One Secret Thing is a book that sits in the back of your mind and just refuses to leave it. Sharon Olds manages to encapsulate a surprisingly varied range of emotions from childlike witticism as in “Diagnosis” to the more morose and adult poems later in the book such as “Last Hour.” The book has almost too varied a scope to be sufficiently analyzed within a mere review, but I will try to get across the general opinion that this book left me with. Are you ready for it?
Like I mentioned earlier, this book has been stuck in the back of my mind for the past two weeks since I’ve read through it. Most notable are the strong beginning and ending sections that bookend the work. The book opens with a section entitled “War” and describes, in vivid detail, snapshots from war. The Poem “His Crew” was the one that I kept returning to, and still do as I am writing this review. The closing image of a pilot crashing his crippled plane into the earth “green as a great basin of water/ being lifted to his face” leaves me with a feeling I have a hard time putting into words. The last section describes the last moments of the speaker’s mother’s life. It begins with a slow pace setting the scene of the mother having a stroke and falling into a coma in “Still Life,” (Check out that link for a live reading of that poem) but from the moment the doctor briefly enters the scene long enough to say that she has hours left to live in “The Last Evening” the poems begin to build the suspense leading to the inevitable conclusion. Each poem moves a step towards that final ending and, after the fact, moves along after it to the final goodbye within “Nereid Elegy.” But unlike the Nick Flynn book Some Ether, this ends on an uplifting hopeful note as the speaker “let her go,/ we ushered her forth, like the death of a god,/ the birth of an exhausted holiday.” Death brings the end to the long “holiday” the mother had enjoyed on earth.
Now, all the positives aside, I only really have one negative to speak of and it concerns the middle of the book between the two previously discussed sections. This area is mixed up and has a general sense of disorder and confusion. I’ll be honest, before this recent reading of the book in its entirety I had started reading and stopped halfway through multiple times because it really wasn’t speaking too much to me. That said though, there are a few gems within. One of these, “Freezer,” brought some contention between myself and some friends. I, for one, love this poem with its opening line “When I think of people who kill and eat people,/ I think of how lonely my mother was.” I mean come on… if that doesn’t draw you into a poem I don’t know what will. My friend argued that the rest of the poem dealt with sexual assault, and I’ll confess that perhaps without reading the rest of the book the poem may come off that way. But when understanding the relationship between the mother and daughter from the other poems… and not choosing to have a mind in the gutter… it comes off as a daughter curious about what it would be like to grow up.
Now, I could go on and on describing the intricacies of this book and the other little nuggets of wisdom that inhabit it, but honestly you need to experience some of it for yourself… plus I don’t have the time. If you have some time to dedicate and the willpower to push through a sometimes ‘so-so’ middle to the amazing finish, then do yourself a favor and check this one out.
3/4 – Worth checking out