Sharon Old's The Father
(1992) is a book of poetry that follows the illness and death of the speaker's father. As most of Old's poetry is autobiographical, she is likely the speaker and "the father" her father, with whom she had a complicated relationship. The collection contains more than sixty poems beginning with the speaker observing the onset of the father's illness and ending with reflections and lessons learned.
The first poem in the book is called "The Waiting." The speaker says that no matter how early she rises from the guestroom, her father is always already up and sitting in his chair. He knows he is dying, and the speaker says, "He got up early for the graveyard shift." She stays with him throughout the whole day.
The speaker describes the last morning of her visit in the poem "Nullipara." She and her father are sitting together in their bathrobes. Her father sees a string hanging from her nightdress, and he goes to his desk drawer. He retrieves a pair of scissors and cuts the thread, wanting to do her a "service at the end of his life." She ends this poem saying she will carry her father with her like she does her mother, implying that her mother has already passed.
"The Pulling" compares her father's slow decline to the pulling of a napkin through a ring, to her children moving down during her pregnancies, and to God feeling the rivers pull through the earth. She can feel her father slowly moving headfirst toward death.
"Death and Morality" considers the nature of death. She decides that death isn't good or evil and is outside the realm of morality. The emptying of the catheter is only the body. Her father's pain is only the body. "This," she says, "is the world where sex lives, the world of nerves, the world without church."
In "The Picture I Want," the speaker describes a photo of her and her father. They are sitting on a couch together. Her father's tumors are visible on his chest and his throat; her head is on his shoulder. His head is on top of hers.
As the book comes to a close, the poems become more reflective. The speaker describes her father's dead body and her grief. In her reflections, she confesses that she believes her father has become a part of her physical self.
Despite the speaker's obvious affection for her father in the poetry of The Father
, Old’s relationship with her father in her youth was more complicated. Her father was an abusive alcoholic, and in many of her writings, Olds recalls a time when her father tied her to a chair.
Olds is known for her autobiographical poetry, once quoting a frequent criticism of her work to the New York Times
: "Why not just keep a diary?" Her work, whether detailing her and her husband in a hotel, her children, or her father, is sexually explicit. Though she appreciates the women who paved the way for her poetry like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, she told The Independent
, "Their steps were not steps I wanted to put my feet in." One literary magazine she sent her work to replied, "This is a literary magazine. If you wish to write about this sort of subject, may we suggest the Ladies' Home Journal
," and that the true subjects of poetry are "not your children."
Her poetry deals mostly with women's issues and is sometimes seen as having a role in the Women's Movement. Some critics, however, have commented that her writings on the female body are done in a "deterministic, shamanistic, medieval manner." The critic, Anis Shivani, writes, Old’s poetry "defines feminism turned upon itself, chewing up its own hot and bothered cadaver." Still other critics, like Joe Brouwer of the New York Times
, praise Olds for the "intense moments of her family romance... rendering them in such obsessive detail that they seem utterly unique to her personal experience, while at the same time using metaphor
to insist on their universality." Likewise, Charles Bainbridge of The Guardian
calls her poetry "vivid morality plays... full of symbolic echoes and possibilities."
Despite a difficult start and her unique subject matter, Olds went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1984. She also won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the San Francisco Poetry Center Award in 1980, was a finalist for The National Book Critics Circle Award, and was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize in 1992.