Oct. 27, 2007


by Sharon Olds

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Poem: "35/10" by Sharon Olds, from Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980–2002. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Brushing out our daughter's brown
silken hair before the mirror
I see the grey gleaming on my head,
the silver-haired servant behind her. Why is it
just as we begin to go
they begin to arrive, the fold in my neck
clarifying as the fine bones of her
hips sharpen? As my skin shows
its dry pitting, she opens like a moist
precise flower on the tip of a cactus;
as my last chances to bear a child
are falling through my body, the duds among them,
her full purse of eggs, round and
firm as hard-boiled yolks, is about
to snap its clasp. I brush her tangled
fragrant hair at bedtime. It's an old
story—the oldest we have on our planet—
the story of replacement.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Zadie Smith, (books by this author) born in London (1975), who grew up black in a working-class London neighborhood where she had a hard time making friends with other kids. She spent all of her free time either tap dancing or reading. She later wrote, "It is a mixture of perversity and stomach-sadness that makes a young person fashion a cocoon of other people's words. If the sun was out, I stayed in; if there was a barbecue, I was in the library. ... By the time I arrived at college I had been in no countries, had no jobs, participated in no political groups, had no lovers. ... In short, I was perfectly equipped to write the kind of fiction I did write: saturated by other books; touched by the world, but only vicariously."

She finally began to fit in when she got to college at Cambridge, where it was cool to be smart and exotic to be black. Her sophomore year, she published a short story in her undergraduate literary journal that attracted a lot of attention, and people said she should try to get a book contract for a novel. So while she was cramming for her final exams, she banged out 100 pages of a potential novel, those hundred pages started a bidding war among London publishers, and Zadie Smith wound up with a six-figure book contract before she'd even graduated from college. That novel became White Teeth (2000), which was compared to the work of Charles Dickens, with a huge cast of characters, including Bengali Muslims, Jews, Jamaicans, Nazis, Jehovah's Witnesses, animal rights activists, Islamic terrorists, and old English men. It sold more than a million copies.

Zadie Smith's most recent book, On Beauty (2005), is a modern retelling of E.M. Forster's Howards End. She said, "I'm influenced by everything I read, shamelessly. ... I think if I carry on plagiarizing for 15 years, it will settle like silt, and I'll write something really great."

It's the birthday of Dylan Thomas (books by this author) born in Swansea, Wales (1914), who published his first collection, 18 Poems, in 1933. It got great reviews, but most readers found it very difficult to understand. Thomas himself said, "I agree that much of [my] poetry is impossibly difficult; I've asked, or rather told, [my] words to do too much." Thomas made his name among general readers with the poems he wrote about the bombing raids on London During World War II, including "Ceremony After a Fire Raid," "Among Those Killed in the Dawn Raid Was a Man Aged a Hundred" and "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London."

It's the birthday of Sylvia Plath, (books by this author) born in Boston, Massachusetts (1932), who wrote her best poems after her marriage to the poet Ted Hughes broke up. She was living alone with her two children, but she woke up every morning at 4:00 a.m. to write, and poems just poured out of her. At the end of October, 1962, she wrote to her mother, "I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name." But she couldn't get the poems published because the editors of various magazines thought they were too strange and disturbing.

That winter in England was one of the coldest on record, and Plath kept coming down with fevers. On the morning of February 11, 1963, she got up and sealed her children's bedroom door with tape, sealed herself in the kitchen, stuffed a towel under the door, opened the oven and turned on the gas, killing herself. The poems she had been writing that fall were published as Ariel in 1965, and they did make her name. When her Collected Poems was published in 1981, it won the Pulitzer Prize.

It's the birthday of novelist and memoirist Maxine Hong Kingston, (books by this author) born Maxine Hong in Stockton, California (1940), whose memoir Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976), begins, "'You must not tell anyone,' my mother said, 'what I am about to tell you.'"

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