The Little Review (littlereview) wrote,
The Little Review

Poem for Monday

The Takers
By Sharon Olds

Hitler entered Paris the way my
sister entered my room at night,
sat astride me, squeezed me with her knees,
held her thumbnails to the skin of my wrists and
peed on me, knowing Mother would
never believe my story. It was very
silent, her dim face above me
gleaming in the shadows, the dark gold
smell of her urine spreading through the room, its
heat boiling on my legs, my small
pelvis wet. When the hissing stopped, when the
hole had been scorched in my body, I lay
crisp and charred with shame and felt her
skin glitter in the air, her dark
gold pleasure unfold as he stood over
Napoleon's tomb and murmured This is the
finest moment of my life


I promised to post that poem for ldybastet so here it is. There is another poem a couple of pages later in the same collection, The Dead and the Living, called "The Elder Sister" in which the same narrator (who mentions the sister's "harshness, sitting and/pissing on me in bed"), makes this extraordinary observation about their childhood together:

She protected me, not as a mother
protects a child, with love, but as a
hostage protects the one who makes her
escape as I made my escape, with my sister's
body held in front of me.

Though she was my favorite living poet for many years, I have trouble reading Olds now...ever since The Unswept Room. She writes poems that read as very autobiographical -- intensely personal -- in which the narrator seems entirely consistent and has children the same ages as her own children, the same work, the same interests. I first discovered her when I was 18, when her poetry made an enormous impact on me and my feminism and how I defined my sexuality...on just so many levels, I connected with the person narrating her dozens of first-person poems. Then in this most recent book, as the narrator was speaking about the disintegration of her marriage (which for some reason hit me really hard, as if I had "known" her and her husband as a couple at least in all these poems), she began at the same time what seemed like a self-conscious attempt to distance herself from the poetic persona -- most powerfully in a poem, "The Window," that she wrote about an earlier poem, "That Year," which contains these lines:

It had happened to others.
There was a word for us. I was: a Jew.
It had happened to six million.
And there was another word that was not
for the six million, but was a word for me
and for many others. I was:
a survivor.

I read "That Year" and I assumed that, like me, the narrator/poet was a Jewish woman, which really should not have mattered in terms of the poetry but because her work seemed so personal, it did -- it was another point of connection. Then, in The Unswept Room, she published "The Window", in which her daughter (the same recurring daughter in so many previous poems, not someone who feels like a construct) calls her after watching a movie. It's probably Shoah. The daughter is sobbing, asking how dare the narrator call herself a Jew when she is not a Jew, how dare she compare her own childhood to what happened under the Nazis, and the narrator's refrain, "You're right, you're so right."

I have no idea why I took it so hard to find that she had made up being a Jew to make the point about being a survivor; I don't know why it bugged me so much that she used the Holocaust as a point of comparison for her repressive Christian father when I had already excused her using the Holocaust as a point of familial comparison thinking she was a Jew. But "The Window" was my breaking point with her, and in a funny way I feel like it was used to be a breaking point, to shatter the wall and the narrative "I": it's an absolute, declarative, "I am not who you think I am and everything in these books may not be true." Which so should not matter -- I know that everything in most fiction is not true -- but here I feel as if I was handed a novel and told it was autobiography, or perhaps like I was handed RPS and told it was fact.

You know, it was early 2003 when I read The Unswept Room, and I had recently fallen into the world of RPS myself, with some of the fictions RPS writers construct about themselves as well as the characters they write about to protect or enhance their own online identities, and I struggled the entire time with issues of fairness and identity and libel and lies before I realized that I really needed to stay away for my own mental health, and in a way I think I felt lied to by Olds the same way I felt lied to by someone online whom I considered a good friend until I found out that most of what I knew about her was a lie, a construct she created for role-playing without ever saying "By the way, you know ___ is not my real name, I do not really live as you think I do." I was just looking at this entry and the discussion in the comments of this earlier one...and la, you get me being all babbly and stupidly introspective about Olds. Eep.

Anyway, I don't have a great deal to report about today. We slept till after 9 a.m.. Had breakfast. Went out to the discount shoe store in Hanover where I bought three pairs of sandals (was looking for black Aerosoles, they were sold out for the season, but I got navy Aerosoles for $7.50, black Bass flats for $15 and pretty Dexter copper suede dressy sandals for -- wait for it -- $5). Came back, took a walk and saw a groundhog; I don't really know whether it was Maximus, as he was at a distance and ran away when he saw me, but I am going to assume it was, since all the younger ones are gone after the trapping incident but there are still a couple of adults and some rabbits and the neighbors have stopped complaining now that they know the rat population will increase if the groundhogs are gone.

We drove home and unpacked, I wrote three articles and some smut with my beloved beta, younger son had soccer practice, older son went to the pool with my parents for the end of the season. We had dinner on my parents' deck (a meatloaf recipe of my sister's that my children rejected soundly), came home, watched the Rome: Engineering an Empire show on The History Channel. The Florida State game was on afterward but all I know about it is that they won. And now I am faced with the news. Hey, look, shiny!

African penguins parade around their rocks.

An ostrich stands amidst zebra and rhinos in the African plains exhibit.

A saddle-billed stork chases away a peafowl as a disinterested gazelle watches.

A spoonbill parades past ducks to get its dinner.

A little brown owl in the bird exhibit by the tram.

Curious toucan checks out visitors.

A green heron beneath the Maryland flight cage studies an egret across the way.

So the dilemma goes like this. Could Roberts possibly be worse than Scalia? Or could Roberts be JUST LIKE Scalia? What if Roberts is just like Scalia but less of an abrasive snob...would that be a good thing, or might that actually be a bad thing, because Scalia alienated Kennedy who used to vote with him on almost everything, whereas Roberts might build a stronger clique of conservatives (don't feed me any nonsense about judicial vs. political conservatism, Scalia showed us which side he was on there during the sodomy decision with his "dire warnings" about the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman). Are we better off with Thomas, who appears to be none too bright? Or will he just do whatever Scalia tells him, as it appears he has done for the past several years? If Roberts gets blocked, is Bush going to appoint someone even worse?

...I can't think about it, and I have no more money to give the ACLU or Planned Parenthood as I just sent it all to the Gulf Coast. *headache*

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