One of the pleasures of knowing a poet over many years is to watch a life’s journey play out in verse, perhaps in tandem with our own, or lighting our way helpfully just ahead, or even just behind, allowing us a good look back at our own experience. Over the years, we’ve seen Sharon Olds find her balance on both sides of the parental equation. She has written frequently as the daughter, still walking the paths laid out by her parents, but probably nearly as frequently from her point of view as a mother of growing and then adult children.
I have never left. Your bodies are before me
at all times, in the dark I see
the stars of your teeth in their fixed patterns
wheeling over my bed, and the darkness
is your hair, the fragrance of your two heads
over my crib, your body-hairs
which I count as God counts the feathers of the sparrows,
one by one. And I never leave your sight,
I can look in the eyes of any stranger and
find you there, in the rich swimming
bottom-of-the-barrel brown, or in the
blue that reflects from the knife’s blade,
and I smell you always, the dead cigars and
Chanel in the mink, and I can hear you coming,
the slow stopped bear tread and the
quick fox, her nails on the ice,
and I dream the inner parts of your bodies, the
coils of your bowels like smoke, your hearts
opening like jaws, drops from your glands
clinging to my walls like pearls in the night.
You think I left—I was the child
who got away, thousands of miles,
but not a day goes past that I am not
turning someone into you.
Never having had you, I cannot let you go, I
turn now, in the fear of this moment,
into your soft stained paw
resting on her breast, into your breast trying to
creep away from under his palm—
your gooseflesh like the shells of a thousand tiny snails,
your palm like a streambed gone dry in summer.
Excerpt from THE DEAD AND THE LIVING © 1975, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983 by Sharon Olds. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Poem submission by Cooper Callinan
dull the encounter of being,
tire the senses to a standstill,
maybe we can breathe.
dispose of the intellect,
trade imagination for currency,
maybe we can sleep.
oh, it is a terrible sun to evolve with,
shoes staggering achingly into years.
ah, it is some telling of the paper,
maimed honest to have filled its page.
and of what else, but to
find recovery in inspiration,
as to arm precision down to
its every squint,
when poetics are a best-burnt secret
and sex another sell-out drug.
what of the simmering
madness in silence?
what of its persistence
speak! such daring sun.
a scorch so quiet.
and a dare works: somewhere
warmth and cancer;
beauty and dehydration;
light unto blindness;
god into death.
tell me that bit about heaven
one more time.
tell me that bit with
I just can’t see with
these cataract eyes.
Poem submission by Megan Cordero
I curl my feet up
Bone by bone
Until I’ve risen
To my toes
Calves and thighs
Lift my chest
Arms curved up
To the sky
And I’m floating
Light as air
Port de bras
Floating through the clouds
And I’m in
Gliding through the atmosphere
And I’m spinning
Arms reach and pull
Back and forth
And I’m flying
I feel the sun
My hair whips round
My pulse grows quicker
Losing every minute
Throwing caution to the wind
Ripping through the stars
Further from the earth
And I’m gone
No one can touch me here.
The music stops
And I’m back on solid ground
My toes are bleeding
No tears or remorse
Stand up straight
And press play again.
Poem submission by chaos-industries
Sheathed in my chest,
Drunk from my blood.
Pain making me move,
Giving reasons to exist.
Gripping the bone hilt
I pull it free, applying
Crimson tip to paper,
Speaking neither love
Words flow free
Like blood and tears
Then the well runs dry,
I must dip my quill in ink.
The blade plunges.
A minute later George came back down, with Jonah at his heels, and Daphne’s mauve album open in his hands. “My word, sis … ,” he said abstractedly, turning the page and continuing to read; “he’s certainly done you proud!”
“What is it?” said Daphne, pushing back her chair but determined to keep her dignity, almost to seem indifferent. Not just his name, then: she could see it was much, much morenow that the book was here, open, in the room, she felt quite frightened at the thought of what might come out of it.
“The gentleman left it in the room,” said Jonah, looking from one to the other of them.
“Yes, thank you,” said Daphne. George was blinking slowly and softly biting his lower lip in concentration. He might have been pondering how to break some rather awkward news to her, as he came and sat down across from her, placing the book on the table, then turning the pages back to start again. “Well, when you’ve finished,” Daphne said tartly, but also with reluctant respect. What Cecil had written was poetry, which took longer to read, and his handwriting wasn’t of the clearest.
