MaestraPeace Mural, The Women's Building, San Francisco Mission District. Painted in 1994 by Juana Alicia, Miranda Bergman, Edythe Boone, Susan Kelk Cervantes, Meera Desai, Yvonne Littleton and Irene Perez, with many assistants. (Wally Gobetz/Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND)

The Language of the Brag

Unless we’re toiling away in an English PhD program, most of us don’t pause in our daily lives to read poetry — to read anything closely, really. We might scrutinize a job offer or rental contract, or devour a Facebook feed. Seldom, however, do we allow ourselves to pause over a verse, to wade into a line of poetry or prose and stop, feeling the chill, or the sting, or the pleasure of a series of words, before moving on.

Every month, “Versing Clio” will feature a poem from the American canon that integrates gender, history, and medicine.

This series is less about figuring the “meaning” of a poem — of cracking open a poem’s shell to find a juicy moral that might be hiding inside — than about locating and considering moments of interest or ambiguity that might come to bear on our understanding of gender, history, and medicine.

Often when we read the work of women poets, we immediately put ourselves in the mindset of the domestic, the emotional, and the reflective, preparing ourselves, perhaps subconsciously, for a more sanitized, less tidy experience than a male poet might provide. And so, I’ve recently begun to seek out the female artistic inclination towards the foul and the crass, to look for uncensored depictions of women’s bodies and women’s experiences. I’ve found this joyful and unflinchingly honest perspective in shows like Broad City and Girls, and, most recently, in looking back to the poetry of Sharon Olds, a poet whose intimate and graphic depictions of sexuality and family life have been controversial for their “self-indulgence” (read: for making some people feel uncomfortable — sound familiar, Lena Dunham?)

Sharon Olds, winner of several prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, for her poetry.
Sharon Olds, winner of several prestigious awards for her poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

With this unapologetic physical female self in mind, let’s turn to Sharon Olds’ poem “The Language of the Brag.” One of my favorite professors from college recently sent me this poem, and I immediately fell in love with it for the grandeur and gore with which it treats the female body.

The poem begins with a set of direct, confident, and even aggressive aspirations: the first, to achieve “excellence in the knife-throw.” Olds’ speaker starts:

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.

This fantasy teeters on the edge of the athletic and the sexual, as the speaker imagines her body achieving a kind of muscular, agile, glory. It verges on the sexual until the speaker of the poem takes us there unquestionably, as she imagines the haft of her knife (aka its handle — I had to look that one up, too), “heavily vibrating like the cock.” Why this image of the knife-turned-cock, sexual in its violence, and violent in its sexuality? The speaker of the poem seems to partially answer this question with her repeated use of the phrase “I have wanted.” The double meaning of the verb “to want” — that is, both to desire and to lack — reveals the import of this kind of physical power to women. Ultimately, sex and violence, and especially any combination of the two, are predicated on power. It is this kind of power that appeals to and eludes the speaker.

She continues, with another “wanting” that both lacks and desires physical achievement.

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.

The speaker harbors confident feelings of physical prowess but lacks a venue for its expression, relegated to the sidelines of the male-dominated sandlot and the larger man’s world. For the first time, here, we see heroism invoked as a national characteristic — a national heroics only to be achieved by way of the sandlot and the broader male athletic trajectory.

She continues, driving the reader in an “exceptionally strong and accurate” fashion toward the climax of the poem:

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

my belly big with cowardice and safely,
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.

Finally, we see, the speaker has found her epic adventure, her American hero’s journey, in the ultimate physical endeavor: giving birth. By situating her labor directly beside “fire/ and the crossing of waterfalls,” we come to understand labor as a fear-inducing and arduous journey of its own. The speaker’s aside, a long Whitmanian catalogue (the sequence of parallel lines beginning with “my” that interrupts the phrase “my belly big with cowardice and safely … I have lain down”) puts the reader in the mindset of other (male) American long-form poets like Walt Whitman and Alan Ginsberg. The relentless descriptive phrases seem to embody the swelling of the speaker’s body, offering big vowel sounds reminiscent of a pregnant belly and repetition that echoes the pushing of labor. “My stool black with iron pills/ My huge breasts oozing mucus” confronts the reader with two unforgettably graphic images, and sounds like it looks, with the wide and repeated long “oo” sounds conjuring excess and gore: “My stool black with iron pills/ My huge breasts oozing mucus.”

The speaker continues to portray herself as a hero on a dangerous quest, undergoing physical changes and torture “my inner sex/ stabbed again and again with terrible pain like a knife.” Just as a warrior in battle may feel himself to be at once alone and in the center of a crowd, so, too, does the speaker finally find herself to be at the “centre of a crowd” as she so desired in the first stanza. She writes:

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.

If this circle surrounding the maternity bed isn’t quite the “crowd” she imagined of the battlefield or the sandlot, the speaker is nonetheless the center of attention during the birthing process, performing a magnificent and athletic feat. Significantly, the speaker doesn’t give birth to “a baby” — rather, she has “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.” This is more than just a baby — it’s a whole new person! A real and important contribution to humanity! The repetition of this unusual representation of an infant emphasizes the humanity of both mother and child, both in the moment of birth and in the future when the baby does indeed grow into a fully fledged adult human being.

The poem ends with a challenge of sorts, to those poets and American heroes who have come before, and who have aspired to the kind of life-giving, life-affirming work that, in the end, women perform most completely.

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.

What is “this thing” that the speaker of the poem has done? Well, the obvious answer is: giving birth. But, the speaker insinuates, this maternal act ultimately surpasses any other heroic act imaginable. As Allan Ginsberg howled, the speaker has howled in labor. As Walt Whitman sang his song of himself and sang the Body Electric, so, too, has the speaker sung the most magnificent song of creation and of birth. She has one-upped them in a way that many women regularly do. By opening up her accomplishment to “the other women” in the final stanza of the poem, she poses a more fundamental challenge to the ways we think about social value in American culture. The speaker (and perhaps Olds herself) places herself squarely in the canon of American lyric and in the history of American heroics, sounding her “proud American boast” alongside Whitman’s “Barbaric Yawp” and Ginsberg’s “Howl.”

Sharon Olds, “The Language of the Brag” Satan Says (Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980).

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