The Textual Force of the Cancerous Body in Sharon Olds’s The Father

Chris Leary, University of Sheffield, email:

Sharon Olds wrote the first half of The Father whilst her father was dying of cancer during 1983 and 1984.1 The other half was composed, after his death, of one or two poems each year from between 1984 and 1989. My main concern throughout the poetic journey of The Father is how Olds addresses the father’s cancerous body, and how, as the narrative progresses in correlation with the disease itself, she fundamentally embeds the dying body within the structure of her writing.
In this paper I examine the extent of knowledge that can be obtained from scrutinizing the body destroyed by cancer, and I pay attention to the relevance of the nature of cancer itself: how Olds’s writing mimics the metamorphic character of the cancerous cells that are destroying the poetic father. By assessing the particular ways in which such understanding is expressed, my further aim is to illustrate how the cancerous body and its interpretation drives Olds’s work. I do so in a generally theoretical framework, using Julia Kristeva’s analytic concept of the ‘semiotic’ and ‘symbolic’ in Revolution in Poetic Language, as well as her work on the abject. I then apply the narrative theories of Peter Brooks’s Body Work. To clarify my discussion I also analyse Rodger Kamenetz’s account of his mother’s cancerous death in his memoir Terra Infirma (1985).

I open my paper with a consideration of the third poem of Olds’s collection: ‘‘The Pulling’’. Here Olds presents us with a symbolic reunion of mind and body, creation and procreation, where creativity, death and birth are combined within the narrator’s father’s body, her own body and the body of the poem. However, the speaker aligns her father’s death not with an act of destruction. Rather, she first compares it with her very own personal act of childbirth. Then, rapidly shifting the size and nature of her imagery, she likens his demise to the monumentally heroic moment of the genesis of the universe. She writes:

my father
moves, hour by hour, head first,
toward death, I sense every inch of him moving
through me toward it, the way each child
moved, slowly, down through my body,
as if I were God feeling the rivers
pulling through, the universe
itself hauled through me heavily and easily,
‘‘The Pulling’’, (p.6.)

Here the paradoxical connection between the dying body and the birth of the writing project is implied. The speaker’s father is integral to her massive process of creation. She tells us that his body drives her narrative, he is pulling through her virtually passive body, and consequently it is the paternal body that produces the text that reproduces him. The role of the typically passive terminal body is reversed, demonstrating that the cancerous body can create discourses as well as being passively receptive to them (particularly the medical discourse) and the resultant text enables the fragile parental frame to adopt a vital and formative role within the literary work.

It is particularly useful at this point to turn to a Kristevan analysis to understand the psychoanalytic significance of “The Pulling”. For Julia Kristeva the individual subject is composed within and through language. Language itself has two fundamental dimensions between which the subject balances, these being the paternal ‘‘symbolic’’, and the maternal ‘‘semiotic’’. The semiotic is essentially a pre-Oedipal disposition established in the maternal body and driven by primary processes. In contrast, the symbolic is an Oedipal realm, controlled by the ‘‘Law of the Father’’, and is associated with the language of power and conformity.

In “The Pulling” Olds implies how cancer causes her father to become infantilised, returning to a childish and, therefore, an emasculated state. When Olds states that ‘‘every hour, now, he is changing, shedding some ability’’(p.6), she suggests that in losing his adult abilities the father actually loses his paternal authority. Thus, Olds’s poetry indicates that the infantilising cancerous changes cause the father to depart the social, patriarchal world and become reacquainted with the feminised pre-Oedipal space of the mother-child bond. He is reduced to a dependent state, essentially as a mass of cells reliant on his host for existence, and in this sense he mimics the cancer itself.

