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Sharon Olds' 1984 volume of poems consists of two sections: Poems for the Dead and Poems for the Living. The first part often investigates through photographs those souls lost to history: a victim of execution in pre-revolutionary China, a starving girl in Russia, a black casualty of a Tulsa race riot.
I wanted to focus on "The Guild," one of a series of family poems. A grandfather sits before a fire, "liquor like fire in his hand. . . / his glass eye baleful and stony." His son, "an apprentice," sits with him "next to the old man's glass of coals," learning the "craft of oblivion." The recurrent images of trees suggest lineage, the ancestral rootedness, the poisoned bed upon which the young man's character will grow. In the end, the son will surpass "his master" in his malice. The last line of the poem turns on the revelation, "that young man my father." The poem's title implies a medieval association of artisans, but one dedicated to the transmission of the darkest arts.
"The Guild" is a terrifying poem. And in poem after poem Sharon Olds astonishes the reader with the burning coals of her candor, especially those which tackle the subjects of childhood, family, sex, and love. If there can be said to be a transfiguring fire, there is that fire in these poems.
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