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«Anna Woodford This thesis is submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of Newcastle University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy ...»

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Birdhouse (a collection of poetry),


The Daughter: the roles of the father,

the speaker and the reader

in the work of Sharon Olds

Anna Woodford

This thesis is submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of

Newcastle University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

September 2008





Birdhouse, a collection of poetry 1-41 Dissertation: The Daughter: the roles of the father, the speaker and the reader in the work of Sharon Olds Abbreviations 43 44-50 Introd uction Chapter One: Introducing Sharon Olds 51-79 80-103 Chapter Two: The Living Father 104-127 Chapter Three: The Dying Father 128-140 Chapter Four: The Posthumous Father 141-143 Chapter Five: The End Of The Father Linking Piece: 'Sharon Says': Sharon Olds's influence 144-148 on my poetry 149-153 Select Bibliography Abstract The thesis comprises a collection of poems, a dissertation and a linking piece.

Birdhouse is a portfolio of poems concerned with themes of sex, the body and private and public loss. It also experiments with the first person voice of its own speaker. Birdhouse includes familial elegies, amatory poems and commissioned work.

The dissertation represents the first study of length of the father in the American poet Sharon Olds's work. Olds's oeuvre from 1980 to 2004 is examined through close-reading of the poems. It is argued that a reflective reading reveals the intentional subjectivity of the speaker, but should not discount the na'ive reading the poems prompt which is part of their aesthetic experience. The centrality of the father is challenged, and it is argued that it is the daughter-speaker of the poems who is their hidden subject. The speaker asserts her happiness but uses ambiguity and suggestion to invite a reader to condemn the father. The father is an archetype, as are Olds's other familial characters, and a literary descendant of fathers in the poetry of confessional predecessors, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

The lack of specificity surrounding the father's crimes is used to demonstrate his archetypal depiction, and the speaker's focus on her survival narrative.

The dissertation contends that the latent subject of Olds's book of elegies The Father is the speaker's prolonging of her father's suffering in poems which enact a literary killing, The dissertation concludes that the poems present a version of a family history spoken by a daughter who survives her archetypal presentation and valorises the role of poetic speaker. It is argued the relationship between the speaker and the reader is more significant than the filial relationship depicted throughout.

The linking piece explores Olds's influence on my poetry, which prompted the research.

Acknowledgment I am grateful to my supervisor Professor WN Herbert for his insight and expertise which was invaluable in shaping the creative and research element of the thesis.

Birdhouse (a collection of poetry) Contents

–  –  –

Acknowledgements Acknowledgments are due to the following: 14, North, Magma, Magnetic North, Mslexia, New Writers' Magazine, The Poem website, Poetry Ireland Review, The Reader, The Reater, Rialto, the SHOp, Times Literary Supplement and Tower Poetry.

Some of these poems first appeared in the anthologies The Body and the Book: Writings on Poetry and Sexuality (Editions Rodopi B.V., 2008), Ten Years of the Northern Writers' Awards (New Writing North 2008), Gategate (ed. Linda France, The Northern Writers' Centre 2007) and on the CD Words From The Garden (cawrecords 2007).

A selection of these poems also appeared in the pamphlet Trailer (Five Leaves, 2007). 'Trailer' was the Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice in Spring 2008.

The author received an Eric Gregory Award and an Arvon Jerwood Apprenticeship in 2003.

The author received a Hawthornden Fellowship and residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Ireland and Blue Mountain Center, USA in 2002/3.

Birdhouse You fiddle with the catch between my legs until my mouth springs open and I am crowing like an everyday bird that has entered the heights of an aviary. I am scaling the bars, widespreading my common or garden fan while your beady eye hangs over my body. My voice goes flying in our feathered bed from your forefinger and thumb, my next cry rests on the tip of your tongue.



I will stand at the foot of the umpteen steps to the church among the mucky doves, I wi!! bring your letters, shredded into confetti, when the bells spill over with your joy, with your joy, I will wrap my arms around myself and dance: no one will mind me when your bride comes down the steps.

