Madness rages on: Li-Young Lee battles the tenacious Sharon Olds in first round West action

Sharon Olds and Li-Young Lee both have two poems in the Dove anthology.

Olds is famous for frank portrayals of the body:


I have wanted excellence in the knife-throw,
I have wanted to use my exceptionally strong and accurate arms
and my straight posture and quick electric muscles
to achieve something at the centre of a crowd,
the blade piercing the bark deep,
the haft slowly and heavily vibrating like the cock.

I have wanted some epic use for my excellent body,
some heroism, some American achievement
beyond the ordinary for my extraordinary self,
magnetic and tensile, I have stood by the sandlot
and watched the boys play.

I have wanted courage, I have thought about fire
and the crossing of waterfalls, I have dragged around

my belly big with cowardice and safety,
my stool black with iron pills,
my huge breasts oozing mucus,
my legs swelling, my hands swelling,
my face swelling and darkening, my hair
falling out, my inner sex
stabbed again and again with terrible pain like a knife.
I have lain down.
I have lain down and sweated and shaken
and passed blood and feces and water and
slowly alone in the centre of a circle I have
passed the new person out
and they have lifted the new person free of the act
and wiped the new person free of that
language of blood like praise all over the body.

I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,
Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing,

I and the other women this exceptional
act with the exceptional heroic body,
this giving birth, this glistening verb,
and I am putting my proud American boast
right here with the others.

Olds’ poem is an announcement—even as it describes a grounded, sensual act from a personal point of view;—personal in the most grounded, and yet expansive sense, and its rhetoric is nothing if not expansive, since what it describes is common and without narrative; it is, as she says, a “brag” and to include Whitman and Ginsberg is brilliant, because these, too are ‘announcement’ poets, poets of brag and rhetoric, but also grounded by personal, sensual content, but without story or even philosophical—the poetry is entirely social, a sensual secret revealed in an almost banal fashion: simply announced, or told. The “language of the brag” is plain, descriptive, first-person; there’s no poetic language calling us away from the mere content of the rhetoric.  Olds gets this so well, and it’s uncanny how honest she is about competing with maleness—and the poem’s triumph is her (female) triumph.

Li-Young Lee enters the dance with this poem:

In the steamer is the trout
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,
brothers, sister, my mother who will
taste the sweetest meat of the head,
holding it between her fingers
deftly, the way my father did
weeks ago. Then he lay down
to sleep like a snow-covered road
winding through pines older than him,
without any travelers, and lonely for no one.
Lee’s poem ushers in death instead of birth, but does it not with a brag, like Olds, but with a series of simple images:  yet the “snow-covered road winding through pines older than him, without any travelers, and lonely for no one” is profound and so anti-sentimental that it makes one sit up arrow straight in one’s mind.  That “snow-covered road” travels both forwards and backwards in the poem, and is quite extraordinary.
Marla Muse:  I’m sensing a very close game.
Yes, Marla.
Olds wins, 79-77.


  1. David said,

    April 15, 2012 at 5:33 pm


    If, as you note, there is no poetry to draw the soul upward from mere rhetoric, how is Olds’ poem a “triumph”? Surely it is not a triumph of poetry.


    • thomasbrady said,

      April 15, 2012 at 11:48 pm


      I think it’s a ‘triumph’ in what it is trying to do—make use of whitman & ginsberg, etc.

      There’s more than one route to heaven, etc.


  2. April 15, 2012 at 10:18 pm

    In my mind I’m Yaphet Kotto
    Black and free and without a care —
    But my demeanor more resembles
    Antonio Vargas as Huggy Bear.

    (“But,” you say, “when you see your hands…!?”—
    Why, they’re clad in pink gloves from foreign lands.)

  3. February 19, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    […] Brady, Thomas. “Scarriet.” WordPress. N.p., 04-15-2012. Web. 8 May 2012. No. 2 Seed Sharon Olds takes on Li-Young Lee in the West […]

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