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