Poetry Reading: Sharon Olds “I Could Not Tell”

16 Sep

I’ve always liked Sharon Olds.  Well I never knew Sharon Olds, but I always liked her poetry.  She’s the first poet I read as a young adult where I said “Yes, this is what poetry is right now.”  Before her, I had mostly studied the famous old poets, and while they certainly have their pleasures, one of them isn’t hearing someone from your own time speaking directly to you.

I could not tell I had jumped off that bus,
that bus in motion, with my child in my arms,
because I did not know it. I believed my own story: 
I had fallen, or the bus had started up
when I had one foot in the air.

We start with ambiguity.   By “I could not tell” did she mean that she didn’t know, or she could  not say?   Isn’t it funny that the same three words can mean such entirely different things with no change in them at all.    She goes between both meanings–she could not tell because she didn’t know it, but she also could not tell because she believed her own story—that it was an accident.    What we have here is a mother who is going back to a scary event–a close shave–that frightened her.   We have the sort of self talk that would happen after a woman stepped out of a moving bus.

I would not remember the tightening of my jaw, 
the irk that I’d missed my stop, the step out 
into the air, the clear child
gazing about her in the air as I plunged
to one knee on the street, scraped it, twisted it, 
the bus skidding to a stop, the driver
jumping out, my daughter laughing
Do it again.

We have all the things she would not remember–again, would not remember could mean that she will have no memory, or that she would not choose to remember.   In fact, it seems like she finds it hard to forget–a moment that is incredibly clear in her memory.   There is an incredible amount of guilt here, yet this a universal sort of guilt–of getting distracted and almost courting disaster.   Yes, she got hurt.

I have never done it 
again, I have been very careful.
I have kept an eye on that nice young mother
who lightly leapt
off the moving vehicle
onto the stopped street, her life
in her hands, her life’s life in her hands. 

I have never done it—yes she goes on to say…again, but it’s a distancing mechanism.   She watches herself like she’s another person, one who will possibly do destructive things if not kept an eye on.

There’s two things that become abundantly clear.  Having children changes things–it makes a person responsible for things that are not in their control.   I have the sense that if she didn’t have her daughter with her, she would have felt this scenario extremely differently–that she came close to hurting the most precious thing in her life, that’s what causes this reaction.

Also, it’s a metaphor–I don’t know if it’s a warning exactly, but it’s about those moments that we are not paying attention, that if something as precious as your child or a loved one gets hurt because of that inattention, the guilt will well up, and you’ll feel as bad as if you had lept out of the bus on purpose.   It really messes with the head.   And while loving your child that much is a good thing, at the same time it’s something of a burden.   The other thing that strikes me is the complete ignorance of the child to the mother’s injury.  She does not understand it.  She does not understand the love either, for her it’s a given, as part of her environment as air.  It’s not a good or bad thing, it just is.

And perhaps this incident was the sort of thing that the speaker realized the strength of this connection.  Our feelings towards others are like sleeping watchdogs–completely unobtrusive until someone disturbs them, and then they come out barking.  And they certainly are more than capable of biting their  masters.  And that’s the other thing we cannot tell, we cannot tell when these things are going to happen, and we cannot tell them to others because words aren’t big enough to hold them.

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