Meeting a Stranger
In the morning, when I’m pouring the hot milk
into the coffee, I put the side of my
face near the convex pitcher, to watch
the last, round drop from the spout—
and it feels like being cheek to cheek
with a baby. Sometimes the orb pops back up,
a ball of cream balanced on a whale’s
watery exhale. Then I gather the tools
of my craft, the cherry sounding-board tray
for my lap, like the writing-arm of a desk,
the phone, the bird book for looking up
the purple martin. I repeat them as I seek them,
so as not to forget: tray, cell phone,
purple martin; tray, phone,
martin, Trayvon Martin, song was
invented for you, all art was made
for you, painting, writing, was yours,
our youngest, our most precious, to remind us
to shield you—all was yours, all that is
left on earth, with your body, was for you.
Looking South at Lower Manhattan, Where the Towers Had Been
If we see harm approaching someone—
if you see me starting to talk about
something I know nothing about,
like the death of someone who’s a stranger to me,
step between me and language. This morning,
I am seeing it more clearly, that song
can be harmful, in its ignorance
which does not know itself as ignorance.
I have crossed the line, as the line was crossed
with me. I need to apologize
to the letters of the alphabet,
to the elements of the periodic
table, to O, and C, and H,
oxygen, carbon, hydrogen,
which make up most of a human body—
body which breaks down, in fire,
to the elements it was composed of, and all that is
left is ashes, sacred ashes
of strangers, carbon and nitrogen,
and the rest departs as carbon dioxide and is
breathed in, by those nearby,
the living who knew us and the living who did not
know us. I apologize
to nitrogen, to calcium with the
pretty box-shape of its crystal structure,
I apologize to phosphorus,
and potassium, that raw bright metal
we contain, and to sodium and sulfur, and to
the trace amounts which are in us somewhere like the
stars in the night—copper, zinc,
cobalt, iron, arsenic, lead,
I am singing, I am singing against myself, as if
rushing toward someone my song might be approaching,
to shield them from it.
Meeting a Stranger
When I meet you, it’s not just the two of us meeting.
Your mother is there, and your father is there,
and my mother and father. And our people—back from our
folks, back—are there, and what they
might have had to do with each other;
if one of yours, and one of mine
had met, what might have happened is there
in the room with us. They are shadowy,
compared to us, they are quivers of reflected
light on a wall. And if I were
a German, and you a Jew, or I a
Jew and you a Palestinian,
or, as this morning, when you are an African
American woman, and I am a WASP,
one of your family might have been taken
from their home, and brought through murder to murder
by one of my family. It is there in the air
with us. And if you’re a woman in the city
where you live, and I am staying at
the hotel where you work, and if you have brought me
my breakfast on a tray—though you and I have not
met, before, we are breathing in
our lineages, together. And whether
there is guilt in the room, or not, or blame,
there is the history of human evil,
and the shame, in me, that someone I could be
related to, could have committed,
against someone you are related to, some
horror. And in the room, there is
a question, alive—would I have risked harm
to try to protect you, as I hope I would risk it
for a cousin, a niece, or would I have stood
aside, in the ordinary cowardice and self-
interest of my flesh now sharing your breath,
your flesh my breath.
Maybe one reason I do not wear makeup is to scare people.
If they’re close enough, they can see something is different with me,
something unnerving, as if I have no features,
I am embryonic, pre-eyebrows, pre-eyelids, pre-mouth,
I am like a water bear talking to them,
or an amniotic traveler,
a vitreous floater on their own eyeball,
human ectoplasm risen on its hind legs to discourse with them.
And such a white white girl, such a sickly toadstool,
so pale, a visage of fog, a phiz of
mist above a graveyard, no magenta roses,
no floral tribute, no goddess, no grown-up
woman, no acknowledgment
of the drama of secondary sexual characteristics, just the
gray matter of spirit talking,
the thin features of a gray girl in a gray graveyard—
granite, ash, chalk, dust.
