in a House on Fire: A Profile of Gloria Oden
Julia A. Galbus
Many poets become known as part of a constellation of writers, and when
fellow stars’ positions shift, proximate stars are temporarily
lost in the cosmos. Gloria Oden is one such star who deserves to be
charted again. She studied poetry with Kimon Friar,
Louise Bogan, and Leonie Adams, and
later associated with Arna Bontemps, Marianne
Moore, Elizabeth Bishop,
and Mark Van Doren. Her poetry ranges from sonnets
to blank verse, and from autobiography to philosophical query. She underscores
the virtues of imagination, while insisting that action ultimately reigns
over ideas on a page.
Gloria Oden published her fourth book, Appearances,
in 2003 at the age of eighty. The cover, graced by a nude photograph
of a svelte female torso taken by Edward Putzar, suits Oden’s
main theme of sexual passion. Oden’s book is permeated by quiet
eroticism and wonder as she finds herself in love with a mysterious,
distant younger man. Ultimately, Oden affirms that love, longing and
happiness may occur at any age.
Born October 30, 1923, Gloria Oden grew up in Yonkers, New York. The
youngest of six children, born eight years after her siblings, she was
estranged from them as well as from her parents. Her father had been
a minister of the AMEZ church, and her mother had attained an undergraduate
degree. The children were required to memorize and recite poetry, a
tradition which led to Oden’s self-description as a “black
Puritan” (Doreski 36). Having been instilled with a respect for
the intellect, Oden earned a bachelor’s degree in 1944, a law
degree in 1948, both from Howard University. She also took graduate
courses at New York University from 1969-1971. Instead of practicing
law, she became a modern Renaissance woman. She edited The American
Journal of Physics, worked for the Institute of Electrical and
Electronics Engineers, and edited math and science textbooks for Holt,
Reinhart and Winston before becoming an English professor at the University
of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Oden felt her writing was neglected because her poetry “was not
pointedly ‘black’ in content, style, or language”
(Redding 9). She insisted that in 1952, that the only way to publish
if you were black and didn’t write “off your skin”
was to self-publish. She borrowed money against a life insurance policy
and took out a loan, spending the equivalent of eighteen weeks’
salary to print The Naked Frame. After receiving a positive
review in The Afro-American (Baltimore) she applied for fellowships
and was awarded both a John Hay Witney Opportunity Fellowship and a
stint at Yaddo.
Her second book, Resurrections, responded to a gruesome family
tragedy: her mother, who was 87, and her mother’s sister, who
was 65, were murdered in their home in Washington DC in August 1974.
The crime remains unsolved, without motive or suspect. Critic Jascha
Kessler describes the poetry as bookish, dignified, learned
and subtle (84). It is also poignant. Resurrections was nominated
for a 1979 Pulitzer Prize.
Oden’s third book, The Ties that Bind, recalls a traditional
hymn. A slim memorial to her father, it was written twenty-five years
after his death, a testament to his stern impact on her life. Dedicated
to the “Black” Church, the book is organized by days of
the week. She demonstrates her father's methodical schedule, as he devotes
particular days to maintenance of the buildings, or visiting the sick,
as well as presiding at services. That she respected him is clear, but
in Appearances, she also writes about his portrait haunting
her and the relief of his death which allowed her, finally, to escape
a bad marriage.
In Appearances, the speaker of the poems understands the political
implications of writing autobiographical poetry:
It discomfits me
that I should be the central
matter of my poems when savage and
brutal deeds hurl themselves
as headlines around the world.
She juxtaposes poems about her sterile marriage and her sudden romance.
Oden questions her situation: “How can / it be that your presence
/ has been the strike of flint / upon stone and I am flame?” (“Life
after Death”). She is inspired by the unnamed man, to whom she
declares “you / inhabit me like smoke / in a house on fire;”
(“Query”). Oden’s life unfolds in random order. She
describes her second marriage as a source of comfort and contentment
but not passion. Realizing that love is possible, finally, she states,
“I suffer / as much anguish / for the past / as for the astonishment
/ that is you.”