It is poignantly ironic that the abject body of the dying father is embraced, and thus that which is primarily associated with the symbolic realm returns, through an the act of "desymbolisation" to the maternal realm. ‘‘The Pulling’’ suggests that this movement metaphorically takes place within the daughter’s own body. When she tells us ‘‘my father moves, hour by hour, head-first,/ toward death, I sense every inch of him moving/ through me toward it,’’ both her act of writing and her metaphysical maternal body can be interpreted as functioning in comparable mode to the Kristevan ‘‘chora’’. Michael Payne describes the concept of the chora thus: ‘‘[The chora] defines the semiotic space of the other within the mother, and within its double structure, the first communication between the fetus and (m)other occurs.’’,2 and Ruth Robbins considers that ‘‘it has several possible meanings, including womb, enclosed space, nurse, receptacle and mother.’’3

When the daughter suggests that the father is within her womb she does not cast herself in the role of the nurturer, rather she is an anomalous inversion where the normal process of human development is reversed. Likewise, the very cancer that is destroying him could itself be described as a perverted inversion of human growth, where the tumour that is supported by him reduces him to little more than a mass of cellular activity. Thus, as the cancer results in a reversion of human evolution, Olds’s metaphor indicates that the psychoanalytic paternal body is also propelled into the origins of language, that is, the realm where the body dominates consciousness, where corporeality governs sensibility.

Analogous to the Kristevan chora, Olds’s speaker’s poetic womb is the space of her father’s subversion where the death drive appears and threatens to diminish him to a nihilistic existence, that is, to destroy him. Ingeniously, Olds’s writing suggests that there are creative possibilities in this apparently morbid act, as her speaker states: ‘‘as if my father could live and die safely inside me’’ (p.6, my italics). Olds intimates that his physical death is inseparable from his new existence as a literary figure, for in functioning in the mode of the chora the poetic daughter offers a transformative thoroughfare for conceptualising the father’s body and thus she demonstrates the ability to endorse a new meaning upon the language of the cancerous paternal body.
The cancerous changes that cause the father to pass from the symbolic realm into the semiotic mimic the pattern of reversal in the formation of the cancer cells themselves. Although cells of the healthy body vary in appearance and function, they are fundamentally the same, having evolved from the primitive cells of the early developing foetus after conception. In order to serve the body’s function they become differentiated, that is, specialised. To become cancerous, normal cells transform to a primitive form which is capable of the unrestrained reproduction characteristic of the primitive undifferentiated cells.

In essence, the cancerous cell returns to a state similar to that found post-conception, it undergoes a process that could be described, in psychoanalytic terms, as ‘‘desymbolisation’’. Both the singular cancerous cell and the entirety of the father’s cancerous body revert to a semiotic state. Kristeva considers that it is impossible for a subject to exist purely in the symbolic or semiotic realm, and to exist as a healthy human being one must learn to embrace both realms. Indeed, the father expires after becoming engulfed by the maternal realm of the semiotic space, just as his body is finally deluged by the cancer. However, in The Father, perversely, the cancerous mutation of the previously healthy cells within the father’s body inspire Olds to perform the positive transfiguration of a weak and sickly man into the powerful force of poetry.

To understand the extent of Olds’s role in transforming the cancerous father into poetry it is pertinent at this point to contrast her mode of articulation with the prose of Rodger Kamenetz’s Terra Infirma. Whereas Olds’s writing is organically and subtly conceived from intimate contact and observation of her father’s body, Rodger Kamenetz explicitly draws our attention to the psychoanalytic implications in his description of his mother’s childlike condition when she is close to death: ‘‘At the very end, my mother was stepping back to a pre-language, a babble[...] She had the voice of a child then’’(p.106, my italics). Kamenetz suggests in formal language that the cancerous outcome of infantile behaviour is synonymous with his mother’s entry into the semiotic realm, the conceptual space where the subject exists in a mode likened to that of the infant, prior to language acquisition and symbolic separation. Here she is influenced primarily by corporeal energies and drives; a return to the state of being which precedes the development of the oedipal identity within the symbolic realm. Although the ‘‘babble’’ may have little or no specific (symbolic) meaning, such sounds are not without significance, and actually constitute that which Kristeva refers to as ‘‘signifiance’’. Thus it becomes evident that cancer causes her body to undergo not only drastic physical and emotional changes but also affects her use of language itself.

For Olds the metamorphosis of the father from adult to foetus is integral to the genesis of her poetry. Such metaphysical involvement is lacking in Kamenetz whose mother’s transformation from woman to infant is observed from a distance. For Kamenetz his mother’s death is ultimately an act separate from his own existence, whereas Olds’s narrator perceives her body, particularly its reproductive potential, as being irrevocably entwined with both the process of her father’s dying and the creation of her poetry.

