Sharon Olds

Blood, Tin, Straw

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Blood, Tin, Straw Summary

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In her collection of poetry Blood, Tin, Straw (1999), Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Sharon Olds delves into the seeming ordinariness of everyday existence, only to make startling revelations about life, love, the natural world, and family relationships. In each of the book’s five sections—“Blood,” “Tin,” “Straw,” “Fire,” and “Light”— Olds uses a natural phenomenon to plumb the mysteries of the human experience and the ties—sometimes thick as blood, sometimes fragile as straw—that unite us.

The volume opens with the poem “The Promise.” Like the vast majority of Olds’s work, this is a highly confessional piece; the poet sheds light on what appears to be a primal bond that she shares with the subject of the poem, presumably her partner. Sitting across from him at a dim restaurant table, she tells him, “Think of how we have floated together… / you know me from the bright, / blood-flecked delivery room, if a lion / had you in its jaws I would attack it, if the ropes/ binding your soul are your own wrists, I will cut them.”

This piece sets the scene for the deeply personal collection that follows. Nevertheless, for all of Olds’s intense disclosures, she isn’t necessarily revealing secrets about herself—but about all of humankind. Her mind and heart work in the same ways as everyone else’s, and she is not immune to the power, frustrations, and primordial pull of love; the brutal, brilliant wonders of sex and nature; and the very peculiar and specific ways people can hurt one another. She bears fearless witness to the spectrum of what it means to be alive, with all its innate complexities, its joys, and its transformative moments big and small.

In these smallest moments, Olds revels most luxuriantly, mining the most meaning. For example, in “The Necklace,” she talks about wearing a necklace that belonged to her late mother. The necklace shifts slightly as Olds moves, and this tiny movement ushers in a world of feeling, shaking her from the deep depression she is in, connecting her with her mother’s voice and encouragement: “Come away from your gloom.”

Like all poets before and since, Olds is also fascinated with the eternal mysteries that have weighed heavily on our collective psyche since the dawn of time: love, for instance. In “The Lips,” she wonders of her husband, “did he love me before / he knew me, before I was born? Maybe / his love drew me to earth, my head / moved to the surface of my mother’s body, and… /  I came toward him in her ribbons, through her favors.” Of birth and menstruation she writes, “in the crush / between the babies’ skull-plates and the skin / of the birth-gates, we want the symphysis / more cherished” (“The Gift”). And of death, “Where will love go? When my father / died, and my love could no longer shine / on the oily, drink-darkened slopes of his skin, / then my love for him lived inside me, / and lived wherever the fog they made of him / coiled like a spirit” (“Where Will Love Go?”).

Motherhood and marital love are two themes Olds returns to repeatedly in Blood, Tin, Straw. She wonders how her child will fare in the world as his own independent person, reflecting on the good and the bad, the advantages and the challenges, that have shaped his young life; all of this, while she watches as “The Summer Camp-Bus Pulls Away from the Curb”: “Everything that’s been placed in him / will come out, now, the contents of a trunk / unpacked and lined up on a bunk in the underpine light.” In “The Knowing,” she celebrates the wonders of married love and how fortunate one is to find it in such a cold and savage world. “By knowing him, I get to know / the purity of the animal / which mates for life… / I am so lucky that I can know him.”

Sexual energy is another undercurrent of many of the poems in the book. Though a few of them bend toward the graphic, they are descriptive in a lyrical sense, not an explicit one. Sexual matters, like so many other aspects of life, fall in the same way under the lens of Olds’s poetic microscope. She takes interest in the mechanics of sex, how the body responds to desire and arousal, how sex can satisfy, shatter, frustrate, and uplift—sometimes all at the same time. She understands sex as a power uniquely its own, with the potential to destroy and create in equal measure.

Ultimately, Blood, Tin, Straw is unafraid to dissect what it means to be a human being, in all its glory and messiness. A way into Olds’s view of the world, it is also a way into our shared humanity and the commonality of our lived experience.