“What is called / her own life”: An Old(s) Collection Made New

by Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan


Four and a half months after the birth of my baby girl, I reread Sharon Olds: “Dreading the cry, longing for the cry, / the young mother leads what is called / her own life / while the baby sleeps.” Does anything of my own life remain, I wonder, lying awake at some unearthly hour my baby is used to waking. Is there anything in my life, any moment of time, that is now truly my own? Or does new motherhood simply lay bare the fantasy of self-possession that always undergirds assertions of one’s “own” anything?

I first read Olds’ debut collection, Satan Says, when I was a teenager, full of youthful severity about poetry and love and smarting from the end of my first significant relationship. I was inspired then by Olds’ raw pen, her intimacy with the body. I was still trying to own my body and my pen, or rather, to come to grips with body and pen as my own. I wrote artless confessional poetry inspired by her insistence on “blood,” her attention to the “breast,” her willingness to go to “the steep forbidden / buttocks, backs of the knees.”

Again and again, I read that collection’s “Woman” cycle: “I lay asleep under you, / still and dark as uninhabited / countryside, my blood slowly / drying between us, the break in my flesh / beginning to heal, open, a border / permanently dissolved.” It was what I heard as Olds’ fearlessness that moved me most. Daring, unflinching, she approached the body’s borders in their transparency, porousness, and flexibility, not shrinking from the seeping fluids of mingling flesh, moving toward, not away from, the visceral desires that infuse all acts of writing and living. Playfully, too, she checked the optimism with which we each assert our own precarious subjecthood.

Returning to Olds a decade later, I have, I hope, matured, as has she since her 1980 debut. I am no longer struck by the brute force of what now seem relatively juvenile lines like “my father is a shit.” Now, it is the fierce perceptiveness of the “Mother” cycle that moves me, Olds’ description, for example, of the immersion of mother in child and vice versa, of “the child in her / risen to the top, like cream, / and skimmed off.”

How to understand the belonging of the cream to the milk, of the milk to the cream? Do I own my baby daughter? Does she own me? The cream is of the milk, impossible without it, but separate, skimmable, intact. “My daughter—as if I / owned her,” she writes in “The Possessive.” “My body. My daughter. I’ll have to find / another word.”

Olds’ words capture my new mother’s struggle to come to grips with the fact that body and pen, like time and life, were never really my own. The permanently dissolved border of “First Night” reveals itself to be not simply a property of emergent sexuality, but a permanent condition of womanhood and the privilege, perhaps, of the writing mother. 

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley and currently living in Princeton, NJ, with her husband and daughter. Her essays and reviews have been featured in scholarly and journalistic publications including Women and PerformancePublic BooksopenDemocracy and the South Asian Review. She is a former editor of India Currents magazine and has written an award-winning, syndicated column for the publication since 2001.