Same life, new poems

Same Life: Poems
Maureen N. McLane
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

One Secret Thing
Sharon Olds

While it’s always a good time to read poetry, it’s a particularly good time to give poetry. Here are two recent volumes worthy of both.

Same Life: Poems is such a tour de force that it’s hard to believe it’s Maureen N. McLane’s first collection. She’s an established critic and professor of literature, which explains the confidence that permeates her poems. It takes a combination of hubris and humility to write variations on Sappho, and McLane has both in “After Sappho,” a series of poems that is equal parts translation, adulation and transformation.

Her range is aptly demonstrated: a lanky free-verse question-and-answer (“Catechism”), spread out across a page in a liberated invocation of William Carlos Williams; a less self-conscious than self-provoking use of rhyme in “After Guston”; genocide as a subject in “Report”; and cultural critique in “Letter From Paris.” But McLane’s got a razor-sharp and snarky sense of humor, too, and a deft hand at love poems. A case in point (from “Core Samples”):

        I was afflicted and afflicted you.
        Be careful what you wish for
        you warned. I was not careful
        nor in the end thank god were you.

These are contemporary, urban poems, but they are also fully imbued with the classical poetic tradition.

Sharon Olds established her reputation as poet unafraid of writing about twisted and heart-twisting family relationships. Her incredible book One Secret Thing is a new collection whose main subject matter is the loss of a parent, her mother.

But the subject matter, the inner workings of a family, is by no means small, nor is it removed from the world’s realities. A long poem called “War” maintains at once narrative distance and an irrepressible, elemental call of blood ties:

                … He could
        feel the thrust down, and the lift,
        each time one of them leapt, full-term, the
        parachutes unfolding and glistening, little
        sacs of afterbirth. They drifted toward
        what could be long lives …

Critics have focused more on Olds’ subject matter and less on her use of language, a sorry fact that Olds herself is well aware of—and she even goes so far as to use a critic’s remark as one of two epigraphs to “Calvinist Parents”: “Sometime during the Truman Administration, Sharon Olds’ parents tied her to a chair, and she is still writing about it.” The poem’s other epigraph comes from a member of the Bush family and also concerns child-rearing practices; the whole piece is a political statement about what exactly it is that families create.

After all, neither poets nor warmongering presidents come out of nowhere.