olds’ use of the word “crossing” near the end is just so powerful in the context of this piece. And, as always, without your commentary something would just be missing.

Sam of the ten thousand things said...

Olds is an amazing voice in poetry. Collin, she's impacted my own work as well. She's not afraid is she--

Thanks for the read & comments Dennis.

C. E. Chaffin said...

God, Sexton's awful and Sharon mediocre, sorry. This poem by no means would be on my "must read" list. Compassion? This is just the average 50's male who has his costume party schtick down. All Freudian, Jungian, and feminist pretentions of insight in the poem are simply pretentious.

Sexton was a housewife poseur whose best poems were stolen from fairy tales.

Do I sound mean? Not as mean as William Logan, certainly. But hey, opinion is what stimulates discussion. So many blogs are just repositories for compliments. I think most of the people who think differently from the author just don't think to post. I'm one of the exceptions. That's how I make friends!

Sam of the ten thousand things said...

Poetry is a matter of taste. And Logan, of course, doesn't review Hart Crane's poetry-- not at all -- He reviews Crane's life, and doesn't like it.

As for Sexton, Transformations is a great book. And that's my view. Stolen? Maybe. The Waste Land, another great book. Stolen? You bet. But, as Eliot would say-- Only steal from the best.

I say good things about Olds because I continue to gain so much from her work. Satan Says was a turning-point read for me.

I don't think you're mean, CE. I'm happy for your read here, and for your comments. We just don't happen to agree at all on this work or poet.

Collin said...

Ah, well, I guess Mr. Chaffin won't be buying my books anytime soon. lol

Christine said...

Sharon Olds The Dead and The Living turned me into a poet, after reading it steadily for about ten years. Now I'm not so found of her -- perhaps because I've internalized a lot of her work and I'm struggling against that. Sometimes, if I'm not carefull, I just rewrite one of her poems from memory and think it's original.

C. E. Chaffin said...

Sam, you are such a diplomat.

As for Christine, I have had the same problem with Eliot, among other poets, like Frost and Jeffers and Strand.

I think, ultimately, to justify Sam, we are all thieves. But as Eliot so famously said, "Good poets borrow. Great poets steal."

As he did.

Keep on carrying on, all.

Collin, I did not know you had a book. Can you send me a preview, or samples of your verse?

rae said...

Love Sexton, Love Olds. Two women I admire greatly and who have significantly influenced my work. I think it was a great choice, Sam.

Sam of the ten thousand things said...

Thanks Christine and Rachel for your comments. I appreciate them.