30 days of poems: day thirteen

I’ve adored Sharon Olds for nearly thirty years now. My acquaintance with poetry began when my high-school mentor (ironically, the stepfather of the only other person in my life to break up with me before two weeks ago…) slipped two volumes of her poems—Satan Says and The Gold Cell, I believe—into my hands as I headed off for a band trip to Colorado. He warned me that the subject matter would be controversial if anyone knew he’d loaned me the books (Olds’ style would later come to inform my prose, the way one line drips with honey and the next finds a cannon aimed straight at your genitalia). But he also said he thought I was ready, the same way he’d say the next year I was ready for Joyce’s Ulysses, and he was right. I’ve never stopped loving her irreverence combined with her ability to not only strip herself bare for public consumption but also the way in which she so accurately identifies (and refuses to shy away from) the blood and shit and snot and love and ambivalence that come from, well, being human in a complicated world that doesn’t always cooperate with the plans we might have for ourselves. If you’ve never heard of her, find her. I suggest reading her books in order, as they tend to correlate with her life, a sort of real-time poetry. This one below is a milder poem.

I Go Back to May 1937

By Sharon Olds 

I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks,
the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips aglow in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.