"Pure fire in the hands" — how Michael Ondaatje described her poetry

“Pure fire in the hands” — how Michael Ondaatje described her poetry

The first time I told someone that I’m absolutely in love with Stephen Dunn’s poems, I was smoking at the back of a building with a guy I just met. He was studying creative writing and liked to wear black shirts; I was a management major who was hanging out in places where I don’t really belong. He asked me who was my favourite poet, and I gave him my answer. His immediate reaction was, “But he’s a hard-nosed, sad bastard. All, ‘look at me, I’m a man, I can talk about big emotions!‘ Also, he’s an atheist.”

I honestly didn’t know what would make me feel better then: to punch him in the face or stub my cigarette out on his thigh. I was so incensed, I opened my mouth and nothing came out. He continued, “If you wanted confessional, you should read women’s works. Isn’t that what girls should be reading? You’re going to write about menstruation or depression, right?”

Well, who do you like, I finally got to ask. He says he likes Ayn Rand. Also Kerouac. And Primo Levi, except for the poems.

Obviously, we didn’t become friends.

Around 2004-2007, I became completely obsessed with Sharon Olds. I think she was a big influence on my work, especially when I was unraveling that thread in the poems I sent you. People were pushing me to read Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, as well as Anne Carson and Adrienne Rich. I did, but I was not as interested in them at the time as I was in Olds. She was fantastic, just…a goddess, really. I loved her honesty, her stark ideas. I think I saw in her the same thing I saw in Dunn’s work: the temerity to confront the self. There is roughness there, but tenderness, too. (Stephen would probably say: forgiveness.)

I would eventually be drawn to other poets who will always have my heart: Mary Oliver, Margaret Atwood, Marie Howe, Kate Light, Kate Clanchy…there are so much more. But I will never forget those years when I would read her almost every day. She helped me understood what pain was. Also: family, and growing up, and coming to terms with past hurt and abuse. She gave me the language for it.

Little Things
Sharon Olds

After she’s gone to camp, in the early
evening I clear our girl’s breakfast dishes
from the rosewood table, and find a small
crystallized pool of maple syrup, the
grains standing there, round, in the night, I
rub it with my fingertip
as if I could read it, this raised dot of
amber sugar, and this time
when I think of my father, I wonder why
I think of my father, of the beautiful blood-red
glass in his hand, or his black hair gleaming like a
broken-open coal. I think I learned to
love the little things about him
because of all the big things
I could not love, no one could, it would be wrong to.
So when I fix on this tiny image of resin
or sweep together with the heel of my hand a
pile of my son’s sunburn peels like
insect wings, where I peeled his back the night before camp,
I am doing something I learned early to do, I am
paying attention to small beauties,
whatever I have—as if it were our duty to
find things to love, to bind ourselves to this world.

Good night, M.


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