The night before she went back to college,
she went through my sweater drawer, so when she left
she was in
black wool, with maroon creatures
knitted in, an elk branched across her
chest, a lamb on her stomach, a cat,
an ostrich. Eighteen, she was gleaming with a haze
gleam, a shadow of the glisten of her birth
when she had taken off my body – that thick coat, cast
off after a journey. In the elevator
door window, I could see her half-profile –
strong curves of her face, like the harvest
moon, and when she pressed 1,
she set. Hum and creak of her descent,
the backstage cranking of the solar system,
the lighted car sank like a contained
calm world. Eighteen years
I had been a mother! In a way now I was past it –
resting, watching our girl bloom.
And then she was on the train, in her dress
like a zodiac, her body covered with
the animals that carried us in their
bodies for a thousand centuries
of sex and death, until flesh knew itself, and spoke.
Oh, so many wonders propel this poem. The challenge for its maker is that a poem that is ultimately about the power of language needs to show that power as well as declare it. This one is full of visual language – words that make pictures. The reader sees his or her way through the narrative.
But even when the words are visual, they can also chime to ear and please tongue. Gleam, gleam, glisten – language that sounds beyond the page. Creak, crank, sank. And then the intensity of mother looking at daughter and the beautiful metaphors: “strong curves of her face, like the harvest moon” and the mother’s body, at birth, as “that thick coat cast off after a long journey.”
Olds has written thousands of poems about her family. Like this one, most of them seek the universal in the particular, “the backstage cranking of the solar system” in “the hum and creak of her descent.” This poem captures a moment, a scene, but also the mother-daughter bond as a child comes of age.