Sharon Olds's "Possessed"

One of the pleasures of knowing a poet over many years is to watch a life’s journey play out in verse, perhaps in tandem with our own, or lighting our way helpfully just ahead, or even just behind, allowing us a good look back at our own experience. Over the years, we’ve seen Sharon Olds find her balance on both sides of the parental equation. She has written frequently as the daughter, still walking the paths laid out by her parents, but probably nearly as frequently from her point of view as a mother of growing and then adult children.


I have never left. Your bodies are before me
at all times, in the dark I see
the stars of your teeth in their fixed patterns
wheeling over my bed, and the darkness
is your hair, the fragrance of your two heads
over my crib, your body-hairs
which I count as God counts the feathers of the sparrows,
one by one. And I never leave your sight,
I can look in the eyes of any stranger and
find you there, in the rich swimming
bottom-of-the-barrel brown, or in the
blue that reflects from the knife’s blade,
and I smell you always, the dead cigars and
Chanel in the mink, and I can hear you coming,
the slow stopped bear tread and the
quick fox, her nails on the ice,
and I dream the inner parts of your bodies, the
coils of your bowels like smoke, your hearts
opening like jaws, drops from your glands
clinging to my walls like pearls in the night.
You think I left—I was the child
who got away, thousands of miles,
but not a day goes past that I am not
turning someone into you.
Never having had you, I cannot let you go, I
turn now, in the fear of this moment,
into your soft stained paw
resting on her breast, into your breast trying to
creep away from under his palm—
your gooseflesh like the shells of a thousand tiny snails,
your palm like a streambed gone dry in summer.

Excerpt from THE DEAD AND THE LIVING © 1975, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983 by Sharon Olds. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Click here to learn more about Sharon Olds’s The Dead and the Living.