The Operating System

5th ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 23 :: BRITTNEY CORRIGAN on SHARON OLDS

It’s hard to believe that this is our FIFTH annual 30/30/30 series, and that when this month is over we will have seeded and scattered ONE HUNDRED and FIFTY of these love-letters, these stories of gratitude and memory, into the world. Nearly 30 books, 3 magazines, countless events and online entries later, and this annual celebration shines like a beacon at the top of the heap of my very favorite things to have brought into being. [If you’re interested in going back through the earlier 120 entries, you can find them (in reverse chronological order) here.]

When I began this exercise on my own blog, in 2011, I began by speaking to National Poetry Month’s beginnings, in 1966, and wrote that my intentions “for my part, as a humble servant and practitioner of this lovely, loving art,” were to post a poem and/or brief history of a different poet…. as well as write and post a new poem a day. I do function well under stricture, but I soon realized this was an overwhelming errand.

Nonetheless the idea stuck — to have this month serve not only as one in which we flex our practical muscles but also one in which we reflect on inspiration, community, and tradition — and with The Operating System (then Exit Strata) available as a public platform to me, I invited others (and invited others to invite others) to join in the exercise. It is a series which perfectly models my intention to have the OS serve as an engine of open source education, of peer to peer value and knowledge circulation.

Sitting down at my computer so many years ago I would have never imagined that in the following five years I would be able to curate and gather 150 essays from so many gifted poets — ranging from students to award winning stars of the craft, from the US and abroad — to join in this effort. But I’m so so glad that this has come to be.

Enjoy! And share widely.

– Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Managing Editor/Series Curator

BRITTNEY CORRIGAN on SHARON OLDS

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As a young poet and also now, decades later, my breath catches in my throat when I read Sharon Olds. I am taken by how her boldness and veracity are juxtaposed with such nakedness and vulnerability. I lap up her poems eagerly, striving in my own work to write with such lush imagery, such fearlessness.  

I first encountered the poetry of Sharon Olds during my freshman year in college, when I also first encountered sex, feminism, and a whole range of individuals with life experiences entirely different from my own. That was the year I learned I was supposed to call myself woman instead of girl. The year I switched my major (surprising no one) from biology to English. The year I argued with the creative writing professor who insisted it was “against the rules” to end a line of poetry with a preposition (Hello? ee cummings?). The year my heart leaned away from literary criticism and wholly toward writing when my introductory poetry coursemates slaughtered Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas,” crushing the beautiful language like a berry beneath a thumb. I have been writing poetry since I was a little kid, but it was after reading Olds’s The Dead and the Living (Knopf, 1984) that I suddenly felt I had been given permission to write about anything. Olds tackles sex, abuse, alcoholism, abortion, miscarriage, childbirth—every thinkable and unthinkable physical sensation under the sun—with language that is honest, sensual, and jawdroppingly gorgeous. In one of my favorite poems, “The Connoisseuse of Slugs,” the title alone turns the ordinary rendering of a man’s body on its end. Olds begins the poem with the young speaker describing her hunt for and discovery of slugs, but by the end of the poem we are startled into a different observation altogether:

…What I liked
was to draw aside the ivy, breathe the
odor of the wall, and stand there in silence
until the slug forgot I was there
and sent its antennae up out of its
head, the glimmering umber horns
rising like telescopes, until finally the
sensitive knobs would pop out at the ends,
delicate and intimate. Years later,
when I first saw a naked man,
I gasped with pleasure to see that quiet
mystery reenacted, the slow
elegant being coming out of hiding and
gleaming in the dark air, eager and so
trusting you could weep.

And just as Olds’s language can be exquisite in its description of wonderment, I am equally drawn to her ability to describe the horrific in language that is lavish and precise, as in these lines from “Burn Center,” which describes the teenage girl speaker’s relationship to her mother:

…I would stick to doorways I
tried to walk through, stick to chairs as I
tried to rise, pieces of my flesh
tearing off easily as
well-done pork, and no one gave me
a strip of gauze, or a pat of butter to
melt on my crackling side, but when I would
cry out she would hold me to her
hot griddle, when my scorched head stank she would
draw me deeper into the burning
room of her life…

Reading Olds’s poems in my early twenties had an enormous influence on my young poetic voice. The bravery of not only her subject matter but her words themselves inspired me to take on topics I had previously thought taboo, to explore my own rites of passage.

Years later, when I had kids, I began to read Olds from a new perspective. The poems about being a mother and raising children from their infancy into the challenges of adolescence caught up in a fresh place in my heart. In “New Mother,” Olds brings to light what I had not seen other poets put out into the world—subjects like sex post-childbirth:

I lay in fear and blood and milk
while you kissed and kissed me, your lips hot and swollen
as a teen-age boy’s, your sex dry and big,
all of you so tender, you hung over me,
over the nest of stitches, over the
splitting and tearing, with the patience of someone who
finds a wounded animal in the woods
and stays with it, not leaving its side
until it is whole, until it can run again.

And giving herself permission to write with unabashed honesty about her children, sometimes in ways that made me think about how those children might feel reading them years later, as in this poem, “For My Daughter”:

That night will come. Somewhere someone will be
entering you, his body riding
under your white body, dividing
your blood from your skin, your dark, liquid
eyes open or closed, the slipping
silken hair of your head fine
as water poured at night, the delicate
threads between your legs curled
like stitches broken…
And in this one, “Six-Year- Old Boy”:
He pulls his pajamas down and there it
is, gleaming like lilac in the dark,
hard as a heavy-duty canvas fire-hose
shooting its steel stream.
He leans back, his pale face
blissful. The piss, lacy and fragile,
arcs over the black lawn.
Afterwards, no hands,
he shakes himself dry, cock tossing like a
horse’s white neck, and then he
leans against the car, grinning…

Reading these poems prompted me to open the door into writing about my own family relationships, my children, my most personal experiences and triumphs and fears. And Olds’s attention to detail and unusual language pairings helped me pay attention to the singularities of my own life, and to write and revise my poems carefully, as a sculptor might chisel the lines of a face.

As a young poet and also now, decades later, my breath catches in my throat when I read Sharon Olds. I am taken by how her boldness and veracity are juxtaposed with such nakedness and vulnerability. I lap up her poems eagerly, striving in my own work to write with such lush imagery, such fearlessness. As in “Poem to My First Lover”:

…I am in love with the girl who went
offering, came to you and
laid it out like a feast on a platter, the
delicate flesh—yes, yes,
I accept the gift.

I have Sharon Olds to thank for the transformation of my own poetic voice. Her work did more than introduce me to the world of confessional poetry. Olds inspired me to write like a woman. To lay it all out on the page. To shape my lines to my own liking. To reach into the blackberry brambles with my bare hands. Pluck the berries. Stain my fingers. Relish their flavor. Swallow them whole.

Brittney Corrigan is the author of the poetry collection Navigation (The Habit of Rainy Nights Press, 2012) and the chapbook 40 Weeks (Finishing Line Press, 2012). Her poems have appeared widely in journals and anthologies, and she is the poetry editor for the online journal Hyperlexia: poetry and prose about the autism spectrum. Brittney lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is both an alumna and employee of Reed College. For more information, visit http://brittneycorrigan.com/. (Photo: Clay Fisher photography.)

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