Sunday, March 18, 2018



Old Ballerina Club by Sharon Olinka
(Dos Madres Press, Loveland, OH, 2016)

Sharon Olinka’s latest book Old Ballerina Club opens with an appeal, an invocation to the reader: “Will you/hold this bone.” The last word in the book is “residue.”  In between we encounter a ferocity of poems that beguile and taunt us, being at once achingly beautiful and forcefully direct. This is a speaker who is widely travelled, urban, knowing, skeptical, measuring and measured; yet also and simultaneously—and this is what makes the book so extraordinary—as recklessly in love with the things of the world and as vulnerable to them as a fierce child might be.  Indeed, the book opens with poems about childhood—girlhood in particular—and lay out with precision and filigreed imagery the experience of the child woman awakening to being a body in the dazzling and disappointing world:

At eight I made a scar
on my chest
from a chicken pox scab.
Every two weeks,
To this day
I take off my fingernails

(“Burning Pen”)

This stanza with its razor-vivid physicality, combined with its sleight-of-hand slippage of time, captures a vital stand of this book—Olinka is concerned with identity and memory and the layers of consciousness in which memory and the present struggle against and also contain one another.  Hers is a world of vibrant sensual surfaces that also—like the Old Ballerina Club of the titles--are beautiful things, which have been used and worn.  She evokes spaces in which we literally feel the presence of human passage, human fingers, the wear-and-tear, the way in which even love is a kind of violence. Her speaker is both resigned and furious; yet careful, tender and expansive about the cataloguing of lost things:

My friend Girard dead of AIDS before he was thirty, cloisonné
bottles in his antique store gathering dust.
Past Verti Mart on Royal Street where I’d go
for fried catfish, barbecued chicken, congealed
squares of macaroni in cheese.

(“Desire Bus”)

It is the sheer lushness of Olinka’s eye—able to unreel scene after scene with breathless clarity—that makes her clear-eyed and at times caustic sense of life’s cruelty (e.g.: time, death, decay, and other people) so palpable and painful. She is a writer who is able to hold in her head the raw beauty of being alive alongside life’s simple—one almost could say primal—brutality. Olinka’s purpose, however, is not simply to make us aware that both forces play out in our lives, but rather to trace the ways in which these form our selves, our very identity—or what might in another age be called ‘our souls.’ 

Olinka tells us early in the book: “My life’s prayer/has been:/Open me. /Art is a wound/given to strangers” and many of these poems evacuate the difficulty, the rigor, the terms of that opening. From gorgeous sensual odes to a past lover (“For a Man with a Guava in his Mouth,”) to memories of travel and risk (“Prayer to Make Me Whole”), these poems convey how quickly and relentlessly the joy of immediate existence is shadowed and subsumed by memory.  Similarly, many of these poems focus on the tension between the individual conception of self and the social, larger, outside world, which is always working to unmake or swallow that self:

            I stopped
telling you things.  My heart
was off limits to you,
who said with everything she did
that a woman’s dreams
meant nothing.

(“Killing the Piano”)

Olinka tells us these things, but the charm and rising power of this book comes from all the ways in which her poetic voice consistently upends, subverts and challenges the expected response.  In “Hand in the Dark,” she writes:

Nights of honey
among ghosts,
orchids and lizards
when my wounds
become my strength.

This notion of wound as the heart of strength is key to Olinka’s poetic vision. Hers is an energized despair, stringent in its honesty, but always embracing the sheer excess of living in the world—its rich pentimento of surfaces, memories, experiences, nations, and, most of all, bodies.  (I should add that the sense this work gives of being crowded, even haunted by memory, by the layers of things is intensified by the exquisite collages by Wayne Atherton which illustrate many of the poems).

In an exuberant and also unbearably sad section in the middle of the book, Olinka crafts an extraordinary series of poems in the voice of Donkey Woman.  Donkey Woman is a folkloric figure in San Antonio where Olinka now lives—a woman of middle-age turned into half woman, half-donkey after being pushed over a bridge by some teenagers, she is both a figure out of a horror movie and the unlikely defender of the abused, overlooked or bullied.  Olinka marshals the voice of Donkey Woman to get at some of her most pointed observations about the various cages and powers of being a woman. Donkey Woman is feared for her “ugliness,” her animal self, but in her experience of being despised, she uncovers both strength and charity:

         Bring me parents
         who hit their little boys,
         girls who hiss
         Donkey Lady will get you.
         I go where I want.
         I get what I want.
         I never hit no child.

“Halloween on Elm Creek”

Like the crones of fairytales, Donkey Woman is all that society does not wish women to be—an image of the fear and disgust society feels for the aging female body and its distrust of female strength and wisdom.  Olinka finds in this figure a poignant alter-ego for expressing her anxieties and the traces of the world’s abuse. At one point in these poems, Olinka as Donkey Women notes wryly:  “We try hard/to get human days right,” (“Love Me as I Am.”) lines which could almost serve as an epigraph for this beautiful and necessary collection.  


Sheila Black is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Iron, Ardent (Educe Press, 2017). She co-edited Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability (Cinco Puntos Press, 2012) and The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked: The Fiction of Disability (Cinco Puntos Press, 2017).  She lives in San Antonio, Texas where she directs Gemini Ink, a literary arts center.