Reading Sharon Olds’s “Arias” is quite the adventure, albeit an adventure for which Olds does not provide a map. “Arias” refers to the alphabetized collection of poems depicting anything from emotionally-draining memories of hardships Olds has incurred in her 76 years to obscure tangents that seem to be the product of a wandering brain late at night. Olds’s balance of vivid description alongside eye-catching but not pretentious literary experimentation helps the majority of her poems shine in their own right.
Unfortunately, Olds’s presentation of her poems often falls flat. As a result of the poems that pack in around them, the more exceptional poems often don’t reach their potential. Since these poems, or arias, are alphabetized, they have a thematic consistency emulating the composition of a thoroughly shuffled deck of cards. Olds is no novice author; this was a deliberate decision with calculated effects. The reader wears a hyperactive mood ring as they progress from one poem to the next, often amplifying the emotional impact of each poem as it varies so heavily from the last. When this technique works, it exemplifies the evocative power of literature. Olds eloquently executes this transition in the few pages between “Mortal Aria” and “Object Permanence Aria.” One moment, Olds is depicting the heart wrenching final stages of her late partner’s battle with cancer, the simultaneous planning for his death and longing for his youth that she experienced in the days leading up to his passing. Olds’s recollection of her partner’s youth prepares the reader for the more innocent portrayal of Olds herself as a young child in the subsequent aria, where Olds describes the moment in which she understands that her mother still exists when she exits the room — that her mother’s being doesn’t orbit her own. A chronological organization of these poems would not have granted “Object Permanence Aria” the same magnitude of innocence, as the poem’s tone may have been diluted by that of similar recollections of early childhood.
But this desired effect does not always materialize. In fact, getting through certain portions of the collection can be outright frustrating. In one poem, Olds reflects on her relationship with her father and considers the various forms in which love may manifest itself. Then, without warning, Olds depicts an eerily realistic scene ― one of a toilet flushing after a bowel movement. Although she relates this scene to the upbringing of her children and perhaps uses it as a metaphor for a turn for the worse in her later years, its inclusion and lingering takes the sting out of the more emotion-ridden poem preceding it. This is a recurring theme among the arias. At times, Olds wholly exits the territory of vividness and enters that of the jarringly explicit. While a reader aspires to hear the unadulterated version of a poet’s mind and vision, few aspire to read “the gathers and folds of the asshole” in the same sentence as “like a child at a petting zoo.” Moments like these reflect the hiccups in consistency that hold Olds back from an immaculate work. Olds’s attempts to push the limits of poetic norms are valiant; innovation would never happen without experimentation. But Olds’s edgier instances of experimentation simply do not work. While tangents and comic relief can be refreshing, at times their inclusion seems poorly deliberated, serving to derail a previously well-worked narrative instead of contributing to it.
By removing overt, inter-poem relatability, Olds actually supplies an additional layer of realism — her structure begins to reflect the curious organization of the human psyche. Everyone has obscure memories that, no matter how aged or insignificant, do not fade. The human brain is not a pristine filing cabinet of memories organized by date or theme. There is rarely a rhyme or reason to reminisce. One could only imagine this effect amplifying as one’s inventory of memories expands over nearly eight decades. Olds’s spontaneous and thematically inconsistent recollection of events sacrifices an even flow between poems to obtain an authentic and unfiltered glimpse into her mind. But without access to Olds’s mind, “Arias” requires multiple readings to offer more than just this glimpse.