by Sharon Olds


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


Following her recent Odes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet gives us radical new poems of intimate life and political conscience, of race and class and a mother's violence.

The atom bomb, Breaking Bad, Rasputin, the cervix, her mother's return from the dead: the peerless Sharon Olds once again takes up subject matter that is both difficult and ordinary, elusive and everywhere. Each aria is shaped by its unique harmonics and moral logic, as Olds stands center stage to sing of sexual pleasure and chance wisdom, and faces the tragic life of our nation and our planet. "I cannot say I did not ask / to be born," begins one aria, which considers how, with what actions, with what thirst, we each ask for a turn, and receive our portion on earth. Olds delivers these pieces with all the passion, anguish, and solo force that make a great performance, in the process enlarging the soul of her reader.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525656937
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/15/2019
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

SHARON OLDS was born in San Francisco and educated at Stanford University and Columbia University. The winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and England's T. S. Eliot Prize for her 2012 collection, Stag's Leap, she is the author of eleven previous books of poetry and the winner of many other honors, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Dead and the Living. Olds teaches in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at New York University and helped to found the NYU outreach programs, among them the writing workshop for residents of Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island, and for the veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. She lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Meeting a Stranger

For You

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.

No Makeup

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.

8 Moons

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.

State Evidence

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.

Table of Contents

Meeting a Stranger

For You 3

Looking South at Lower Manhattan, Where the Towers Had Been 4

Meeting a Stranger 5

No Makeup 6

A Pair of Sonnets Against the Corporal Chastisement of Children 7

Poem to Etan Patz 8

Poem Which Talks Back to Me 10

Birds in Alcoves 12

8 Moons 13

My Father's Whiteness 14

State Evidence 15

Sweet Land of Liberty 16

White Woman in White Makeup 17

Apocalypse Approaching as I'm Aging 18

My Godlessness 19

Seas to Rise Forty Feet 20


Aria to Our Miscarried One, Age 50 Now 23

Aria Above Seattle 25

Anal Aria 26

Bay Area Aria 27

Bonnard Aria 28

Breaking Bad Aria 30

Cervix Aria 32

Calabash Aria 33

California Aria 34

Departure Gate Aria 35

Early Pastoral Aria 36

Fear of Motherhood Aria 37

Global Aria 39

Gliss Aria 40

Graduation Aria 41

Hyacinth Aria 42

Immigration Aria 43

Jockey Aria 44

Kunitzeiform Aria 45

Long-Playing Aria 47

Mortal Aria 49

Morning Aria, 6,000 Feet 51

Nevada City, California, Aria 52

Object Permanence Aria 54

Pasadena Aria 55

Pugilist Aria 57

Q Aria 58

Rasputin Aria 59

Sepia Aria 60

Silver Spoon Aria 61

Scansion Aria 62

Scrapbook Aria 63

Timothy Aria 64

Tailbone Aria 66

Uncombed Aria 67

Vermont Aria 68

Waist Aria 70

X Y Z Aria 71

Run Away Up

I Cannot Say I Did Not 75

Mourning Undone 76

First Breath 77

The Task of Naming Me 78

My First Two Weeks, 79

Coda, for Coda and Codette 81

201 Upper Terrace Snapshot 82

Theme Psalm 84

On Truth Serum, Seventy Years Ago, My Mother Chats 85

Run Away Up 87

The Green Duck 89

Dream of Mrs. Sly 90

I Think My Mother 91

How the Buttermilk Was Administered to the Child at the True Blue Cafeteria 93

I Do Not Know If It Is True, but I Think 94

How It Felt 95

Easter Morning, 1955 96

Phobia of Red 97

Easter Morning, 1960 98

Cold Tahoe Today 99

Never Saw 100

Sex with Love 102

My Father Happened on a Poem of Mine in a Magazine 103

Nemo me impune lacessit 104

The Enchantment 105

Like a Sonnet 106

Varicosonnet 107

From the Window of My Home-Town Hotel 108

My Poem Without Me in It 109

Where I Die 110

The New Knowing

What Thou Lovest Well 113

Remembering the First Time 114

After Divorce 115

Where Is It Now 116

The New Knowing 117

First Boyfriend After 118

Boyfriend Blues at 55 119

Boyfriend Lament 120

Go 122

When My Fear That I Won't 123

Unexpected Flourishing 124



Hospice-Bed Song 129

After Closing Up My Mother's House 130

The Relics 132

Dawn Song 135

Her Birthday as Ashes in Seawater 136

In the Temple Basement 138

Let the Night 139

As If My Mother 141

Blossom Trees 142

Holding to a Sea-Wall, Treading Salt Water 143

Where Is My Lady? 144

Where She Is Now 146

Double Elegy 147

My Parents' Ashes (New York City, October, 2001) 148


On the Bank of the Columbia River 153

Morphine Elegy 155

Last Day with My Father's Wife 156


Burial Day 161

Big Boy Blue 162

Landing in San Francisco on the Way to the Community of Writers (with a line from Tom Waits) 164

Song to Gabriel Hirsch 165

Tory Dent Elegy, Big Sur 166

Garlic Elegy 168

Sonnet for Joe of Nazareth 169

Morning Song 170

Stanley's Mouth 172

Animal Crackers 174

Song Before Dawn 175

Vigil 178

Sacred 180

First Child

The First New Human Animal 185

When You Were First Visible 186

First Child 188

Aria Conceived in Mexico 190

Acknowledgments 193

Customer Reviews