Sharon Olds’s Vogue Poem: A Close Reading

Photo: Corbis, Corbis, Getty Images

After having her photograph taken for a Vogue profile last year, poet Sharon Olds wrote — what else — a poem about the shoot, called — what else— “Vogue Shoot.” Vogue published the poem this week, shortly after Olds’s book Stag’s Leap won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Needless to say, the poem is not exactly a Vogue take-down. But “Vogue Shoot” may be the most important literary window into the fashion bible since The Devil Wears Prada. And, being the work of a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet and all, it’s much harder to understand. We’ve given it a close-reading.

Vogue Shoot

I’d been told there would be a lot of people, there — Hair, Make-Up, Light,
two Stylists, the Photographer, the Digital Photographer, and two
Assistants, and a Driver, and two Helpers, young 
but I hadn’t pictured us all together, in the big bright trailer.

Olds’s irregular capitalization (“Hair,” “Make-Up,” “Light”) personifies the faceless cogs of the Vogue machine — a humane gesture, as these professional underlings are already, technically speaking, persons. Even the “the Helpers, young Apprentices,” a nineteenth-century convention meaning, loosely, “interns.”

And Sheri
took out a medieval tool
and pinched, once, the tiny soft
eyelashes of each eye,
and the follicles in each eyelid shrieked

The comparison of the eyelash curler to an instrument of torture — on first glance a comic play on the maxim, “beauty is pain” — is rendered suddenly grave by the realization that eyelash curling, when done properly, shouldn’t even hurt.

Then she took her little brushes,
and dunked them in emollient gunk,
colors of the woods light,
in earliest spring, no green yet, and I said,
I think you are the mother bunny,
petting my shut eyes at nap-time.

The poet’s spirit thus broken, she embraces the comfort of submission to new master, who bonds with her as rabbits do, licking and grooming the upper-eye area.

And I told her I had made a deal,
early on, with my fear that I was
distasteful to look at, my face ashamed
to be seen — you know, the usual — and my
deal was that my features were invisible,
as if when someone looked at me
they would see just my spirit, a changing
upright oval of colors, framed by the
dark and now silver matter of the hair.

Here, the mother bunny transforms into the ur–Mother Bunny, Anna Wintour, to whom the poet confesses that she has “made a deal” — worshipping the false god of her “spirit” before beauty — and that she let her hair go gray.

She petted my closed organs of vision,
blessing them.  And Fernando’s hands
drew my hair, in a sort of tunnel, or
funnel, away from my head, along his
palms, as if they were the still banks and my
hair the river, he ran his honoring
fingers through its dense water, like
nerieds through a sea, naiads
a stream, dryads through the leaves. Then outside,

Wintour forgives and blesses Olds, who, in gratitude, invokes Vogue nymphs of the oceanriver, and forest: Blake, Keira, Natalia.

Photo: Vogue

in the drizzle, on a lawn, by a bush with a lot of water on it,
Mark said, Yes, that’s it, chin down
a little, now turn to the side, slower, chin
down, yes! Yes! And the tallest,
leanest, one of us, held
the huge, white umbrella up,
and Fernando would soar forward, and comb
the one hair across my eye
away — we all danced together,
for an hour, nine or twelve graces
moving together in pavanne, in the glade,
and my face was there, visible, it was the
pool around which we danced.  And at the end,
I had gone over, to look at the great,
curved, low branch of an old  
horsechestnut, and the two young helpers were there,
one on the highest ladder, one
folding up the scenery,
stagehands of the mist and grass
and plants — we talked, and then, as I walked

This joyous scene, with the helpers looking on from afar, is a metaphor for the Met Ball, where Vogue interns are not permitted to dance, or eat the horsechestnuts.

away, the two of them behind me in the wet
shade of the leaves, one of them called out,
“We loved your letter to Laura Bush!” and I
turned, and there they were, spirits
of the earth, of the future of the earth, and I called

Here Olds subverts Vogue’s (already flimsy) political objectivity by referencing the 2005 episode in which she declined then–First Lady Laura Bush’s invitation to read at the National Book Festival. “I could not face the idea of breaking bread with you,” she told Bush in an open letter in The Nation, which has now worked its way into Vogue, twice.

and then turned back, into
the late afternoon, no shadows, under
the glistening cloak of the rain. I was
a worker, with my fellow workers,
our muse the glossy page, our muse
the reader, the woman or man under
the dryer, working for the hope of some beauty, some
truth in our deeply troubled place and time.

—Sharon Olds

Olds dedicates the photo shoot and this poem to us, the Vogue reader, whose superficiality she forgives in the name of some much-needed escapism. In return we promise to read more poetry.

Sharon Olds’s Vogue Poem: A Close Reading