“Goodness,” said George, and looked up at her with a firm little smile. “I think you should feel thoroughly flattered.”
“Oh, really?” said Daphne. “Should I?” It seemed George was determined to master the poem and its secrets before he let her see a word of it.
“No, this is quite something,” he said, shaking his head as he ran back over it. “You’re going to have to let me copy this out for myself.” Daphne drained her teacup completely, folded her napkin, glanced across at the two servants, who were smiling stupidly at the successful retrieval of the book, and also formed a somewhat inhibiting audience to this agitating crisis in her life, and then said, as lightly as she could, “Don’t be such a tease, George, let me see.” Of course it was a tease, the latest of thousands, but it was more than that, and she knew resentfully that George couldn’t help it.
“Sorry, old girl,” he said, and sat back at last, and slid the album towards her.
“Thank you!” said Daphne.
“If you could see your face,” said George.
She pushed her plate aside”Will you take all this, please,” to the maid; who did so, with gaping slowness, peering at the columns of Cecil’s black script as though they confirmed a rather dubious opinion she’d formed of him. “Thank you,” said Daphne again sharply; and frowned and coloured, unable to take in a word of the poem. She had to find out at once what George meant, that she should be flattered. Was this it, the sudden helpless breaking of the news? Perhaps not, or George would have said something more. The harder she looked at it, the less she knew. Well, it was called, simply, “Two Acres,” and it ran on over five pages, both sides of the papershe flicked back and forth.
“Formally, it’s rather simple,” said George, “for Cecil.”
“Well, quite,” said Daphne.
“Just regular tetrameter couplets.”
“That will be all,” said Daphne, and waited while Veronica and Jonah went off. Really they were most irritating. She flicked further back for a moment, to the Revd. Barstow, with his scholarly flourish, “B. A. Dunelm”; and then forward to Cecil, who had broken all the rules of an autograph book with his enormous entry, and made everyone else look so feeble and dutiful. It was unmannerly, and she wasn’t sure if she resented it or admired it. His writing grew smaller and faster as it sloped down the page. On the first page the bottom line turned up sideways at the end to fit in”Chaunticleer,” she read, which was a definite poetry word, though she wasn’t precisely sure of its meaning.
“I suppose he’ll be publishing it somewhere,” said George, “the Westminster Review or somewhere.”
“Do you think?” said Daphne, as levelly as she could, but with a quick strong feeling that the poem was hers after all. Cecil hadn’t just written it here, in her book, by chance. She was still trying to see if it said things about her personally, or if it was simply about the houseand the garden:
The Jenny nettle by the wall,
That some the Devil’s Play-thing call
that was a conversation she’d had with himnow quite simply turned into poetry. Her father had called stinging nettles Devil’s Play-things, it was what they called them in Devon. She felt thrilled, and a little bewildered, at being in on the very making of a poem, and at something else magical, like seeing oneself in a photograph. What else would be revealed?
The book left out beneath the trees,
Read over backwards by the breeze.
The spinney where the lisping larches
Kiss overhead in silver arches
And in their shadows lovers too
Might kiss and tell their secrets through.
Again the minutely staggered and then breathtaking merging of word, image and fact. She was really going to have to read this somewhere apart, in private. “I think it would be most appropriate to read this in the garden,” she said, getting up and feeling very slightly sick; but just then her mother appeared in the doorway, with her heavy morning face, and her bright morning manner. In fact her manner was flustered; there was something behind her smile. Word must already have got through. Beyond her Veronica loitered, the informer.
“Well, child … !” her mother said, and gave Daphne a strange, eager look. “What excitements.”
“Everyone can see it when I’ve finished reading it,” said Daphne. “People seem to be forgetting that it’s my book.”
Poem submission by Lynn Jago
Simon thought the ocean a puddle
He stepped in and found himself in trouble
All around strange wonderful creatures
Grotesque and joyful were their features
All seemed to play, fair and square
Nobody pointed, nobody stared
What a pleasant place! thought Simon
When I go back, I must remember where to find them!
The land felt so murky after that
He pondered on a rock as he sat
The air was in fact quite smelly, he amused
He felt like a filter being used and abused
I must find a way to join the creatures of the sea!
