"You will be haunted," resumed the Ghost, "by Three Spirits."
Scrooge is a haunted man. He's haunted by his past. He's haunted by his present. He's haunted by his future. He's haunted by his dead sister, Fan. He's haunted by his lost love, Belle. He's haunted by beggars and debtors, a whole army of the poor and destitute. Scrooge has so many ghosts in his life that Marley and the Christmas Spirits are small potatoes, just four in a long line of specters.
The good read I'm going to tell you about today is my favorite collection of poems. It's the book that made me decide to become a poet. It's full of ghosts, from the poet's past, present, and future. There are hosts of children and mothers, fathers and lovers. There are ghosts of race riots and Marilyn Monroe. It is one of the most haunted books I have ever read.
The book I'm talking about is Sharon Olds' The Dead and the Living
, which won the 1984 National Book Critics' Circle Award for Poetry. I first read this collection around 1990 or 1991, when I was a graduate student in college. At the time, I was finishing my Master's in fiction writing, dreaming of being the next John Irving or Raymond Carver. And then I took a class in Contemporary American Poetry, where I ran into this:
Photograph of the Girl
The girl sits on the hard ground,
the dry pan of Russia, in the drought
of 1921, stunned,
eyes closed, mouth open,
raw hot wind blowing
sand in her face. Hunger and puberty are
taking her together. She leans on a sack,
layers of clothes fluttering in the heat,
the new radius of her arm curved.
She cannot be not beautiful, but she is
starving. Each day she grows thinner, and her bones
grow longer, porous. The caption says
she is going to starve to death that winter
with millions of others. Deep in her body
the ovaries let out her first eggs,
golden as drops of grain.
That is Sharon Olds. She left me stunned, breathless. I wanted to read more of her. Each of her poems taught me something about myself and the kind of writer I wanted to be. In a weird way, I wanted to be Sharon Olds, the way I wanted to be J. D. Salinger when I was a teenager. Great writers do that to me. The make me want to be better than I am. I admired the raw honesty of Olds' poetry. She didn't shy away from painful or private subjects. She dissected them, in all their physical complexity. The girl in the poem above is dying, and yet, within her body, is the golden promise of new life. The juxtaposition of these two images is thrilling and heartbreaking.
About fifteen years after I first encountered Sharon Olds on the page, I had the privilege of attending a week-long writing workshop taught by her. Every morning and afternoon, for two hours, I sat in a circle of poets and listened to Olds speak about the hard work of poetry. She was the den mother to our group of Girl Scout poets. It was one of the best writing experiences I have ever had.
I brought my copy of The Dead and the Living
to that workshop with me. At the end of our five days, I asked her to autograph it for me. She didn't write anything special or earth-shattering in it. It was a standard kind of autograph, "For Marty, with warm best wishes from Sharon, Big Sur, May 2005." But it is proof that I met her, that she read my poetry and, for five days, knew who I was.
The Dead and the Living
still haunts me. Ghosts from my past and present haunt its pages. I still want to be Sharon Olds. I want her courage in choosing subject matter. I want her gift of image and free association. I want her ability to constantly surprise with each and every line of poetry she writes.
Saint Marty is going to let Sharon Olds have the last word tonight.
All day with my blue son,
sick again, the blue skin
under his eyes, blue tracing of his
veins over the bones of his chest
pronounced as the ribs of the dead, a green
vein in his groin, blue-green as the
numbers on an arm. His eloquent face
grows thinner each hour, the germs use him
like a soap. Exhaustion strips him, and under each
layer of sweetness a deeper layer of
sweetness is bared. His white skin,
so fine it has no grain, goes blue-
grey, and the burning blue of his eye
dies down and goes out, it is the faded cobalt on the
side of a dead bird. He seems to
withdraw to a great distance, as if he is
gone and looking back at me
without regret, patient, like an old
man who just dug his grave and
waits at the edge, in the evening light,
naked, blue with cold, in terrible
Confessions of Saint Marty