The sky will fall in after her like a train.

Trying You are trying to be a father, rubbing my breast's beauty spot, I arch my back for a girl, baby-cries escape my mouth.

We are months, maybe years ahead of the midwife who will pull the child out of her sack like a rabbit.

All night you sleep foetal in my arms, your body just within reach, just out of reach.

I am beginning to dream daily now, of a room full of globes lit up and spinning and a cot that can hardly contain its e'normity. One morning I will slip out of bed, into that room.

Everything in the old world will have inched over slightly.

Our child will be breathing.

Two Up Two Down In a terrace house in Murton, a bust of Beethoven is arranged in a living room window.

Behind drawn curtains, Annie is letting down a mini-skirt,

Jack is looking through the Echo:

there are holes in Christine Keeler's story.

Upstairs, Pat kicks out at Moira as Annie uncovers a fresh row of daisies.

Moira rolls over murmuring of her new skirt from Binns. It is nineteen-sixty-three.

In Murton it is earlier. Annie checks the hem of her bairn's modesty. I will be born over her dead body.

Desk Dad raised his hand. The gavel fell.

The following week the delivery man left no stair uncursed as he dragged the desk like a cross to my room. It was stuck by the dressing table, catching my hip when I danced in the mirror.

It wasn't a dog or a TV, it was a leg-up with the La Sagesse entrance exam, a short step from there to university.

It was laden with trifles and pellucid jellies when I started to write. I saw myself crowned with leaves in the reflected glory of the bay that overlooked all the fences. There was a room

- a whole wing - of my parents' house that they hadn't discovered. I entered through the desk like a wardrobe, Mum sneaked in after me, cleaning up poems like snow from my floor.

Take Two

"Let - me - row" he hissed.

Our loveboat was circling towards a waterfall, an iceberg, a plug but I couldn't lie like a lady in a Merchant Ivory film with my fingers wrinkling into queer fish in the water so we fought for command of the leaky Bonny Lassie while people steered clear with their well-balanced families.

Now we are not in the same boat: there is room for a dog, kids even and a different man has fallen into my lap.

I hold him like a sack of potatoes or a pinch of tobacco fit for a queen as we drift in our ferry. Ahead of us the sun shines like the gong the muscleman bangs at the beginning of the big picture.

Singing in the Bath I am wearing the bath water.

My bare breasts are perfectly suited to my bare body. A flash of coarse hair is fitting between my thighs. Only my nails are polished on my nude figure which is drifting indecently into the morning. It is running late. I need to stop gazing into my navel. I need to start covering my back. On the other hand, which squeezes out a little soft soap, I am up to my neck in hot water already.

How can I keep from singing?

The Goldilocks Variable Some fairytales say she jumped out of the window and ran home to her mother, never to stray ever after.

Some say she came round to the idea that her prince wouldn't come and settled for shared living with the bears.

An Internet site describes her turning into a glamour model called Goldie who likes a good hiding or, maybe, she's not out of the woods yet and her hair went white, slim-picking through the neighbourhood bins.

In Prague, an astronomer saw a light in the sky and christened it for her

- and his mystery blonde girlfriend The,Goldilocks Variable. It is an elusive star.

It isn't always shining. Sometimes it appears to have vanished from the night's curtain-call.

The Dead Are Always Looking Down On Us They Say

Tonight Uncle Len's body bridges the river:

his feet are planted in Newcastle, his hair mizzles in Gateshead, beneath the arch of his back boats have drifted like flowers. Now women with brailled legs and feather boas stream across his raised torso.

I have come from the Crown, the last old man's pub on the Quayside and am hanging on to a stranger's familiar arm when I stumble

across Len's cast iron rainbow:

this is the place where he threw himself into the sky.

Recovery After a bottle and a half of wine, my mother and my aunts are children again, reciting the poem their mother recited.

