Reading: The Unborn by Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds (b. 1942) is an American poet and a leading voice according to Poetry Foundation. She writes about the body and its pleasures and pains. She has won a Pulitzer prize (for Stag’s Leap, 2013) and the British T.S. Eliot prize. She (or her work?) is widely anthologized, if that’s the info you need. Today, I read a poem of hers about unborn children:

The Unborn
Sometimes I can almost see, around our heads,
Like gnats around a streetlight in summer,
The children we could have,
The glimmer of them.

Sometimes I feel them waiting, dozing
In some antechamber – servants, half-
Listening for the bell.

Sometimes I see them lying like love letters
In the Dead Letter Office

And sometimes, like tonight, by some black
Second sight I can feel just one of them
Standing on the edge of a cliff by the sea
In the dark, stretching its arms out
Desperately to me.

It’s a accessible poem that makes proper use of its metaphors. The condition of the children is built up through stanzas 2-4. At first they are waiting in an antechamber for the parents to call them into being, but that didn’t seem to happen. Then the children are pushing and write love letters that don’t arrive because the stork couldn’t read the address. The letters end up in the Dead Letter Office, a dank and depressing place.

Finally the unborn children announce themselves in a vision of the author, her ‘black Second sight’. Just one of them is standing there on the edge of a cliff in the dark and in desperation. What do we make of that? The poem is about the possible children, calling them ‘unborn’ might make conservative America angry (she is not a friend of conservative America, having declined an invitation of Laura Bush to the White House in 2005). But really this is about the possibility of children and these possibilities jump down to the sea, whether we catch them or not.

Olds has two children, I guess she and her husband tried for a long time? Anyway, I like the buildup and accessibility of this poem. But I won’t let you go without quoting some edgier stuff by Olds. This gives a taste of how horny her poetry can be:

As soon as my sister and I got out of our
mother’s house, all we wanted to
do was fuck, obliterate
her tiny sparrow body and narrow
grasshopper legs

Reading: The Unborn by Sharon Olds was originally published on Meandering home


Reading: It Was A November Of Bitter Rain And Snow Blackened By Use

Today I read a poem by the Lebanese poet (and former miss Beirut) Venus Khoury-Ghata in the English translation by Marilyn Hacker. It has a few things in common with poems I wrote about here earlier: It is short, but not too short and contains some surrealistic images that can shake the prepared reader.

we filed the dead leaves by size to ease the task of the forest that was absent for
reasons known only to itself
The parents had left with the door
We mistook puddles for creeks
pebbles for meteorites
the wind’s hordes for wolves
A child would liquefy as soon as a snowflake touched the ground
We could hold out till Epiphany
handling our feet like toys
waiting for a redistribution of parents

Children are sorting fallen leaves to help the forest. If you focus on the individual leaves (or trees) you don’t see the forest, but it’s still there. Here, the forest is absent “for reasons only known to itself”. I don’t see what’s happening here, so let’s read on. The parents had left “with the door”, what does that mean? Did the parents take away the distinction inside-outside?

The children were erring: the mistook “puddles for creeks / pebbles for meteorites” and so on. They blew up every small thing, so perhaps that’s why the forest became absent? After this, they horrifying line about the liquefied child projects us in the middle of a surrealist painting. The softest impact would make the children lose shape. I read this as a metaphor for hypersensitivity. So the poem is perhaps about sensitive children after their parents left them.

Against all odds the children made it, they “held out till Epiphany”. What is it they will see? A redistribution of parents, so they could get parents who don’t leave with the door and will again know the difference between inside and outside: be home somewhere. Why are they handling their feet like toys? Because it was cold in the snow and by objectifying their feet they could forget that they were freezing? Because the children were too fragile to handle their feet like parts of their own bodies. They know that if they don’t play with everything, if they don’t let play dissolve everything, they are vulnerable. So here they are: still filing the dead leaves by size to create an imaginary order, an order that is safe because it is invisible to the parents. The obsession reminds the reader of the autistic spectrum.

The Epiphany, a restribution of parents, is impossible. But what if the “handling of the feet like toys” and the “filing of the dead leaves” brings about some sort of imaginary epiphany, in which the parents are redistributed and the order is restored?

Reading: It Was A November Of Bitter Rain And Snow Blackened By Use was originally published on Meandering home