Maybe a mask and snorkel is all I need be
So he attached a long snorkel to his humanly head
And forever more in the sea he made his bed.
Poem submission by Kathy Short
I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.
I don’t know what I wanna say or do.
I don’t even know what I want to be tomorrow,
But I know I want to be like you.
The way that you talk or the way that you walk
Aren’t that important to me.
It’s the kindness and love and strength that you bring
To everyone you meet.
If I am a doctor, a lawyer, a sailor,
A basketball player or vandal or tailor:
It wouldn’t matter to me, the things that I do,
As long as I did them like you.
If I have kids of my own, one day down the road,
I will teach them how to have fun.
They will run around, jump off of things,
Playing all day in the sun.
But when it is dark and clouds shield the light,
They will run inside to me,
And I will be like you, I will teach them
All the things my mom taught me.
Poem submission by John E. Becker
He put boats in my sky
And on that day I died
They floated to heaven
As I followed along
Playing sweet music together
Singing their song
The skies were green
And the seas were blue
Where to sail
Only St. Peter knew
My face reflected
In the waves of truth
The clouds broke free
And we fell through
Now we sailed
Past stars and suns
To a place of kindness
A land without guns
The souls were happy
Yet no faces they had
In a boat all alone
Were those who were sad
It was only their feelings of emotion that died
No subjects to speak
No knowledge to gain
We all knew all
And that way it would remain
Was it happiness that we found
In that place void of sound
Or was it an ending to all
The climax of heavens great call
In the long aftermath of grief, the right words have a compensatory beauty, as in these lines by Kevin Young.
I wake to the cracked plate
of moon being thrown
across the room—
that’ll fix me
for trying sleep.
Lately even night
has left me—
now even the machine
that makes the rain
has stopped sending
the sun away.
It is late,
or early, depending—
who’s to say.
Who’s to name
these ragged stars, this
light that waters
down the milky dark
before I down
Sleep, I swear
there’s no one else—
raise me up
in the near-night
& set me like
a tin toy to work,
clanking in the bare
Excerpt from DEAR DARKNESS © 2008 by Kevin Young. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Poem submission by feeltheillinoise
he hoarded towers,
the trembling mountains
the choked the valleys
of his floor.
in the fires, suffocating,
velvet theater seats are breaking,
and everything that seemed
doesn’t seem so anymore.
maybe it’s the fire’s light-
the need to be remembered
or remember what we were;
in lists and fists and movie scripts,
in everything we’ve got or shot-
or maybe it’s the human plea,
the “let me be” or “set me free.”
we all still live accordingly.
Poem submission by sutakimu
I’m trying to understand this suffering sky,
you painted black much of your time
Empathy, chemical reaction to my thoughts
Lightning, thunder to break my stare,
Explodes, ravishes a rainstorm,
your innermost spark belongs there
wonderful abyss, can’t be denied or washed away
Drops falling only on my face,
reflection of every single smile I make,
catching your words as soul’s flights,
sound of precious stones, intensity
when sunrises transfix my eyes
how can you estimate immensity?
Resilient roots, maybe gold but for now rusty and small.
Drops of soul through your fingers,
Pure water, infinite source,
sweetness and light.
I wrote a rebel emotion on my skin
The sunset with it’s rumble,
whispers of a starry sky,
warm wind,a striking rainbow,
fluffy clouds to admire,
it’s time for love
Poem submission by Elisabeth Watson
It was bread that survived.
Motives undisclosed and
Holy insofar as it was silent.
All other furniture was lost to the war:
Ligament and password, loves
uncataloged and cataloged, the universe
as it was before Copernicus–
innocent as we left it, sleeping on the hearth.
Should you find yourself
Homeless with a stove but not a language,
Salt the flour, salt the water, salt the blue flame and the yeast
Salt the ghosts of your table your chairs your pulpit
Salt the fields and the wells and never look back.
The bread of life
Is the bread your father gave you
When you asked him for a stone.
It is the bread that did not rise when you fled slavery in the night.
The bread that grew while you were sleeping, faithless even to yourself.
Who will come hungry to my table?
The mute heart’s oldest question
sits down, unanswered, to a feast.
What it tastes there, strangely, is God
making for safe harbor,
his whole horizon changed
when he finds himself
anchored beyond all famine
What you remember at the altar
is your body, not your name.