As I have discussed, in the case of cancer, the infantilising process of dependency is prevalent in the development of the disease. It is useful here to contemplate Freud’s thoughts regarding infantile dependency. Freud considers that ‘‘infantile helplessness’’ is associated with intimate connectedness, and in ‘‘The Present Moment’’ the narrator draws specific attention to this in the infantile experience of her father.4 She describes him thus:

a baby, who stared with a steady
gaze the way he lies there, now, with his
eyes open, then the lids start down
and the milky crescent of the other world
shines, in there, for a moment, before sleep.

Here the father is portrayed as experiencing an intimate connectedness with ‘‘the milky crescent of the other world’’. The daughter suggests that her infantilised father is returning to the corporeal memory of the maternal body: the comfort of the mother’s milk and all that the mother’s body represents. In other words, her father connects again to those energies and drives that he experienced in the maternal corpus prior to both his actual and real separation from the semiotic realm, and again we can see that this process imitates that of the cancerous cell returning to a non-specialised, primitive state. Rather than resist this feminine realm, the speaker suggests that his transition is voluntary as he readily yields to the tempting shine of that ‘‘other world’’. Here her poetic language has the rhythmic quality of a child’s lullaby, and is most pertinent to her subject as it mirrors the rhythms, energies and drives of the very body itself.

Thus, it is evident that Sharon Olds specifically places emphasis on the primary character of the body as material activity, and the abject body in particular appears to be fundamental in the writing of The Father. Before discussing the effects of the abject body upon Olds’s writing it is worth considering briefly Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject developed in her book Powers of Horror. According to Kristeva the abject exists at the margins of the self, that which is neither subject nor object. It is associated with organic substances such as blood, urine, pus, faeces- substances that remind the subject that he or she has derived from the maternal body. The abject has powerful effects upon the body itself, often prompting nausea or vomiting and ultimately it threatens the logical certainty of either the subject/object (or self/not self) binary. Thus we can interpret abjection as the psychic slippage across the boundaries of the self and an associated confusion of the self’s definition of its ego.

Olds’s observance of the father’s abject image both revolutionises the father/daughter relationship as well as arousing the poetry. The influence of the abject upon Olds is perhaps best demonstrated in ‘‘The Picture I Want’’ as the speaker observes her father’s diseased body, with its monstrous cancerous protuberances:

he is like a stocking stuffed with things.
His head is leaning over far to one side,
resting on the top of my head, and my head
is leaning on his shoulder, my face as near
to the primary tumour as a dozing baby’’s
lips to the mother’’s breast.
(p. 10).

Here the daughter emphasises their intimate connection: his head leans on her head, and her head leans on his shoulder. They form a continuum of the same genetic line, and the spontaneous familiarity of their physical union is described as a nursing mother and infant. However, Olds is not writing here of the basic nurturing relationship between parent and child, nor that of a straightforward substitution of the maternal body with that of the paternal. More significantly she implies, with deliberate grotesqueness, that it is the father’s tumour that represents the female breast, thus it is not the father, but his cancer that provides the nourishment. Essentially what is being fed and nurtured is not the daughter’s physical growth but the development of Olds’s poetry.

The speaker’s apparent passivity in this scene hides her latent desire for the abject: as the cancerous lump lies beside her mouth, as a breast to a baby, the daughter positions herself with the potential to metaphysically suck the abject juices from her father’s tumour in order to feed her demanding writing project. Not unlike abjection itself Olds’s writing is situated in a permeable relation to fascination and disgust, pleasure and pain, attraction and repulsion, as Olds’s narrator admits in the penultimate poem of the collection: ‘‘I have learned to get pleasure from talking of pain’’ (‘‘Waste Sonata’’, p.77).
Olds’s writing here invokes Julia Kristeva’s theory regarding the abject, as described by Gail Weiss:

Kristeva stresses the creative ‘‘juices’’ that flow from [the] abjected domain,
in the form of 1) the revolutionary possibilities of poetic language and 2)
the maternal reenactment of (what Kristeva takes to be) the ‘‘original narcissistic
crisis’’ through pregnancy and childbirth.5

