Sharon Olds

Visceral and transformative, Sharon Olds’ poems barrel down into that place in us that we “want never to know.” Michael Ondaatje has called her work “pure fire in the hands—risky, on the verge of falling, and in the end, leaping up.” Writing on such subjects as family, alcoholism, death, sex, mothering, and the horrors of violence and war, Olds writes stark, potent, and cathartic poetry—brutally honest and beautiful in its stripped-down artistry. Olds’ dazzling and harrowing voice surprises, haunts, and pleasures.

“Her work exhibits a lyrical acuity which is both purifying and redemptive,” writes David Leavitt. “Sharon Olds is enormously self-aware; her poetry is remarkable for its candor, its eroticism, and its power to move.” Her audience is wide and fiercely loyal. As The Poetry Foundation attests, “Olds is undeniably one of the most popular and accessible living American poets, and one of the few that has won a following among general readers.”

The author of eight books of poetry, Olds is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Lamont Poetry Selection, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and an Academy of American Poets Fellowship. Her work has been reprinted in over 100 anthologies and appears regularly in The New Yorker and other major journals. Olds served as the New York State Poet Laureate from 1998-2000. Currently, she is Erich Maria Remarque Professor in the Creative Writing Program at New York University and also oversees the poetry workshop she founded in 1984 at New York’s Goldwater Hospital for the severely disabled.

Poetry Center Reading:

Spring 2008

I Go Back to May 1937

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.

From THE GOLD CELL (Knopf, 1987)

Psalm

Bending over, at the August table
where the summer towels are kept, putting
a stack on the bottom shelf, I felt his
kiss, in its shock of whiskers, on an inner
curve of that place I know by his knowing,
have seen with the vision of his touch. To be entered
thus, on a hip-high table piled with
sheaves of towels, bath and hand,
terry-cloth eden, is to feel at one’s center
a core of liquid heat as if
one is an earth. Some time later,
we were kissing in near sleep, I think
we did it this time, I whispered, I think
we’re joined at the hip. He has a smile sometimes
from the heart; at this hour, I live in its light.
I gnaw very gently on his jaw, Would you want me to
eat you, in the Andes, in a plane crash, I murmur,
to survive? Yes. We smile. He asks,
Would you want me to eat you to survive? I would love it,
I cry out. We almost sleep, there is a series of
arms around us and between us, in sets,
touches given as if received. Did you think
we were going to turn into each other?, and I get
one of those smiles, as if his face
is a speckled, rubbled, sandy, satiny
cactus-flower eight inches across.
Yes, he whispers. I know he is humoring,
rote sweet-talking. A sliver of late
sun is coming through, between the curtains,
it illumines the scaly surfaces
of my knuckles, its line like a needle held,
to cleanse it, above a match. I move
my wedding finger to stand in the slit
of flame. From the ring’s curve there rises
a fan of borealis fur
like the first instant of sunrise. Do not
tell me this could end. Do not tell me.

From THE UNSWEPT ROOM (Knopf, 2002)

Stag’s Leap

Then the creature on the label of our favorite red
looks like my husband, casting himself off a
cliff in his fervor to get free of me.
His fur is rough and cozy, his face
placid, tranced, ruminant,
the bough of each furculum reaches back
to his haunches, each tine on it grows straight up
and branches, a model of his brain, archaic,
unwieldy. He bears its bony tray
level as he soars from the precipice edge,
dreamy. When anyone escapes, my heart
leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from,
I am half on the side of the leaver. It’s so quiet,
and empty, when he’s left. I feel like a landscape,
a ground without a figure. Sauve
qui peut. Once I saw a drypoint of someone
tiny being crucified
on a fallow deer’s antlers. I feel like his victim,
and he seems my victim, I worry that the outstretched
legs on the hart are bent the wrong way as he
throws himself off. Oh my love. I was vain of his
faithfulness, as if it was
a compliment, rather than a state
of partial sleep. And when I wrote about him, did he
feel he had to walk around
carrying my books on his head like a stack of
posture volumes, or the rack of horns
hung where a hunter washes the venison
down with the sauvignon? Oh leap,
leap! Careful of the rocks! Does true
love have to wish him happiness
in his new life, even sexual
joy? I think so. Below his shaggy
belly, in the distance, lie the even dots
of a vineyard, its vines not blasted, its roots
clean, its bottles growing at the ends of their
blowpipes as dark, green, wavering groans.

From The New Yorker (November 17, 2003)

April, New Hampshire

for Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall

Outside the door, a tiny narcissus
had come up through leaf mold. In the living room,
the old butterscotch collie let me
get my hand into the folds
of the mammal, and knead it. Inside their room
Don said, This is it, this is where
we lived and died. To the center of the maple
painted headboard—sleigh of beauty,
sleigh of night—there was an angel affixed
as if bound to it, with her wings open.
The bed spoke, as if to itself,
it sang. The whole room sang,
and the house, and the curve of the hill, like the curve between
a throat and a shoulder, sang, in praising
grief, and the ground, almost, rang,
hollowed-out bell waiting for its tongue
to be lowered in. At the grave site,
next to the big, smoothed, beveled,
felled, oak home, like the bole
of a Druid duir—inside it what comes not
close to being like who she was—
he stood, beside, in a long silence,
minutes, like the seething harness-creaking
when the water of a full watering is feeding
down into the ground, and he looked at us,
at each one, and he seemed not just
a person seeing people, he looked
almost another species, an eagle
gazing at eagles, fierce, intent,
wordless, eyelidless, seeing each one,
seeing deep
into each—
miles, years—he seemed to be Jane,
looking at us for the last time

on earth.
 

From THE UNSWEPT ROOM (Knopf, 2002)

Available as a Broadside.