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Poets in New York, 5 of 6
Because Sharon Olds has been publishing for forty years and because her work has drawn so much attention, both disparaging and laudatory, most people I know already have decided attitudes towards her work.
One Secret Thing , her new cycle of family poems (Knopf, 2008) includes some intensely moving poems such as the one printed below, “To See My Mother.” Here, deftly orchestrated line breaks and clausal contractions, along with Olds’ characteristically concatenary metaphors, achieve transformative force. The psychological dimensions of the phrase “since I had met her” and the repetitions and variations pierce me on each rereading.
To See My Mother
It was like witnessing the earth being formed,
to see my mother die, like seeing
the dry lands be separated
from the oceans, and all the mists bear up
on one side, and all the solids
be borne down, on the other, until
the body was all there, all bronze and
petrified redwood opal, and the soul all
gone. If she hadn’t looked so exalted, so
beast-exalted and refreshed and suddenly
hopeful, more than hopeful—beyond
hope, relieved—if she had not been suffering so
much, since I had met her, I do not
know how I would have stood it, without
fighting someone, though no one was there
to fight, death was not there except
as her, my task was to hold her tiny
crown in one cupped hand, and her near
birdbone shoulder. Lakes, clouds,
nests. Winds, stems, tongues.
Embryo, zygote, blastocele, atom,
my mother’s dying was like an end
of life on earth, some end of water
and moisture salt and sweet, and vapor,
till only that still, ocher moon
shone, in the room, mouth open, no song.