What Could I Have Said?

Sharon Olds

If I wrote in a sonnet form, I would be distorting. Or if I had some great new idea for line breaks and I used it in a poem, but it’s really not right for that poem, but I wanted it, that would be distorting.

Sharon Olds

His Stillness

By Sharon Olds
 
The doctor said to my father, “You asked me
to tell you when nothing more could be done.
That’s what I’m telling you now.” My father
sat quite still, as he always did,
especially not moving his eyes. I had thought
he would rave if he understood he would die,
wave his arms and cry out. He sat up,
thin, and clean, in his clean gown,
like a holy man. The doctor said,
“There are things we can do which might give you time,
but we cannot cure you.” My father said,
“Thank you.” And he sat, motionless, alone,
with the dignity of a foreign leader.
I sat beside him. This was my father.
He had known he was mortal. I had feared they would have to
tie him down. I had not remembered
he had always held still and kept quiet to bear things,
the liquor a way to keep still. I had not
known him. My father had dignity. At the
end of his life his life began
to wake in me.
 

I wonder what the divorce rate is among poets?   In particular how many first marriages survive?  No matter what a poet writes, whether autobiographical or not, there is a tendency for readers to think it is, particularly family members. It’s why poems written in the style of confessional poetry, in first person, can be difficult reading, there is little wiggle room for the reader, unless you view every poem as fiction, a product of imagination.  Who is the greater exhibitionist; the painter or the nude, the poet or the reader, the artist or the gallery?  
 
I find it interesting that Olds views the sonnet form as stifling and I find it liberating.  I like structured verse because it provides a canopy under which I can get out of the bright sun and allows fiction to mingle with experience more readily into a nice rosy shade of pink reading glasses.  
 
There are many sides to every failed marriage, particularly if there are children involved and the marriage went on and on, well into their young adulthood; then every member of the family will have their opinion on the matter. When a poet eulogizes their failed marriage in poetry, it takes on a whole new level of sentimentality, there becomes multiple deaths, the death of possibilities.  I wrote a number of poems about my failed marriage.  None of them were any good.  I am not as talented a poet as Olds in that regard.  Poetry of failure is not as inspiring as the poetry of discovery, but maybe it’s equally as important.   The poetry of failure serves as a glue, to remind us all, that life is complicated.  We all fail in our lifetimes, particularly in our marriages. Its just a matter of degrees.  Olds’ poem below was a good reminder to myself, to not be so quick to burn the past without forethought as to the portent of the memories that go up in that rich smoke of the lives that were worth living long ago.  Even those lives that ended in divorce. 
 

 
 

The Easel

by Sharon Olds

When I build a fire, I feel purposeful –
proud I can unscrew the wing-nuts
from off the rusted bolts, dis-
assembling one of the things my ex
left when he left right left. And laying its
narrow, polished, maple bones
across the fire, providing for updraft –
good. Then by flame-light I see: I am burning
his old easel. How can that be,
after the hours and hours – all told, maybe
weeks, a month of stillness – modelling
for him, our first years together,
smell of acrylic, stretch of treated
canvas. I am burning his left-behind craft,
he who was the first to turn
our family, naked, into art.
What if someone had told me, thirty
years ago: If you give up, now,
wanting to be an artist, he might
love you all your life – just put your
gifts into the heart’s domestic service.
What would I have said? I didn’t even
have an art, it would come to me
from out of our family’s life – what could I have said?