Sharon Olds
Poem to the Reader

Since I was thirteen, I have wondered who I am. 

I’d look in the bathroom mirror, stare at that

homely handsome face—was I nice?

was I evil?—then squeeze the sebum out of my

pores, slow thick cold sebum.

Under my skin, female flesh

now lay in packs, hip-flasks of fat.

Out of my mouth came a soil-like smell.

Maybe I was actually dead,

maybe I was my father on the couch passed

out risen up and walking.

When I would touch a boy, I would feel like an archangel

crushed to another archangel,

between the curve of the dash and the hard

orbit of the seat, wings fiercely shut, we would fly.

I would look in the mirror afterwards, my

eyes shining. And when the head

appeared, and the child went one way

and my body another, it wasn’t good or

evil, it was just the animal,

for real. I sang when I tended the children,

day and night went back inside

the universe of the marriage bed, I felt

virtuous, stuffed to the spirit-tips with touch.

And then the children grew up, I was weaned from that

constant tending. I am nothing without

a body in my arms, I am a craving spirit,

the way the dead stream along the walls of

houses and affix themselves to the glowing windows.

This morning—the rain not dropping yet but

fizzing, gently boiling in the air—

I felt some word might be in, soon,

on who I am. And what if I am not loving?

What if all that buttoning and un-

buttoning and suckling and sucking were

the hunger of the dead. Sure I would die for them,

gladly give even my sight, my

hair to fire to save them, but isn’t that

easy for the dead, haven’t I always really

longed to give an arm for them, to

see the severed arms exchanged on the table.

Sex so obvious, the cunt wanting to

swallow, swallow, fiercely sing all

day all night bright come and his pleasure just

exciting, the great lover just an evil

fucker feeding on his pleasure, as if I

could not make

love, when none

had made me. Her milk craved to give me

to get her nipple sucked, and the grave

man was finally only barely

able to stay in the suction path

of my beaming. Maybe some judge’s word

is in. Maybe when I entered the spoon

into the mouth, then lifted the handle as I

pulled, so the sphere of manna stayed in,

I was taking, maybe when I stroke his ass,

sated, press my face into the

cool nippleless breast of his buttock, I am

taking. The pubic hair on this sheet, in the

path of the lamp this morning, rears up,

its shadow’s tip clipped to either

end, its twin running in place

an illusory river—in torque, arched,

reddish, the poor animal hair,

mated to its shadow, is a soul in hell,

a poet bent over the paper. I lift my

head and look for you, to give you

this. But what if my giving is taking, if I

set the lips of this poem to your breast.

But what if you like that? If we’re all takers,

craving that gaze. So I set the mouth

of my iris to the mouth of your iris here

for this soul kiss.

Found In Volume , No. 1993
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Sharon Olds
About the Author

Sharon Olds's most recent book is Arias (Penguin/Random House, 2019). Among her many honors are the Pulitzer Prize, the T.S. Eliot Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. She teaches poetry workshops at New York University’s Graduate Creative Writing Program.