Sunday Poetry: Where Will Love Go?, by Sharon Olds

Where Will Love Go?

Where will love go? When my father
died, and my love could no longer shine
on the oily, drink-darkened slopes of his skin,
then my love for him lived inside me,
and lived wherever the fog they made of him
coiled like a spirit. And when I die
my love for him will live in my vapor
and live in my children, some of it
still rubbed into the grain of the desk my father left me
and the dark-red pores of the leather chair which he
sat in, in a stupor, when I was a child, and then
gave me passionately after his death-our
souls seem locked in it, together,
two alloys in a metal, and we’re there
in the black and silver workings of his 40-pound
1932 Underwood,
the trapezes stilled inside it on the desk
in front of the chair. Even when the children
have died, our love will live in their children
and still be here in the arm of the chair,
locked in it, like the secret structure of matter,

but what if we ruin everything,
the earth burning like a human body,
storms of soot wreathing it
in permanent winter? Where will love go?
Will the smoke be made of animal love,
will the clouds of roasted ice, circling
the globe, be all that is left of love,
will the sphere of cold, turning ash,
seen by no one, heard by no one,
hold all
our love? Then love
is powerless, and means nothing.

by Sharon Olds

It was an awful week of funerals and loss. A friend lost his mother, after a long battle with cancer, filled with false hopes and sad, inexorable truth. She was the grace that transformed a house full of males into a home filled with men, and she lives on in her sons and grandchildren. Another friend lost her father, suddenly, awfully, stunningly, last Saturday morning, a morning which could have been spent outdoors with his beloved grandchildren.

Sharon Olds writes about the things we struggle with as humans. Birth, sex, death, separation – those things that make the human spirit struggle to understand, or at least to cope. There’s something old-fashioned about Olds’ determination to make poetry about the big topics, rather than academic minutiae or opaque personal mutterings. Where most contemporary poets shrink from the challenge of writing poems clearly about that which moves us, Sharon Olds takes on the grand topics and writes bravely about unfashionably important issues. Go read some of her other poetry here or here, or, best yet, go buy one of her books.

Sharon Olds did her undergraduate work at Stanford and earned her doctorate from Columbia University. Rather than sinking into the dull depths of academic poetry of tweed, she took a vow as she walked down the grand steps of Columbia’s library – “I will give up everything I’ve learned if I can just write my own poems.” That authenticity rings through all her poetry – she pours straight life into her poems, without the typical dilution of literary allusions or unrecognizable, stretched images.

But back to this poem – it is awful, disturbing, and just right. Olds takes the comfort that we give to ourselves and wraps it in imagery of smoke from cremation and ghostly vapors. The image simply fits for those of us who have lost parents – they seem to hover around us, not as voices or Family Circle ghosts in the clouds, but as a penumbra of themselves. It’s a comforting thought, and, while wholly unoriginal, it is well-expressed and the first stanza is complete in itself, if she were seeking to simply and competently express what many of us have thought. Something of my parents exists in that which has been handed down, and they are not entirely gone.

The second stanza is the kicker. The second stanza is what makes this poem worth reading, and it’s both troubling and comforting.

What if we ruin everything? What if we fail to love forward? What if we get caught up in choking smoke and allow roasted ice to cover the world? What if we allow our sadness to settle in and wound us so deeply that we are unable to love again? What if our grief leaves us with mere animal love, basic instinct and procreation, but devoid of the joy and sparkle that our departed have given us? If our love is buried or cremated, then death has conquered.

On Friday morning, I stood with a crowd around a grave site in Gallatin, Missouri. The clouds on Friday were a riot of grays, and the land surrounding the hill of the cemetery was a breathtaking mix of autumnal colors dashed together. The site of my friend’s father’s final resting place was beauty and splendor at its most stark.

Before the graveside service started, I saw my friend walking by herself for a moment, soaking in the beauty. At the funeral of my other friend’s mother, I saw how he looked to and comforted his children.

It was an awful week of funerals and loss, but love is powerful, and means everything.

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