Monday’s Poem 4/13/09

Sharon Olds – “Quake Theory”

When two plates of earth scrape along each other
like a mother and daughter
it is called a fault.

There are faults that slip smoothly past each other
an inch a year, with just a faint rasp
like a man running his hand over his chin,
that man between us,

and there are faults that get stuck at a bend for twenty years.
The ridge bulges up like a father’s sarcastic forehead
and the whole thing freezes in place, the man between us.

When this happens, there will be heavy damage
to industrial areas and leisure residence
when the deep plates
finally jerk past
the terrible pressure of their contact.

The earth cracks
and innocent people slip gently in like swimmers.

From Satan Says, 1980

Commentary
I’m sure this poem sounds melodramatic to some. But it’s actually quite low-key for Olds: no genitalia, no blood, no 4-letter words. I think it is effective in its extended metaphor. She touches on everything from the subtle moments – her father putting his hand on his chin, the plates rasping – to the innocent people gently slipping into the pool of seismic dysfunction.

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One Response to Monday’s Poem 4/13/09

  1. Angele Ellis says:

    A poem that proves that even without genitalia, blood, and 4-letter words, Olds can write poems that rock my world (bad pun intended).

    In some ways Olds reminds me of an ancient Greek poet, riveting her audience by using nature, clan relations, sex, battle, and the gods–or versions thereof–to get to the savage bloody heart of the matter.

    “The ridge bulges up like a father’s sarcastic forehead
    and the whole thing freezes in place, the man between us…”

    recalls the myth of the birth of the goddess Athena, who burst fully armed from the forehead of her father, Zeus (after Zeus swallowed her pregnant mother, who in some versions of the tale, gave Athena her weapons).

    The speaker’s elemental struggle between mother and daughter–“two plates of earth” with “the man between us”(a phrase repeated twice)–also reminds me of the conclusion of Muriel Rukeyser’s poem about the German artist Kathe Kollwitz, whose work deals uncompromisingly with death and suffering:

    “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
    The world would split open.”

    And oh, how ominous is the “faint rasp” of the man running his hand over his chin–a sound that precedes destruction.

    But is the emotional earthquake between mother and daughter also liberating? There is a classical touch in the description of the victims at the end of this poem:

    “The earth cracks
    and innocent people slip gently in like swimmers.”

    Headed to the Elysian Fields, or to the psychiatrist’s couch?

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