On Sharon Olds’s “Ode To The Tampon”

I was really pleased to find a selection of Sharon Olds’s work in the most recent Winter issue of Tin House. I am always struck by how she addresses the topic of female sexuality in a way that manages frankness without sacrificing lyricism; I am always equally impressed by how fearless she is  in the face of taboos, of how she takes the confessional approach to poetry to its furthest extremes, at times seeming to almost turn her body inside out for the sake of a poem: she not only talks about sex in general but is courageous enough to present her particular experience of it, and that experience is important because it challenges the idea that raw sexual power is available only to those of a certain biological sex, gender, body type, or age.  The aforementioned issue of Tin House allowed me to rediscover the poem, “Ode To The Tampon,” which I’d heard Olds read via YouTube without ever having seen it in print, and though her reading was obviously lovely, I did not at the time really sit with the poem and let it work on my mind. My takeaway from hearing it was unfortunately one-dimensional—I remembered it as a humorous poem and left it at that. Upon rediscovery, I found that this poem does, expertly, what a lot of my favorite poems do: it sets forth expectations with its title and then subverts or challenges those expectations as the poem progresses so that reading it is internally transformative. The title of this particular poem is humorous in its incongruous pairing of the ode, with its rather stuffy constellation of associations, and the tampon, with its vulgarity. For me, the ode brings to mind the florid, spiritual tributes of the Romantics, poems meant to last the ages inscribed on monuments, while the tampon brings to mind not only the bodily, in the form of menstrual blood, but also the idea of the disposable, impermanent, and therefore valueless. This  witty juxtaposition is ingenious precisely because humor is a comfortable entry point for us in discussing the taboo. This is a poem you dive into expecting more of this sort of incongruity, but instead Olds brings you around to the view that the tampon, and all it represents, is indeed worthy of the ode form; the tampon is not merely a vulgar, utilitarian, and disposable consumer good but is instead inscribed with spiritual and creative significance. The tampon can in effect be a woman’s introduction to her own sexual power—“you who in the cross-section diagram . . . glide into potential space . . . up beyond the atmosphere, / where no one has gone before” —and this introduction leads to the potential for poetic agency, the tampon becoming “a nib which dips into a forty-year river” and a “mute calligrapher.” And of course this view of the tampon begins to chip away a the taboos around the female body, as it exposes how the spiritual and intellectual are fundamentally intertwined with our bodily experiences, particularly with our bodily functions.