I tried the paint, but I could feel it on my skin, I could
hardly move, under the mask of my
desire to be seen as attractive in the female
way of 1957,
and I could not speak. And when the makeup came off I felt
actual as a small mammal in the woods
with a speaking countenance—or a basic
primate, having all the expressions
which evolved in us, to communicate.
If my teenage acne had left scars,
if my skin were rough, instead of soft,
I probably couldn’t afford to hate makeup,
or to fear so much the beauty salon or the
very idea of beautyship.
And my mother was beautiful—did I say this?
In my small eyes, and my smooth withered skin,
you can see my heart, you can read my naked lips.
A Pair of Sonnets Against the Corporal Chastisement of Children
Blows That Fall on a Child
Blows don’t fall. Feathers fall,
and are dropped from towers. Leaves fall.
Dictionaries fall from towers—
the speed of their fall accelerates,
and the rate of the acceleration
accelerates. What falls is something
let go of, something gravity
is hauling to it, to tiramisu it—
dessert that says pull me to you. The liver
and lights of the body that the blow strikes are not
magnets, the blow is neither drawn
to its objects nor floated down from its source—
a blow is driven, by an engine, it is
the expression of a heart.
The Progeny of Punishment
They inherit the earth. They crawl on it,
they pull themselves up, they walk, they look up,
they do not know which visage they will see
above them—the crescent, or the waxing gibbous,
seas and craters of the eyes nose mouth.
Sometimes the cycle has a pattern, sometimes
the new is followed in an instant by the full,
as if a face turned suddenly toward you,
and in its holes and shadows you could read
the next hour of your life. With the impact of a
giant bolide, the moon was born,
struck right off the earth. The children
born as the corporeal subjects of their makers
are our species’ living daylights, being beaten out.
(b. 1972, d. 1979)
Poem to Etan Patz
Then the butter we put on our white bread was colored with butter yellow, a cancerous dye, and all the fourth graders were taken by streetcar to the Dunky Company to see milk processed. . . . Before we were herded back to the streetcar line, we were each given a half pint of milk in tiny milk bottles with straws to suck it up. In this way we gradually learned about our country.
—Ruth Stone, “American Milk”
This morning, on the front page, in a headline,
the A and the Z of your name. I was walking up the
sidewalk my son had walked up, that morning,
to the bus to school. I beg your forgiveness
for speaking to you now whom I had not known—
only my son, your age then, known.
And this morning there is an arrest, a confession,
now we have some words of a story,
lured, promise, bag, out in the
open with trash. He says you were
a block away from your building—not you,
but what you had been ravaged from.
But how could he have seen you, and wanted
to stop you, to tear you out of the world.
33 years ago—a
long life set next to yours.
Your mother, your father—forgive me, I do not
know them—may have walked past your folded
form. Young darling, nothing in your nature
had anything to do with anything you saw
that day, or learned. But who could want that,
for a baby to have to know, with his life, who we
are at our worst, with his last eyes—
your smile printed, then, on every
carton of what makes the bones long,
every child at breakfast gazing
into the red mirror. In this way
we gradually learn about our country.
Poem Which Talks Back to Me
The parents whose boy went off to school
that morning—the police may have found someone
who saw their son, alive, after
they saw him for the last time. Step away!
Someone who saw that elfin face
change, at the word “soda.” Step back!
And change again, and change. And down
the basement steps, down into the earth,
the stairs down into the underworld.
Don’t go there. Close your eyes. Someone
may know the unbearable—someone
in custody. O, “custody.”
A wall of dirt, a wall of stone,
a bare bulb, like the uterus upside
down. No Kaddish, no washing of the dead,
no linen shroud, no company
through the long night.
Whatever honor can be kept for him—
his pure and whole honor is kept
by his parents, for the rest of the hard
labor of their lives. All this time,
they could not die, so they’d be here, in case
he came back. Unspeakable. And now,
the one taken in for questioning cries out,
“I don’t know why, I don’t know why.”
He will not tell. He is holding that hour
to himself. Did he hold that child in his hands. And
vanish him, the spirit mattered away.