Within ‘‘The Picture I Want’’, and throughout The Father, Olds infuses all these ‘‘juices’’ together: the abject juices discharged by the father’s dying body, the creative poetic juices that the abject images of the father’s decaying body provoke, and finally the procreative juices of an imagined pregnancy in ‘‘Nullipara’’ of a dying foetus composed of genetic material that they share.
It is exactly through Olds’s unveiling of hidden corporeal processes and revelation of those things hidden from the public display of the body, that inspires her writing and accordingly leads us to question our own response to the putrefaction of the expiring body. Likewise, the nature of Olds’s poetry motivates us to consider Julia Kristeva’s thoughts regarding the abject:

As in true theatre, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses
show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These bodily
fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with
difficulty on the part of death. 6

This very notion of the abject acts as a template for the construction of The Father as Olds impels us to open our eyes and acknowledge that this mucus, this matter, this is what we inescapably and ultimately are:

I would empty it and it would fill again
and shimmer there on the table until
the room seemed to turn around it
in an orderly way, a model of the solar system
turning around the sun
my father the old earth that used to
lie at the center of the universe, now
turning with the rest of us
around his death, bright glass of
spit on the table, these last mouthfuls.
‘‘The Glass’’ p.7.

Adopting a metaphysical slant, the daughter acknowledges and glorifies the abject nature of her father’s mucus as it ‘‘shimmers’’ and her recurrent use of enjambment gives the impression of fluid movement as she suggests the world rotates around it. The abject substance becomes pivotal both to the relationship between her father and herself, and between her father’s living and dying. Indeed the glass acts as the centrifugal force of the poem itself, as the surrounding language is compelled to exist by its abject content. Thus, Olds transforms the abject into the dynamic creativity of poetry and the renegotiation of paternal bonds. Consequently Olds verifies Kristeva’s theory that although abjection is potentially life-threatening it can also be something apocalyptic, an act of literary creation, and thus the poet confirms Kristeva’s description of abjection as a ‘‘resurrection’’ because it transforms the death drive into the start of new life.7

Olds’s detailed observation of the father’s expiring body illustrates the materiality of the physical, particularly when such flesh is diseased and decaying, but, in ‘‘His Terror’’ the speaker tells us of her father’s encouragement for her to touch and to penetrate his flesh:

The lumps of his cancer are everywhere now,
he can lay his palm where they swell his skin, he can
finger the holes where the surgeon has been in him.
He asks me touch them.

Here the daughter has direct contact with the diseased body as her father urges her to feel his cancerous lumps and post-surgical sites, and the disease itself is all but touchable. She is the ‘‘Doubting Thomas’’ to the father’s Christ-figure. She must touch to believe, to understand, to write, thus the daughter resurrects her father’s body on the page. The surgical imprints on her father’s previously impenetrable body act as the necessary marking to animate his body for narrative. As the tangible tumours are manipulated by her probing fingers the malignant force within her father paradoxically becomes a creative force in her, forging the narrative dynamic.
The authorial will to know and to understand her father and his drift towards death is also evident in ‘‘The Exam’’, as she tells us:

He seemed
to love to point them out to me,
the humps, the stitches, the X-ray scorches, the
parchment map of his chest.

The daughter reads her father’s cancerous body as one might a braille text. She frequently feels it, orienteering her way across the map of his torso, attempting to find the path to enlightenment. Such an interpretation of the father’s body illustrates Peter Brooks’s notion in Body Work that the body becomes ‘‘a site of signification - the place for the inscription of stories - and itself a signifier, a prime agent in plot and meaning.’’8

According to Brooks, that which dominates at the inscription and imprinting of bodies is, in the broadest sense, a set of desires: a desire that the body not be lost to meaning - that it be brought into the realm of the significant. Using Brook’s terminology I would argue that Olds desires that the father’s body should become part of a semiotic project to make his body signify, to make it part of the narrative dynamic within a poetic sequence. An aesthetics of narrative embodiment here insists that the body is only apparently lacking in meaning, that it can be semiotically retrieved. Thus Olds’s speaker adeptly interprets the humps and scars of her father’s cancerous torso and then inscribes her own reading (and writing) project not only metaphysically upon the ‘‘parchment of his chest’’ but also physically upon the ‘‘parchment’’ of the page, and in so doing her father’s body becomes a central pivot of narrative meaning.