A warning bell sounds in my head like the bell Sister Ancilla rang at communion when God entered the bread but it is not God, it is a lecturer whose name I can't remember, just his echoing laugh: "Mrs Hemans!" * myoid teacher's mocking almost drowns out the women but my mother and my aunts are loud in their living-room, I can see Felicia among them perched in a pant suit, flushed to be summoned so out of her stays.

And Annie McCabe is raised by her daughters' raised voices to hover like Mary or Marmie or Judith Shakespeare.

Her head was full of stories that needed doing and her bairns are merry, nearly seventy, about to sing at her feet.

–  –  –

Guernica We wandered around the Spanish gallery which had been converted from a hospital after the war. Pictures occupied the space left by bodies. We weren't getting on, nothing was new under the sun.

I didn't see the horse coming.

It charged down the wall and into my head, battling with the spear in its side, the stones of paint hurled at its body.

–  –  –

Six Weeks You swallowed the pills then walked as far as you could away down the hospital corridor. The nurse held your bed knowing sickness would overtake you.

Soon you were a good girl throwing up into a cardboard dish. The same as all the other hidden women on the ward, contracting behind cubicle curtains.

It was six weeks since you'd fallen.

You were in trouble when you told me about him on the morning after. Water was dripping through the holes in our living room ceiling.

We gathered pans and bowls and cups and egg-cups trying to contain the flood before the ceiling fell in.

Relic You pulled back from the other girls and laid a hand on my arm, touching me utterly.

Though I was beyond my mother and teachers and the educational psychologist had referred me, you lifted me out of the High Church Of My Misery and set me down among the other girls

in shopping centres and cinemas:

in the playground I had run away from too early.

–  –  –

My mother is taking a turn in my killer heels

-they could topple herthe old idol of her body sways like a Madonna shouldered out of a Spanish cathedral.

She breaks into a song, the crown of her voice slipped after wine and years

at the centre of this living room:

it is my brother's living room this new year and my mother is getting carried away. I raise a glass at her gathering. Now I can't hold her back or follow her.

In Passing

Maybe it was a pet snapping at your heels or maybe a stray tailed you as you trampled over everything in your path to the river. Maybe God threw a curve ball and a dog appeared to accompany you as you took your last steps past the still lines of fishermen.

Maybe you meant to make the leap out of your skin or maybe you slipped, leaving the river reeling.

The fishermen see the dog sometimes that you couldn't shake off.

Maybe they're just seeing things.

Going Underground Two generations ago she went to war with the Aunts in Bracknell and the girls at college, who would have sniggered at her with her uptight bun, joining forces with a Jewish Austrian.

Five foot of him, like the snapped branch of a family tree, scar exposed where he'd been torn from parents, cousins...

(freighted away like so much dead wood) on different trains than the one which brought him to Nottingham, to her.

She unwrapped the rest of his life like a boiled sweet from her handbag, removed his name - the German name that meant he couldn't open doors for her called him Richard, name for a man she might have married.

Between Buckhurst Hill and Roding Valley, she found their surname on the London Tube map Woodford - because she liked its sound. It was something to pass on to the baby with Slovak eyes, who didn't know his limbs had been broken, who didn't know how far he'd come

- from the condemned line of men and women via the Central Line.

Darling I was nobody's darling, everybody's pet, except when Gran came up, I was her duck.

Darling was for girls who weren't that special. They were the non-speaking angels in the nativity. Their sandwiches cut into right angles, their mothers ranging from affection to affectation when they called them home across the playground: "Darling!" Your mouth sums me up, moving silently down my stomach, singling out a thigh but when you call me darling, it's my mother's tongue in my head that hushes you. I know it's only a word.

I knew as a back street driver at seven, my eyes screwing streetlights into stars, that.when we passed the sign for Darlington, it wouldn't live up to its promise.

~ 1

Gran's Diary

All year December was coming in your diary but you were taking it one day at a time: an arboretum walk on 6 January, later that month it was

Herbert's funeral. On 10 February:

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