April 21: Sharon Olds's "When He Came for the Family" and "The Signal"

Today, two parts from Sharon Olds’s notable twelve-part poem sequence entitled “War.”

When He Came for the Family

They looked at their daughter standing with her music
in her hand, the page covered with dots and
lines, with its shared language. They knew
families had been taken. What they did not know
was the way he would pick her cello up
by the scroll neck and take its amber
torso-shape and lift it and break it
against the fireplace. The brickwork crushed the
close-grained satiny wood, they stood and
stared at him.


The Signal

When they brought his body back, they told
his wife how he’d died:
the general thought they had taken the beach,
and sent in his last reserves. In the smokescreen,
the boats moved toward shore. Her husband
was the first man in the first boat
to move through the smoke and see the sand
dark with bodies, the tanks burning,
the guns thrown down, the landing craft
wrecked and floored with blood. In the path of the
bullets and shells from the shore, her husband had
put on a pair of white gloves
and turned his back on the enemy,
motioning to the boats behind him
to turn back. After everyone else
on his boat was dead
he continued to signal, then he, too,
was killed, but the other boats had seen him
and turned back. They gave his wife the medal,
and she buried him, and at night floated through
a wall of smoke, and saw him at a distance
standing in a boat, facing her,
the gloves blazing on his hands as he motioned her back.

Listen to a clip of Sharon Olds reading “The Signal”Audio

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Other books by Sharon Olds