Far from being infatuated, she queries the construction
of personas in “Suspicion,” where she accuses her lover
of concealing a darker, deeper self. She wonders whether his truer personality
might stir something similar in her. Oden can also pull verbal punches:
The woman my husband chose
not to marry explicitly
informed me I was not
very attractive. . . . (“A Small Step”)
Her mother, who was said to be elegant and thin, had also been disappointed
in her daughters’ appearances. Oden felt unattractive for most
of her life.
While the majority of the poems are intensely personal, a good number
involve philosophical speculation drawn from Plato, Santayana, Spinoza,
and Martha Nussbaum. In these poems, she considers the traditional mind-body
problem, the relationship between reason and emotion, the use of imagination,
and the connection between action and belief. Often, the narrator sides
with imagination and feeling over reason, with body over mind:
Habits of culture are
not truths of mind. Habits
are would be legislators.
Civilization is the ash
of their defeat. (“Civilization”)
Oden alludes to Homeric and Christian myth without allegiance to either.
She draws upon her circumstances to examine universal situations and
uses abstract ideas to describe what she sees as the state of humankind.
This is apparent in her title poem, “Appearances,” reprinted
Oden’s achievement over the course of four books
may well be found in her resistance to habit and her willingness to
explore the key aspects of her life. Her story is both personal and
Including me, everyone
believed the tree was dead—
clearly a long way
beyond dying. Witnessed through winter
as mainly a long, crooked,
spindly finger poking
upwards at sky, we
could not have fancied it
as now appearing: an abundance
of leaf from tip to root;
on end, a furry,
green caterpillar; or truer,
perhaps, an ugly duckling
transformed to beauty, gowned
in the many-tiered opulence
of summer’s gothic-point lace
It had not been
our eyes that deceived,
but our ready acceptance
of surface, construing aspect
the sum of actuality. Our
minds locked into
implied in ash after
that nature, supreme architect
of the arbitrary, should
resurrect in the whispering
winds of April, May,
June; restore vigor
to submerged energies;
coax itself to green ascendancy.
himself to habit, not
to thought. We know
and don’t know; warehouse
facts; indulge in
the simplest constructions of
them. Upon foundations of mythologies
we erect tottering
civilizations, cultures destined
for extinction in
the next surging tide
of some spring’s full
moon of belief.
What it is
we are we have yet
to realize. Hesitant to command
our abilities, fearful
of them, we are
like that infant who,
forsaking to crawl, rises
wobbling in the air unsure
of the balance
point that would
stabilize his flat-footed stance.
Until dead, we live.
As unseen coals refute
the overlay of silvered dust,
as trees in their darkest
cycle fabricate demise,
so, too, our
accumulating years can
dissemble, facades of decay
subtend an intense and fertile
BOOKS BY GLORIA ODEN
The Naked Frame: A Love Poem and Sonnets, Exposition Press, 1952.
Resurrections, Olivant Press, 1978.
The Tie That Binds, Olivant Press, 1980.
Appearances, Saru Press International, 2003.
Doreski, C.K. "Gloria Oden 'Looks' at Elizabeth Bishop." Harvard
Review 16 (1999): 36-40.
Kessler, Jascha. "Resurrections, Gloria Oden." MELUS
7.3 (1980): 83-87.
Redding, Saunders. "Interview with Gloria Oden." Weid
14.1 (1978) No. 51.
Julia A. Galbus, an associate professor
of English at the University of Southern Indiana, studies American literature,
autobiography, and African American literature since the Black Arts
Movement. She has recently presented papers at conferences such as the
Modern Language Association, Furious Flower, and the American Literature
Association. Recent publications appear in the Edith Wharton Review
and Obsidian III and Sable (London). She was the keynote
speaker for the International American Studies Conference, hosted by
Minsk State Linguistic University and the US Department of State in
Belarus in 2003. In 2006, she was awarded a Lilly Excellence for Engagement
Sabbatical to begin a book about memoir. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Published in Volume 7, Number 4, Winter 2006.