To understand more fully how Olds inscribes the father’s body with meaning it is useful here to consider how Kamenetz imparts his mother with narrative significance in Terra Infirma. Whilst Olds’s speaker needs to connect physically with her father’s cancerous body, Kamenetz devotes a significant amount of time in observing, rather than touching, his mother’s dying body in an attempt to understand it: ‘‘How to map its pains and make a landscape for them’’(p.99). He actively seeks to establish a text that will include the plethora of narrative possibilities that his mother’s cancerous body presents. He attempts to read her corporeality as he might a book, and he suggests that her body is actually telling a tale, both her story and, he believes, ultimately his story- her life in his: ‘‘Beneath her skin, in neat scripture, her veins wrote red and thin’’(p.88). Kamenetz expands his allegory thus:

My mother’’s illness became after a time, that fiction, "the story of
her life" like a book we all were reading and discussing, a book we
treated as a mystery though all of us knew the ending. One rarely,
after all, turns to the last page of a novel to find out the end.
One follows instead the twists and turns, one stays with the immediacies.
And so we did in her illness, like naive readers savouring every illusory effect.
(p. 96-97)

Not only does his writing demonstrate the direct relation between his observation of her body and the construction of the narrative. It is also steeped in theoretical allusion, reminding us of Brooks’s comments on the nature of narrative:

Narrative is interested not only in points of arrival, but also in all the
dilatory moments along the way: suspension or turning back,
the perversions of temporality (as of desire) that allow us to take
pleasure and to grasp the meaning in passing time.9

The similarity of Kamenetz’s language and theme to that of the narrative theorist Brooks suggest that the former’s writing is an acutely self-conscious mode of expression. Whilst Olds gives the impression of an instinctive connection between flesh and text, in contrast the writing of Kamenetz reveals an aura of detachment. Kamenetz is profoundly aware of the association between his mother’s body and the text itself and makes explicit reference to that affiliation. He dramatises the cancerous changes to his mother’s body and unequivocally draws attention to its function as a narrative signifier, and, indeed, her physical deterioration produces a series of emblematic moments in his text. He exercises, apparently deliberately and quite literally, Roland Barthes’s metaphorical assertion that ‘‘A writer is someone who plays with his mother’s body’’ as he blatantly strives to recreate his mother’s body into a literary work.10

Kamenetz’s practice of recording detailed notes during his mother’s demise in order to reproduce them as a text suggests that his project is fundamentally an intellectually organised response to his mother’s cancer. His interpretation of his mother’s body reminds us of Melanie Klein’s theory that the perception of bodily parts, particularly those of the maternal body, are fundamental constructions of a symbolic order. 11 Essentially, these symbolic structures create a distance from the body. Here Kamenetz identifies the fact that his use of the sign implies the absence of the thing for which it stands, that is, his mother’s body:

What is hard here is to find my mother’s sufferings on my own body.
In thinking about them, in describing them, they are always going
abstract, lightening, turning into words that describe them.
(p. 91, my italics).

By specifically indicating the words describing his ailing mother as ‘‘abstract’’, Kamenetz affirms that his language is derived primarily from the symbolic realm, and, according to Klein, his writing therefore results in a distancing of himself from the maternal body. Kamenetz recognises that his mother’s body is forced to become primarily theoretical due to the effects of the symbolic language, and in an attempt to rescue his mother from becoming a theoretical concept Kamenetz invests in her a transcendent spirituality.

It is notable that Kamenetz thinks about his mother’s suffering, whereas the voice in Olds’s poetry stresses that she feels her father’s experience. Her poetry evolves beyond a cerebral exercise, rather it is an all-consuming experience. It is an organic process where the father’s body, her own body and the body of her writing develop in bizarre co-existence. Her sexuality is a central rather than marginal feature of her poetry, and she frequently describes her relationship with her dying father in suggestive terminology:

I can feel myself in him,
my arms in his arms, my hands filling his hands,
my chest his chest [...]
I can feel myself
slip into my father
wholly, deep inside his flesh
(‘‘Exam’’, p.57, my italics).

