I keep dipping into this beautiful book about the death of Olds’ father. The poems are strikingly realistic and honest and have a universal quality to them. I love how Olds manages to capture all the moments of dying – of physical touching, memory and history – into her poems. The book, of course, risks becoming a home-movie or a sugar-coated ode to a loved one. However, Olds is defiant and original in her voice and it makes for an incredible, gut-churning read.
As I was reading the book I kept drifting back to my grandfather’s body lying in hospital and waiting to die. I recalled his shrunken form and how the spit crusted to his dry lips. I remember looking at him, remember words spoken between short breath and I wondered how impossible it might be to speak or write this, this passing. The days in the hospital just seemed so singularly personal and tragic that a poem either felt like it wasn’t big enough or felt massively too big, too weighty for what was essentially a simple thing, a natural and ultimate thing. I remember thinking, “I must remember this.”
If you have ever lost a loved one – this is a book to wrap yourself in again and again. The Father gave me some time with my own beloved and deceased. Like all great books, The Father is a little door that let’s you go some place you don’t normally go. I was grateful for the door.
The Mortal One
Three months after he lies dead, that
long yellow narrow body,
not like Christ but like one of his saints,
the naked ones in the paintings whose bodies are
done in gilt, all knees and raw ribs,
the ones who died of nettles, bile, the
one who died roasted over a slow fire—
three months later I take the pot of
tulip bulbs out of the closet
and set it on the table and take off the foil hood.
The shoots stand up like young green pencils,
and there in the room is the comfortable smell of rot,
the bulb that did not make it, marked with
ridges like an elephant’s notched foot,
I walk down the hall as if I were moving through the
long stem of the tulip toward the closed sheath.
In the kitchen I throw a palmful of peppercorns into the
as if I would grow a black tree from the soup,
I throw out the rotten chicken part,
glad again that we burned my father
before one single bloom of mold could
out of him,
maybe it had begun in his bowels but we burned his
the way you burn the long blue
scarf of the dead, and all their clothing,
cleansing with fire. How fast time goes
now that I’m happy, now that I know how to
think of his dead body every day
without shock, almost without grief,
to take it into each part of the day the
way a loom parts the vertical threads,
half to the left half to the right like the Red Sea and you
throw the shuttle through with the warp-thread
attached to the feet, that small gold figure of my father—
how often I saw him in paintings and did not know him,
the tiny naked dead one in the corner,
the mortal one.
Published by Knopf.
- Find The Father by Sharon Olds at the Scottish Poetry Library
- A perfect compliment to this book Cornelius Eady’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” which also chronicles the death of a father.
- Olds will be reading at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Sunday, 23 August at 7pm. You’ll see me there.
- Read another great poem: The Glass (from The Father)