Certain eternal questions haunt every human being: are we just body, or body and soul? We are born alone and die alone -- but are we truly alone in this universe? Is there a God? How deep is love, how genuine, how real, and can it be everlasting? In the extraordinary, haunting poem, "Sex Without Love" by Sharon Olds, the mere choreography of sex raises the deepest questions about body, soul, God, love, and aloneness. Although some have interpreted this poem as an argument against casual sex, particularly the kind of casual sex that leads to mothers giving away their unwanted babies, the poem is actually a philosophical meditation on aloneness. It is a felt, and primal, philosophy -- the poet brings us right into the experience of the body with her words, and leaves us moved, uneasy, and feeling as unprotected as the "children at birth,/whose mothers are going to give them away."
The poem begins with a question, so simple and fundamentally bewildered, and so ordinary and "non-poetic" in its syntax, that it seems to have just popped out of the poet's mouth:
How do they do it?
How do they do it, the ones who make love/without love?" The use of "the ones" seems to separate them out into a separate race, almost non-human, perhaps uniquely gifted. The first line ends on the word "love" -- ironically, because it is the lack of love that she is talking about. The next line emphasizes that irony, beginning with "without love." By repeating love, and because of the lovely rhythm of "love without love" we are already taken right into the heart of this contradictory poem, which brings us passion, God, love, sweat, ecstasy -- and yet all the while talking about sex and the body, shorn of any other meaning.
These lovers are "beautiful as dancers,/Gliding over each other like ice-skaters." This image is artful, because it evokes beauty, grace and seamlessness, and at the same time, the cold perfection of ice and ice skaters. They glide effortlessly because of all the effort they have put into training, and they move over the ice with blades that actually cut. Here they seem to be gliding over each other like ice skaters, but as in the first "love without love," Olds repeats the image of ice and both emphasizes it and changes the meaning. The next line begins "over the ice," and suddenly we see iceskaters on ice, "fingers hooked/inside each other's bodies." This image is fascinating and odd: a hook is curved, hard, sometimes piercing; this is not an embrace, but a kind of disconnected connection; it is not their mouths or bodies that are joined. They are already on the journey of aloneness that will be brought out so starkly later in the poem: they are iceskaters on ice, their fingers hooked so that they remain in sync. We move from this strangely beautiful and frighteningly disconnected grace to the heat of the body, to the actual effort: their "faces red as steak, wine"; these images seem to burst into the poem, intruding on the cold smooth grace of the lovers. They are hungry, they are feasting, and they are each other's feast -- and yet the effect of the sudden shift from skaters to red faces is unsettling.
Faces red as steak, wine, wet as the/children at birth/whose mothers are going to give them away." This is a fascinating and multilayered comment. "Red, wine, wet" are echoing in the reader's head, sounding just like what they are, juicy and wet images. At the same time, "wet as the children at birth" gives the impression that these are innocents somehow, these lovers, and that have just been born. Or are they actually orphans? Their mothers are going to give them away at birth. Does that mean their mothers are going to hand them to a nurse, or that their mothers are young women who have had "sex without love," resulting in a child they don't want? All these sensations and images are layered and condensed into this brilliantly evocative line.
Cool as skaters, red as steak and wine, innocent and lost as newborns, the lovers ride to their climax, one of the most bold and ironic sections of the poem: "How do they come to the/come to the God come to the/still waters." Clearly, the repetition of the word come is meant to simulate the mounting pressure towards orgasm, and the way lovers often exclaim, "God" or "Oh God" as they come, and then the slowly subsiding pleasure as echoed in the final "come to the."
At the same time, just as sex was "love without love," this sex is without God and yet contains God, not only in the word, but in the reference of "still waters" ('he leadeth me beside still waters'). Still waters is also literal, it is post-coital silence. How do they do this, "and not love/the one who came there with them, light/rising slowly as steam off their joined/skin?" Deploying the word "come" in the past tense, it suddenly becomes both literal and metaphorical: how can they not love the one who had an orgasm with them, who brought them to orgasm? And how can they not love the one who arrived at this place with them? Here they are in post-coital bliss, a place where light rises slowly like steam, a place where their skin, at least, is joined (no longer are they cold ice-skaters hooking their fingers inside each other).
This light and steam is beautiful, almost heavenly. "These are the true religious,/the purists, the pros, the ones who will not/accept a false Messiah/love the/priest instead of the God." Olds has already prepared us for this declaration with her talk of love and God. And yet, "the purists, the pros" condenses a very complex emotion. Because both words sound similar (with "p" and "r" sounds) they seem to join together, much like the joined skin of the lovers. And yet a purist cannot be a pro; a purist is innocent, entirely shorn of anything but the grace of God, or so it would seem. A pro-is someone who, like the ice skater or the marathon runner a few lines later, practices her craft. This little phrase contains two opposites, stitched into one. Apparently these lovers are not swayed by the beauty of the body, of its overwhelming pleasure. They will never mistake their lover for the beloved. They will love the raw experience itself, that is the "God"; their lover is only the priest, the mediary between them and God. "They do not/mistake the lover for their own pleasure,/they are like great runners." Great runners are endurance athletes -- and the idea of endurance, of enduring something, is subtly reflected in this image. But the runners that Olds describes are as detached as the skaters who hooked their fingers into each other: they are athletes who are precise, calculated, and totally absorbed in the aspects of their craft that will perfect their solitary running: "They know they are alone/with the road surface, the cold, the wind/the fit of their shoes, their over-all cardio/vascular health -- just factors, like the partner/in the bed."
Skating, running and great sex may seem effortless, but apparently this state of "grace" has been achieved with a focused detachment that is actually pleasureless and narcissistic. The road surface, the cold and the wind might seem heroic if isolated. As descriptors of a state, they hearken back to the steak, wine and wet of passion, although they are opposite in their impact. The first images are of heat; these are of cold. But when we move to "the fit of their shoes,/their over-all cardio/vascular health," we have completely left the realm of the sublime. Those who are concerned with the fit of their shoes and their cardiovascular health are so self-absorbed in their task that they are slightly ridiculous. Olds emphasizes this by dividing the word "cardio/vascular" so that we can almost feel the thump of the heart, and yet the poet's scorn. This cardiovascular health is the opposite of true heartfulness.
This particular small section of the poem is actually the one failed part of the poem, because it demeans the lovers in a way that actually departs from the grandiose, deep, true questions the poem is asking. It turns the lovers merely into narcissists, and closes commentary on them, rather than leaving the subject open, complex, disturbing, perturbing, enticing and frightening -- as does the rest of the poem. Here, the poet's own strident voice enters too strongly, depriving the poem of the greatness it achieves in all its other lines.
The poem ends with these lines: "in the bed, and not the truth/which is the/single body alone in the universe/against its own best time." The runners -- the skaters -- the lovers -- the ones -- are competing, not against others, but against themselves. They are completely self referential. They are single…