Two poems by Sharon Olds

Yesterday, before taking my daughter into the mountains for a hike, I stopped at a bookstore and picked up a volume of poetry. I wanted something contemporary, by someone I hadn’t read before. I ended up buying a book by Sharon Olds called Blood, Tin, Straw. 

I was hoping for something good, but I was not expecting anything like this. This is wrenching, blood-soaked poetry. She leaves shame at the door, which is how you write with strength. It is nakedly powerful work, figuratively and often literally. She writes about sex and longing, being a mother and a daughter, the dark spaces in a marriage, and, especially in the second of the poems included here, the way a long loneliness can bend you out of true. I’ve never read anything else like this. I love it absolutely.

The Promise

With the second drink, at the restaurant,
holding hands on the bare table,
we are at it again, renewing our promise
to kill each other. You are drinking gin,
night-blue juniper berry
dissolving in your body, I am drinking Fumé,
chewing its fragrant dirt and smoke, we are
taking on earth, we are part soil already,
and wherever we are, we are also in our
bed, fitted, naked, closely
along each other, half passed out,
after love, drifting back
and forth across the border of consciousness,
our bodies buoyant, clasped. Your hand
tightens on the table. You’re a little afraid
I’ll chicken out. What you do not want
is to lie in a hospital bed for a year
after a stroke, without being able
to think or die, you do not want
to be tied to a chair like your prim grandmother,
cursing. The room is dim around us,
ivory globes, pink curtains
bound at the waist—and outside,
a weightless, luminous, lifted-up
summer twilight. I tell you you do not
know me if you think I will not
kill you. Think how we have floated together
eye to eye, nipple to nipple,
sex to sex, the halves of a creature
drifting up to the lip of matter
and over it—you know me from the bright, blood-
flecked delivery room, if a lion
had you in its jaws I would attack it, if the ropes
binding your soul are your own wrists, I will cut them.

The Babysitter

The baby was about six months old,
a girl. The length of her life, I had not
touched anyone. That night, when they went out
I held the baby along my arm and
put her mouth to my cotton shirt.
I didn’t really know what a person was, I
wanted someone to suck my breast,
I ended up in the locked bathroom,
naked to the waist, holding the baby,
and all she wanted was my glasses, I held her
gently, waiting for her to turn,
like a cherub, and nurse. And she wouldn’t, what she wanted
was my glasses. Suck me, goddamnit, I thought,
I wanted to feel the tug of another
life, I wanted to feel needed, she grabbed for my
glasses and smiled. I put on my bra
and shirt, and tucked her in, and sang to her
for the last time — clearly it
was the week for another line of work —
and turned out the light. Back in the bathroom
I lay on the floor in the dark, bared
my chest against the icy tile,
slipped my hand between my legs and
rode, hard, against the hard floor, my nipples holding me up off the glazed
blue, as if I were flying upside
down under the ceiling of the world.


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