Motherhood & Words

I said I would dedicate a whole post to Sharon Olds, and this is it (though this doesn’t mean that I won’t post about her writing in the future—I might just get wild).

When Stella was discharged from the hospital (at 4 weeks old, weighing 4 pounds, 7 ounces), I withdrew from graduate school (it sounds so much better than saying “I dropped out of graduate school,” doesn’t it?).

I couldn’t take Stella out in public (or outside at all in the Minnesota winter), so I spent my days pumping, trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to breastfeed, washing diarrhea-spattered clothes, and walking her around and around our dining room table as she cried.

Needless to say, I was losing my mind.

But then one day, when I’d just about had it, when I was ready to throw in the towel (whatever that means), my sister, Rachel (whom I call Peanut) came over and insisted I go out and have a glass of wine. (I love Peanut.)

I changed out of my sweatpants (I was getting crazy, I know) and drove to a bookstore in St. Paul. I needed words, and I was looking for Satan Says by Sharon Olds, which someone had recommended to me. But they didn’t have it, so I settled on another Olds collection, The Dead and the Living, and I walked across the street to the wine bar.

I’m not sure why I decided on Pinot Grigio, but I ordered a glass (with a Caesar salad, lest you think I just drank and read) and I opened the book. The first part, “Poems for the Dead,” was disturbing, Olds’ details gorgeous, sick, and lively. But it was part two, “Poems for the Living,” specifically the section titled “The Children,” that really captured my attention.

The one that stuck with me most clearly was “Relinquishment.” An excerpt:

On a black night in early March,
the fire hot, my daughter says
Wrap me in something. I get the old
grey quilt, gleaming like a sloughed
insect casing, and wrap it around and
around her narrow nine-year-old body,
hollow and flexible. Cover my face,
she hisses in excitement. I cover her face
and fall back from the narrow, silver
shape on the carpet.

I looked up. Outside, the sky was already dark, yet the restaurant was mostly empty because it wasn’t yet five o’clock. I couldn’t, at that moment, imagine my daughter as anything other than a fussy infant. I couldn’t imagine that someday she would be old enough to talk, to say wrap me in something, cover my face. I wanted to count on that, to let Olds’ poem give me strength, and it did, sort of—it reminded me that I love words. But it scared me, as well. I was still so afraid that something would happen to Stella. We we’re in the clear yet. She was a preemie, after all. I took another sip of my wine—so crisp, so tart—and wondered if it would ever feel safe to love her completely.

Since then, I’ve returned Sharon Olds many times. I always use her poems when I teach because she’s so honest. She never shies away from the hard stuff, the things about which people don’t want to talk.

An excerpt of my current favorite, from The Unswept Room, “The Clasp”:

She was four, he was one, it was raining, we had colds,
we had been in the apartment two weeks straight,
I grabbed her to keep her from shoving him over on his
face, again, and when I had her wrist
in my grasp I compressed it, fiercely, for a couple
of seconds, to make an impression on her,
to hurt her, our beloved firstborn, I even almost
savored the stinging sensation of the squeezing, the
expression, into her, of my anger,
“Never, never, again,” the righteous
chant accompanying the clasp. It happened very
fast—grab, crush, crush,
crush, release—and at the first extra
force she swung her head as if checking
who this was, and looked at me,
and saw me—yes, this was her mom,
her mom was doing this, Her dark,
deeply open eyes took me
in, she knew me…

Sharon Olds is brave enough to write the truth of it. I wish we all were.

Posted in ,


I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. Emmie (Better Make It A Double) on February 28, 2007 at 12:49 pm

    That was exactly what I need to read today – thank you for the beautiful post and poem.

  2. Mandy on March 1, 2007 at 4:08 am

    Wonderful post, Kate – my favorite yet – oh, gritty Olds!

  3. sari on March 3, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    I’ve always heard about Sharon Olds, but haven’t been quite certain what she’s about. Those passages you quoted were amazing. Honest. (Aren’t they normally the same?)

    Great post!

  4. Mardougrrl on March 6, 2007 at 4:41 pm

    I needed that so much…I think she’s writing about ME right now–it’s helpful to see that when the shame becomes overwhelming.

    And now I need to read more of her poetry.

    Thank you.

  5. sheri on March 27, 2007 at 1:51 am

    funny. i just posted that “dead and living” is one of my favorite books of all time. sharon amazes me every time. mostly, i just think she’s one of the few poets i’ve read that gets motherhood right.

    enjoying your blog tonight. thank you.