For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
Light & Darkness: How Sharon Olds brought me back to writing.
Essay by Maggie Smith for Poetry Foundation
When my first child was born eight years ago, I stopped writing. I didn’t write a poem for the first year of her life. I was exhausted and anxious, and I held and bounced and swayed a colicky newborn all day. Who had time for poems? But even when my daughter began sleeping and I had some pockets of time, I was stuck. My life had changed completely, and I felt that the poems wanted to change—needed to change—but how?
I remember feeling that the very temperature of my life had risen. There was nothing “cool” about motherhood. It was hot and raw. It was full of blood and shit and milk and tears. It was equal parts light and darkness. I didn’t know how to write that. I was wary of writing what might be dismissed as “mommy poems,” wary of sentimentality.
I had a model for how to mother—I was lucky that way—but I needed poet models to show me how I might write the experience. I found them in Carrie Fountain, Brenda Shaughnessy, Rita Dove, Deborah Garrison, Beth Ann Fennelly, Arielle Greenberg, and Rachel Zucker. And, just when I needed her work the most, I rediscovered Sharon Olds.
“Prayer During a Time My Son Is Having Seizures” was published in Poetry in September 1983. It’s a poem I could have encountered in high school, in college, or in graduate school, long before becoming a mother. And perhaps if I’d read it before having my daughter, I wouldn’t have felt so paralyzed as a poet when she was born.
“Finally, I just lean on the door-frame, a / woman without belief, praying,” the poem begins. “Please don’t let anything happen to him.” From the first word, finally, we have a sense of what the mother-speaker and the son have already been through up to the moment of this utterance: the speaker, helpless and overwhelmed, prays despite her lack of faith. She prays because there’s nothing else to be done and because—as we say, hedging our bets—“it can’t hurt.”
I have been that woman. Who am I kidding? I am that woman. I now have two small children, both with asthma, and one whose fevers easily shoot past 105 degrees Fahrenheit when he’s fighting a virus. I’ve slept on the floor beside a crib or bed so I can hear their breathing. I’ve needed to believe in a god who could help, even though needing to believe is not the same as actually believing.
In “Prayer During a Time My Son Is Having Seizures,” as in my experience as a mother, the helplessness is doubled. The son, too, is helpless—falling again and again, sliding, drooling. I admire the momentum Olds generates in this poem, as the speaker names her darkest fears for the child, and I admire the different kinds of metaphors allowed to share space. First we have body and landscape—the jaw, the mountain, the bluff, the brain—but the natural imagery transitions to a suburban street, then to the circus, both play spaces for children. The violence grows from image to image:
Don’t let him stand there and his gold / jaw lock while he watches the burning /mountain falling slowly through his mind and / no word comes to him.
… Don’t hurt him, I cry out. … / don’t go up to his small dazzling / brain in spangles on the high wire / and push it off. There is no net.
Given the seizures, the motif of light and darkness makes perfect sense. We see it throughout: “his gold jaw,” the “burning mountain,” the “tiny amber cones already darkening,” the “dazzling brain in spangles,” the “dark holes” in the cereal, “the avenues of light.” Olds braids these threads together in the end of the poem, a terrible, beautiful moment that devastates me every time I read it:
I’ll change his dark radiant diapers, I’ll / scrape the blue mold that collects in the creases of his elbows, / I will sit with him in his room for the rest of my days, / I will have him on any terms.
What I attach to most in this poem isn’t its imagery or even its content; it’s how the poem is structured to give a sense of order in the face of chaos. The repetition of don’t—“don’t let him,” “don’t leave him,” “don’t hurt him”—ends with the shift “And yet.” Here the bargaining and pleading are over, replaced with the repetition of I’ll and I will, as we turn from what the speaker doesn’t want to have happen—but is helpless to stop—to what she is committed to do: “I will have him on any terms.” There is a sense of resignation but also resolve.
After not writing for the first year of my daughter’s life, I began again. But I did not write about motherhood directly—not right away. As I wrote the poems that would become my second book, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, I did not consider that perhaps I was using myth and persona and third-person narratives to hold that very raw material at arm’s length. By writing poems steeped in fairy tales and traditional folktales, I wrote about the anxieties of motherhood—and the dangers of childhood—without writing about my own personal experiences.
Turning to Sharon Olds, to poems such as “Prayer During a Time My Son Is Having Seizures,” gave me the permission and the courage to write my most intimate, vulnerable, and direct work yet. My recent poems, such as “Good Bones,” “At Your Age, I Wore a Darkness,” and “Stitches,” deal directly with my experience as a mother, from childbirth to child raising. These poems are full of milk and tears, light and darkness. For this I owe a debt to Sharon Olds.
Maggie Smith is the author of Good Bones (Tupelo Press, 2017), The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo Press, 2015), Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005), and three prizewinning chapbooks. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ohio Arts Council, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, Smith is a freelance writer and editor.