Smoke 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 below.

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 gently profound.

 

APPEARANCES

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
appearance—that ease
of conclusion
implied in ash after
fire—what surprise
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.

........................................ Man gives
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
dark.

 


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.


Works Cited

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 jgalbus@usi.edu.

Published in Volume 7, Number 4, Winter 2006.