When You Were First Visible

Sharon Olds

copyright ©2019 by Sharon Olds

When you were first visible to me,
you were upside down, not sound asleep but
before sleep, blue-gray,
tethered to the other world
which followed you out from inside me. Then you
opened your silent mouth, and the first
sound, a crackling of oxygen snapping
threads of mucus, broke the quiet,
and with that gasp you pulled your first
in, to your lungs which had been
waiting entirely compressed, the lining
touching itself all over, all inner – now each
lung became a working hollow, blown
partway full, then wholly full, the
birth day of your delicate bellows.
And then – first your face, small tragic
mask, then your slender body, flushed
a just-before-sunrise rose, and your folded,
crowded, apricot arms and legs
spring out,
in slow blossom.
And they washed you – her, you, her –
leaving the spring cheese vernix, and they wrapped her in a
clean, not new, blanket, a child of
New York City,
and the next morning, the milk came in,
it drove the fire yarn of its food through
passageways which had passed nothing
before, now lax, slack, gushing
when she sucked, or mewled. In a month’s time,
she was plump with butterfat, her wrists
invisible down somewhere inside
the richness of her flesh. My life as I had known it
had ended, my life was hers, now,
and I did not yet know her. And that was my new
life, to learn her, as much as I could,
each day, and slowly I have come to know her,
and thus myself, and all of us, and I will
not be done with my learning when I return to where she
       came from.

Notes on the Poem

We continue this week with Poem of the Week choices that come from the seven works on the recently announced 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist. As we did last week, we are showcasing two selections again this week. We know this is a bit of a departure from our usual weekly schedule, but we want to ensure that you get to enjoy selections from the entire shortlist before the accelerated 2020 winners announcement on May 19th. The second of two selections this week comes from Arias by Sharon Olds. "Olds is a jubilantly physical poet, renowned (or notorious, depending on your point of view) for rejoicing in the body and its functions ..." This observation from a September 2016 piece in The New Yorker on Sharon Olds' then current poetry collection, Odes, sums up perfectly what she continues with characteristic gusto and spirit in Arias, abundantly celebrated in "When You Were First Visible". Olds combines dizzying elements in this poem to plumb the depths of meaning of the ultimate intimate connection. There is the dramatic effect of the poem's line breaks, as almost every one teeters breathtakingly into the next image or feeling. There are startling and vivid characterizations of every sense, from: "the first sound, a crackling of oxygen snapping threads of mucus" to "the milk came in, it drove the fire yarn of its food through passageways which had passed nothing before" In their citation for Arias, the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize judges described the effect powerfully:
"there is the heft of heavy lifting, of difficult emotional material moving like magma under enormous pressure to issue volcanically, irrupting into the moment of the poem. It is not just that the personal is political, the intimate here is revolutionary."
Beyond the sensory, Olds executes an intriguing shift partway through the poem, moving from addressing her child in the second to the third person ... "her, you, her" ... and somehow, a shift that in another context might seem distancing is in fact, perhaps counterintuitively, intensifying. And from that intensity comes the volcanic eruption of Olds the mother's "new life", so beautifully tying together the lives of mother and child.

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