One poem helped heal three generations of my family.
They say you should never meet your idols. They, I guess, being all the fanboys and girls who have had their autographs torn up, their photo ops dismissed, their helpless excitement met with indifference, or worse, douchebaggery. I had a tireless obsession with the alt-pop group Weezer from sixth to eleventh grade, spawning a Weezer-themed sweet sixteen party and a college application essay about super fandom, but I never actually wanted to meet them. Love that deep and potentially baseless can only be maintained from afar, like a collectible Wolverine you keep in its plastic. Plus, a friend, obsessed with R.E.M. since middle school, once met Michael Stipe at an airport and said Mr. “Shiny Happy People” told him to go fuck himself.
No thank you.
So, when Sharon Olds, the poet who made me feel like there was a kindred spirit among the pretentions and endless navel-gazing of the genre, scheduled a workshop at my college, I was terrified. To me, this woman was it. Known for her fearless and unsentimental pieces about sex and mortality, I imagined she was also one badass bitch—in a way that could make even that hackneyed phrasing empowering. But in a way that might also stare at me nonplussed when I confessed that her collection “The Father” was the first one that ever made me cry.
Her work, that one especially, was dear to me for another reason. My mother, patient woman that she is, likes, or pretends to like, whatever poems I show her, but probably wouldn’t read a whole collection in a sitting. It’s just not her bag. But my mother, a badass bitch herself, felt differently about Sharon Olds. And that was because of him.
My grandfather was a good man. He was also a complicated one. He worked as a manager at the telephone company for over 40 years, enjoyed Kentucky basketball and before that, the jitterbug. He was also a stern man who believed in order and completion, when he wasn’t drinking whiskey. He’d quit cold turkey, then start again, before trading the whiskey for cigarettes exclusively, and then the cigarettes for cigars. My mother loved her father, and was always loved in return, but she also knew the lineage of trouble he struggled to keep from continuing, with varying degrees of success. When he died from lung cancer that spread to his brain, my mother was torn in two. Because he was a good man. Because he was not defined by his addictions. Because he wasn’t fast enough to escape them.
One day when we were driving back from my grandmother’s house in Kentucky, I was reading “The Father” again, Sharon Olds’ memorial for her troubled father, a man erratic and sometimes cruel who also died from cancer. I was fascinated specifically by a poem called “The Lifting.” It’s devastating, a final encounter the two share in his hospital room. Her father begins to assume the role of the child, asking for kindness, for levity when the room gets too sticky and dark. Olds wants to find some meaning in his death, and in the end, this sort of reconciliation, this mercied kindness, is what she takes.
Perhaps you can already sense the parallels here, but I didn’t, because I am an idiot. I read the poem to my mother, stupidly not thinking about the fact that she might have been in this exact situation. When I finished, it was quiet. And then, I looked at my mother, and realized she had started to cry. She smiled and said “That’s it. That’s perfect.”
So, when Sharon Olds showed up at college, it felt dangerous. Tenuous. Weighted by things she could not begin to carry for me, for us. But it felt necessary to see her. So, I signed up for the workshop.
The day of the workshop, I arrived twenty minutes early. The door to the classroom was locked, so I wandered around in the coffee shop downstairs, annihilating a bran muffin with the nervous vigor of a post-hibernation squirrel. As I crumpled the wrapper, a woman with long silver-streaked hair walked to the counter, adjusting a black turtleneck with her index finger. Sharp, high cheekbones, a peach-colored birthmark on her squared jaw, dark eyebrows with their somewhat vulcan peaks—this was the woman that had gazed from the back of the chapbooks, stark-eyed and exposed, looking every inch the windswept-beatnik-guru-mother I’d imagined. Yes, Sharon Olds was ordering a Tazo Green Tea at my college cafe.
I suddenly had to pee.
When I made it upstairs to the workshop, she was already inside, sitting next to my professor, who began the class by reciting her long litany of awards, her grants, her teaching positions and choice reviews. And then she spoke.
And she was so…incredibly…lovely.
Voice soft and slightly melodic, she talked about her process, offered kind but incisive advice to the fledgling writers. She laughed often, tying back her coarse gray locks and then unspooling them again, swearing under her breath when she got a paper cut from the anthology she brought along. Not to disappoint my poet-warrior-priestess vision, she also offered a few thoughts on the role of feminism and masculinity in poetry, plus an anecdote about the time her son read a poem about his parents having sex.
After class, feeling bold, I walked up to her. A line had formed, and she sat in a swiveling office chair, chatting with the congregated students like the cool aunt we’d never had. When it was my turn, I started safely.
“Thank you so much for coming, the workshop was really great—”
And then, the tricky part. The part where you turn into stalker girl. I blurted:
“I just wanted to say! I really appreciate your work! And I have for a long time! And especially your book “The Father,” it’s just! That poem! “The Lifting”?! It really means a lot to me and my mom! And she doesn’t! Read poetry that often! And she says it reminds her of her father! And it’s just really been a moment for us and I just—”
And then, inexplicably, I got choked up. I had no idea what was happening. Oh, Jesus. This was the definition of creepy fan. Sharon Olds was listening to me babble on, and now, I was going to start pooling my plebeian tears onto her beautiful silver-poet-goddess-mane. Bottom lip quivering, I struggled to pull it together.
She smiled, closed-mouthed and said “Thank you.”
She took my hand.
“That really does mean a lot. That’s the best feeling, to know that your stuff helped do something like that. Thank you for sharing that with me.”
I smiled back, and realized I was going to cry again. Excusing myself, I ran out, pinching the bridge of my nose to try to stop my tears.
It wasn’t going to get easier. She had a reading later that night in a lecture hall in Severance, a classic, tiered-seating style classroom, complete with a yellowed periodic table drooping over a dry-erase board. She read a handful of poems from her new collection, Stag’s Leap, which would go on to win the Pulitzer. Halfway through the reading, though, she closed the new book, and rifled though her bag for two sheets of computer paper.
“So, I haven’t read this one in a while, but a very kind student came up to me today after the workshop, and said this poem was special to her and her mom, and I thought it would be good to pull it out again.”
And then she read “The Lifting”.
“…on the cotton of the gown as it rises
the way we were promised at death it would rise,
the veils would fall from our eyes, we would know everything.”
This woman, whose words had always burned for me like gospel, was reading the poem that taught me that art that tells the truth can be the best kindness. She was reading it to me, seven years after I’d read it to my mother, as we cried together in a Buick leaving her childhood home.
I bawled. With as much repose as I could muster. But not enough that my friend didn’t shove a Kleenex into my hand before the poem was over.
Afterwards, I waited in line to have her newest book signed for my mother. When she saw me, she said “Hi!” energetically, and shook my hand.
“Thank you so much for doing that.”
“Oh!” she said, “Well, it was just so nice for you to say, and I thought it would be nice to revisit that poem again. Thank you for saying it, truly.”
She gave the book a few sharpie scribbles (To Deborah, through the kindness of Lee) and then said “Your advisor told me you’re quite the poet.”
I spluttered “I’m trying” lamely.
“Well, that’s all we can do, you know.”
She handed me the book and shook my hand again.
“Thank you, Lee. Say hello to your mom!”
That Christmas, as my mother unwrapped the book, we cried again. There were gifts for all of us that year, the dead and the living. There were words we’d been looking for so long.
Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons, Leah Love