And the dear matter—don’t. The truck,
the landfill, or the barge, the burial
at sea—the dispersal, the containment within
the bounds of the oceans, crested on top and
cragged at the floor where the mantle of the planet pours
up, molten, through fissures—contained
in the air bound by the atmosphere, the
clouds of mourning pressing against
the inner surface of the casing. Shut
your mouth. Put down your pen. Drop
your weapon! Stop! In the name of the law
and the prophets. At his birth, the history of the earth began.
Birds in Alcoves
More and more, along the shore
of the Northeast Corridor,
where the trains run along the edge of the land,
birds are standing in alcoves like telephone booths
as the humans go by—
doorless ceilingless closets in walls of reed
whose floors are the banks, awash in water,
of inlets and bays.
Large wading birds step back into green recesses,
and stand very still,
sometimes more than one in the narrow space,
sometimes a blue heron and a great egret facing each other
beak to beak. Some birds do not stand,
but grip a branch with their feet to stay upright.
Some birds hop, bouncing along
like little pocketless kangaroos,
and a crow walks along with coins singing in her trousers.
But many birds
freeze when they see us,
like a horror movie—a scene in a house
where a killer has a special room.
Herons, egrets, ibises, bitterns,
storks, cranes, coots, rails
fall silent, struck motionless at our advent.
Some sidestep, for safekeeping, into extinction.
An atom bomb—does it reduce everything
to atoms—to a mist the size of the moon?
And the hydrogen bomb—is there water in it?
When you drop it, does the mushroom above it
look like a splash, as if you’d dropped
the moon onto the ocean? If you dropped
the moon onto the Pacific, would its
diameter fit? Eight moons
dropped onto the Pacific would fit on it.
We can’t imagine the length of time
it took to make the universe.
And the death of the earth—for most of us,
unimaginable, and therefore
inevitable. As if each parent,
at the same moment, will see our offspring
atomized, our species’ clouds
lifting off the globe, the huge, childless atom.
My Father’s Whiteness
It takes me a lifetime to see my father
as a white man—to see his whiteness
(named by white men after gleaming and brightness).
I saw the muck sweat of his pallor, he’d be
faceup on the couch like a mushroom in a mushroom-forcer,
and I didn’t even wonder what it would feel like
for a person to be proud of their father.
I knew that at the interfraternity council
he’d been the handsome, wisecracking one, the
president, proud he could not read,
he could always get someone to do that for him—
he liked to say the two people allowed
to graduate from his college without knowing how to
read or write were him and Herbert Hoover.
Nor did any frat house there
house a brother.
Nor did I see my father—that in order to pass
out every night on the couch, snore
and snort and gargle-sing from his chintz
sty, he had to overcome
every privilege known to a man
tall, dark, handsome, white,
straight, middle class. He had to put his
every advantage down on the street and drive
over it with that thump a tire
and a body make. O say can you see him as I
see him now, as if he had no one
to answer to, he so prepared
to devour and excrete the hopes he’d been handed
on a platter, the spoon in his mouth, he could eat
what he had not earned, he could do it in his sleep.
When the men in maximum security
were saying what they’d done, I thought of him,
the one who had not had a name
until they found our seventh-grade classmate’s
body half buried near his brother’s cabin
in the hills, fifty years ago, and for a
moment I thought that he had cheated, by paying
up front, not doing his time—the forty
thousand volts had sprung him from his twenty-four
hours a day, his four hundred thirty-eight
thousand hours. I do not know
how much it cost the state to fry him,
to light up a man like a city, a species, but it
probably wasn’t as much as three
hots for fifty years, so his murder may have
saved us a lot, and it saved him a hell of a
lot of time. But his execution—
wasn’t it state evidence that it’s
O.K. to kill someone? What did she
have to protect herself with, against such
evidence? One pink
plastic barrette—hold the lamb,
or rabbit, in your fist, and sink
its shank in his throat.
Copyright © 2019 by Sharon Olds. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.