Sharon-Olds, winner of the 2014 Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize, is known for her poems about her inner life, her sexuality, the female experience and her family. In this poem from her collection One Secret Thing she looks outside herself into the darker side of a common commodity – wood.
Whenever I see a chair like it,
I consider it: the no arms,
the lower limbs of pear or cherry.
Sometimes I’ll take hold of the back slat
and lift the four-legged creature off the floor to hear
the joints creak, the wind in the timbers,
hauling of keel rope. And the structure will not
utter, just some music of reed and tether,
Old Testament cradle. Whenever I see
a Hitchcock chair – not a Federal,
or an Eames – I pay close, furniture
attention, even as my mind is taking its
seablind cartwheels back. But if every
time you saw a tree – pear,
cherry, American elm, American
oak, beech, bayou cypress –
your eyes checked for a branch, low enough
but not too low, and strong enough,
and you thought of your uncle, or father, or brother,
third cousin twice removed
murdered on a tree, then you would have
the basis for a working knowledge of American History.
An ode often seeks out truths about its subject, Shelley’s west wind, harbinger of winter as well as rebirth, or Keats’s Grecian urn, only a sweet illusion of life outlasting time.
Sharon Olds’s “Wooden Ode” announces itself as such a quest in its first line. A chair like what? Soon enough the chair is a creature, its joints creaking, the timbers and the keel hinting at violence at sea. A slave ship maybe? A sailor keelhauled across the ship’s barnacled bottom?
Back on land, the narrator studies not just any chair but a Hitchcock chair, its design nearly as old as America, armless usually, straight-backed, Old Sparky at Sing Sing without the belts and wires. And then we are outdoors again, amid American trees with limbs just high and strong enough for lynching.