When Sharon Olds came to read at Hunter College in early 2012, at which time I was studying poetry in the school’s MFA program, she joked about how she was not cut out to be a scholar. While a doctoral English student at Columbia University during the early 1970s, Olds nursed hopes of writing, not studying, poetry—a wish, she laughed, for which she prayed to Satan to grant. That memory returned to me with a chill when, months later, I came across a copy of her first book, Satan Says, published in 1980. As a lapsed, and still recovering, Catholic, I confess that two silly questions crossed my mind: Had Olds really prayed to Satan? And did the anti-Christ grant her wish, transforming her into the poet who was now capable of moving me to tears? Partly out of morbid curiosity, but mostly because I knew any aspiring poet should be intimate with Olds’s work, I bought the paperback.
The title poem of the collection, “Satan Says,” is a work to which I’ve returned again and again during the last year, in awe of its dizzying power. While Olds must have been being facetious about her youthful dalliance with Satan, reading this poem makes me wonder if the poet met the Dark Prince after all. Yet it is not Satan, but the speaker, who triumphs in “Satan Says,” a war story recounted over 68 lines of riveting free verse.
The poem opens with the speaker informing the reader of her odd predicament: “I am locked in a little cedar box / with a picture of shepherds pasted onto / the central panel between carvings.” The box sounds eerily like a coffin. But further description of “curved legs” and the “gold, heart-shaped lock” reveals an object closer to a girl’s jewelry chest. What’s interesting about opening the poem this way is that the box image functions as both metaphor and literal space in which the rest of the poem unfolds, and through which it can be interpreted. The specificity of detail keeps me rooted in a tangible, if surreal, setting that I can picture clearly in my mind; that’s what hooks me as a reader. After the poem is done, however, it’s the intelligence of the metaphor that keeps me interested. I interpret the box as the set of childhood experiences that have trapped the speaker in her particular mode of thought and behavior. But the metaphor is also bigger than that; it’s universal. All people are, to some extent, psychologically “boxed in” by their own personal circumstances. What is adulthood if not a fight to free oneself from the burdens of the past in hopes of a better future?
Despite our best efforts, however, sometimes the demons of our childhood come to haunt us. And this is precisely what happens to Olds’s speaker, in the form of Satan. “I’ll get you out,” Satan slickly offers. In return for freedom, however, the speaker must utter a series of profanities. First, she’s asked to denounce her father as “a shit” and her mother as “a pimp.” Desperate, the speaker complies, repeating Satan’s words. “Something / opens and breaks when I say that. My spine uncurls in the cedar box / like the pink back of the ballerina pin / with a ruby eye, resting beside me on / satin in the cedar box.” With the image of the pin and satin pillow, Olds keeps the reader anchored to that jewelry box even as her speaker begins to explore some very spacey Freudian territory. Soon Satan ups the ante, ordering the speaker to “Say shit, say death, say fuck the father.” The words effectively shock, not merely because they are vulgar but because of their particular metrical arrangement: Three spondees in row upend the easy four-beat lines that have guided the poem to this point. Again, the speaker repeats after Satan. But doing so continues to “open” a host of unsavory feelings: “The pain of the locked past buzzes / in the child’s box on her bureau.” A kind of displacement occurs in these lines, in which the speaker seems to have an out-of-body experience; she is simultaneously inside the box and able to observe it from the outside, noting how it rests on “the child’s”—no longer her own—bureau. This move in the poem speaks to the difficulty of confronting painful memories, or “the locked past,” in general. Many people cope with traumatic events by disassociation; others by casting blame. Olds’s Satan tries to coax the speaker from her disassociative cocoon, or box, by urging her to blame her “shit” father and “pimp” mother.
