three poems
by Sharon Olds

rites of passage

As the guests arrive at my son's party
they gather in the living room--
short men, men in first grade
with smooth jaws and chins.
Hands in pockets, they stand around
jostling, jockeying for place, small fights
breaking out and calming. One says to another
How old are you? Six. I'm seven. So?

They eye each other, seeing themselves
tiny in the other's pupils. They clear their
throats a lot, a room of small bankers,
they fold their arms and frown. I could beat you
up, a seven says to a six,
the dark cake, round and heavy as a
turret, behind them on the table. My son,
freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks,
chest narrow as the balsa keel of a
model boat, long hands
cool and thin as the day they guided him
out of me, speaks up as a host
for the sake of the group.
We could easily kill a two-year-old,
he says in his clear voice. The other
men agree, they clear their throats
like Generals, they relax and get down to
playing war, celebrating my son's life.

      reprinted from The Dead and the Living


the pope's penis

It hangs deep in his robes, a delicate
clapper at the center of a bell.
It moves when he moves, a ghostly fish in a
halo of silver seaweed, the hair
swaying in the dark and the heat–and at night,
while his eyes sleep, it stands up
in praise of God.

      reprinted from The Gold Cell


my son the man

Suddenly his shoulders get a lot wider,
the way Houdini would expand his body
while people were putting him in chains. It seems
no time since I would help him put on his sleeper,
guide his calves into the gold interior,
zip him up and toss him up and
catch his weight. I cannot imagine him
no longer a child, and I know I must get ready,
get over my fear of men now my son
is going to be one. This was not
what I had in mind when he pressed up through me like a
sealed trunk through the ice of the Hudson,
snapped the padlock, unsnaked the chains,
and appeared in my arms, what I had always wanted,
my son the baby. Now he looks at me
the way Houdini studied a box
to learn the way out, then smiled and let himself be manacled.

      reprinted from The Wellspring

Sharon Olds’ publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House

Sharon Olds's books are Satan Says, The Dead and the Living, The Gold Cell, The Father, The Wellspring, and Blood, Tin, Straw.

She teaches at NYU and helps run the NYU workshop at a state hospital for the severely physically challenged.

She was New York State Poet Laureate from 1998-2000.


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