Here the daughter suggests that she has assumed the traditionally masculine sexual role in an imagined encounter with her father’’s body as she ‘‘slips’’ into her father in an act of not only intense fusion, but also of possession. Just as the cancerous cells have invaded his body, so, too, does his daughter colonise his being. He becomes possessed by those of which he has himself created.

The implication derived here is that just as the relationship between the cancer and the host proves to be destructive so too can the relationship between the father and the child: profound intimacy is not necessarily a healthy condition. Resultantly, whilst the poetry affirms and intensifies the fusion between herself and her father it also subtly invokes the potentially dangerous and self-destructive dependence that exists in some child/parent relationships.

As I have argued, Olds expresses the notion that meaning may exist in the father’s cancerous body. Meanwhile Kamenetz struggles to define or abstract such corporal meaning in formal, symbolic language and it is Olds’s poignant use of poetic language that allows her to articulate the significance, and indeed, the value of the paternal corpus. The voice projected in Olds’s writing is organically derived from its paternal association. In embodying both her father and herself within The Father, the resulting poetic language mirrors the animated rhythms of the body itself, and is thus synonymous with Kristeva’s semiotic realm.
Whereas Kamenetz’s discourse is governed primarily by the symbolic realm, Olds’s language disrupts the symbolic laws of grammar and prose, as she demonstrates: ‘‘my chest his chest’’. Such language suggests a different sort of intimacy between the dying father and his daughter, and acts to disperse the borders between the healthy and the diseased body, as well as between the subject and the object. Rather than reinforcing a distance from the diseased body of the dying father, Olds repositions death as an experience that creates the possibility of the realignment of relationship boundaries, thus envisioning new creative opportunities within that relationship and also, more significantly for us, the readers, beyond the paternal association through the conception of the written word.

During the sequence of The Father the narrator undeniably shifts in her attitude towards her father. She sways between perceiving her father as a malignant force within her body then desiring that all boundaries between them dissolve to result in a harmonious union. However, in either mode, Olds’s writing ensures that the cancerous body of the father becomes both a place where meaning is enacted and a creator of meanings of a kind that could not be produced elsewhere, it is a unique dynamic of narrative signification. The very existence of The Father demonstrates how the cancerous body is made semiotic: it becomes a sign, or the place for the inscription of multiple signs. As Brooks reminds us: ‘‘We may recall that semiotics was originally a branch of medical science, as old as Hippocrates, concerned with the symptoms or signs that told the story of an illness.’’12 Therefore it is possible to interpret that the body of the dying father becomes the prime factor in narrative meaning; it is responsible for both the production and the significance of her poetry. Essentially Olds’s poetry provides a ‘‘mise-en-
scene’’ for the father’s cancerous corpus but, at the same time, her work has also been driven by that dying body. In this sense the literary work that the father’s body has conceived is its terminal act of potent influence.

1 Sharon Olds, The Father (Alfred A.Knopf, New York, 1996)
2 Michael Payne, Reading Theory: An Introduction to Lacan, Derrida and Kristeva (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), p.169, quoted by Ruth Robbins, Literary Feminisms (Palgrave 2000), p. 131.
3 Ruth Robbins, Literary Feminisms (Palgrave 2000) p.131.
4 Sigmund Freud, ‘Civilisation and Its Discontents’, in Complete Psychological Works, ed. James Strachey (Hogarth Press, 1974), p.64.
5 Gail Weiss, ‘The Abject Borders of the Body Image’, Perspectives on Embodiment. Eds Gail Weiss and Honi Fern Haber, (Routledge, 1999), p.46.
6 Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (Columbia University Press, 1982), p.3.
7 As discussed by Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (Columbia University Press, 1982) p.15.
8 Peter Brooks, Body Work (Harvard University Press, 1993), p.5-6.
9 Brooks, p.19.
10 Roland Barthes, Pleasure of the Text (Blackwell, 1990), p.31
11 Melanie Klein, “The Importance of Symbol Formation in the Development of the Ego,” in Contributions to Psycho-Analysis, 1921-1945 (London: Hogarth Press, 1950), p.237.
12 Brooks, p.38.