This is the problem of the victim, and the problem of the writer who wants to address trauma. Anyone familiar with Olds’s body of work knows that child abuse is one of her perennial themes; in particular, Olds explores what it means for a girl to be physically abused by her father. Whatever trespass has occurred in “Satan Says,” it is never specified; even the speaker’s gender remains in question throughout the poem. But the mention of a “locked past,” and words such as “torture,” “cock,” and “cunt” that appear later, all imply a childhood violation of some kind. And why else would Satan require the speaker to impugn her parents, in particular, if they were not the ones to perpetrate whatever awful event haunts the speaker? When viewed through the lens of Olds’s other poems, which take a more visceral approach to the subject of abuse, “Satan Says” reads like a self-argument about wading into these dangerous poetic waters: “I am trying to write my / way out of the closed box,” Olds’s speaker tells us. “Satan Says,” then, becomes a kind of ars poetica, and a model for any poet looking to deal with the theme of abuse or violence in her own work.
As the speaker repeats Satan’s increasingly nasty words, the box begins to open. Yet the speaker quickly realizes that this opening leads to another, different kind of prison. Like the wolf in the tale of Little Bo Peep, Satan is waiting hungrily for the speaker: “The exit is through Satan’s mouth.” Satan asks her repeatedly to “Come in.” As the “huge hinge / begins to close,” the speaker recognizes her mistake and takes back what she’s said about her parents. “Oh, no, I loved / them, too,” she tells Satan, who is none too pleased. The Prince of Darkness then “seals / the heart-shaped lock with the wax of his tongue. / It’s your coffin now, Satan says.” The speaker is abandoned. The poem ends with her freezing, trying to warm “her hands at the dancer’s / ruby eye— / the fire, the suddenly discovered knowledge of love.”
It’s that last line that gets me every time, and really “makes” the poem for me. It feels like a true catharsis, that a discovery has been made by the poet through her process of writing. But what is this discovery? For me, it’s a caution—for writers especially—against simplistic notions of good and evil. It isn’t a vision of some benevolent god that allows Olds’s speaker to escape Satan’s maw, but a recognition of “love” and its ability to coexist with feelings of betrayal and hatred. The speaker’s father may be “a shit,” as Satan says, but that doesn’t mean that the speaker can’t—or shouldn’t—love him. In a world that likes easy definitions, and takes pleasure in anointing heroes and stigmatizing villains, this is no easy revelation. Therein lies the brilliance of “Satan Says”: Olds’s Satan is not villainous because he urges the speaker to denounce her parents—just as the serpent tempted Eve to disobey God, or the Judeo-Christian “Father”—but because he is too obtuse to comprehend the uselessness of such denunciations to a curious intellect.
In “Faust, 1972,” a poem published last year in the online journal Plume, Olds narrates another run-in with Satan: the same one, in fact, she recalled during her visit to Hunter. Olds is far less cagey about her metaphors in “Faust, 1972,” stating plainly her belief that evil resides in “no spirit” but in “the ego’s voice, in my day called Satan.” As Freud described, the ego is the part of us that wants to comply with the world’s expectations. And isn’t it easier—and more socially acceptable—to cast stones at our adversaries than to engage in a conversation with them? Olds’s poem, however, warns us that doing so is a mistake; for a poet, it is the mark of an amateur.
The real achievement of “Satan Says” is the truly original way the poem illuminates an intelligent mind’s struggle with what John Keats described as “Negative Capability,” or the ability to exist “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Indeed, “Satan Says” does not resolve, but ends with the speaker frozen in the face of a paradox: the “knowledge of love” that can arise, somehow, from pain and suffering. Yet, even as it freezes her, that paradox remains the only “fire” capable of warming the speaker— a paradox within a paradox. Why? Perhaps, like the ruby-eyed pin inside Olds’s metaphorical box, because it is Beautiful (with that Keatsian capital B). In his musings on Negative Capability, Keats wrote further that “with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” I can’t think of a better way to describe what Olds accomplished with “Satan Says,” and with her entire career. Her 2013 Pulitzer Prize was well deserved.