Lifesaving Poems: Sharon Olds’s ‘Looking at Them Asleep’


Continuing in this mini-series of poems I shared in my reading at the Greenbelt festival last weekend, here is Looking at Them Asleep, by Sharon Olds.


Looking at Them Asleep

When I come home late at night and go in to kiss the children,
I see my girl with her arm curled around her head,
her face deep in unconsciousness – so
deeply centred she is in her dark self,
her mouth slightly puffed like one sated
but slightly pouted like one who hasn’t had enough,
her eyes so closed you would think they have rolled the
iris around to face the back of her head,
the eyeball marble-naked under that
thick satisfied desiring lid,
she lies on her back in abandon and sealed completion
and the son in his room, oh the son he is sideways in his bed,
one knee up as if he is climbing
sharp stairs up into the night,
and under his thin quivering eyelids you
know his eyes are wide open and
staring and glazed, the blue in them so
anxious and crystally in all this darkness, and his
mouth is open, he is breathing hard from the climb
and panting a bit, his brow is crumpled
and pale, his long fingers curved,
his hand open, and in the center of each hand
the dry dirty boyish palm
resting like a cookie. I look at him in his
quest, the thin muscles of his arms
passionate and tense, I look at her with her
face like the face of a snake who has swallowed a deer,
content, content – and I know if I wake her she’ll
smile and turn her face toward me though
half asleep and open her eyes and I
know if I wake him he’ll jerk and say Don’t and sit
up and stare about him in the blue
unrecognition, oh my Lord how I
know these two. When love comes to me and says
What do you know, I say, This girl, this boy.

Sharon Olds from The Matter of This World


I found this poem in a collection of poems called The Matter of This World in a second hand bookshop next to Berwick on Tweed station. It was pretty much falling apart at the seams then, and has completely disintegrated now. I still have it. It may be one of my favourite books of all time.

The first British publication of poems by Sharon Olds, it reminds me of a very particular time in my life, that of looking after and administering to the needs of my two young children. Parallel to this era, but not separated from it, was another kind of enterprise altogether, that of reading and writing as much poetry as possible.

I am not really sure if you can ever replicate the sheer hunger, obsession, desire and compulsion of your first serial encounters with poetry, at the point when you know you need it to breathe and make sense of who you are as much as you do food and a roof over your head.

The closest thing I can compare it to is the love -animal, pre-verbal- that consumes you if and when you first have children. You tiptoe into their rooms at night, just to check that they are still breathing. Sometimes you wake them up, just in case. It is just like tinkering with a poem, getting up early or staying up late to delete just one more adjective, or comma, in case you get hit by a bus on your way to work the following morning only for the world to laugh at your incomplete and amateur work.

Nothing prepares you for it and nothing comes close to taking over your life in the same way again, not even illness or death. It is not a choice, finally, like falling in love. It is beyond that, existing somewhere in and outside of ourselves ‘deep in unconsciousness’ and ‘anxious and crystally in all this darkness’.

First published March 8, 2012


Lifesaving Poems


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