Friday, December 30, 2005

When My Son Is Sick

When my son is so sick that he falls asleep
in the middle of the day, his small oval
hard head hurting so much he
prefers to let go of consciousness like
someone dangling from a burning rope just
letting go of his life, I sit and
hardly breathe. I think about the
half-liquid skin of his lips,
swollen and nicked with red slits like the
fissures in a volcano crust, down
which you see the fire. Though I am
down the hall from him I see the
quick bellies of his eyeballs jerk
behind the greenish lids, his temples
red and sour with pain, his skin going
pale gold as cold butter and then
turning a little like rancid butter till the
freckles seem to spread, black little
islands of mold, he sleeps the awful
sleep of the sick, his hard-working heart
banging like pipes inside his body, like a
shoe struck on iron bars when
someone wants to be let out, I
sit, I sit very still, I am out at the
rim of the world, the edge they saw
when they knew it was flat – the torn edge,
thick and soil-black, the vessels and
veins and tendons hanging free,
dangling down,
when my boy is sick I sit on the lip of
nothing and hang my legs over
and sometimes let a shoe fall
to give it something.

By Sharon Olds


I know I am supposed to feature only 5 poems from Sharon Olds’ The Gold Cell, with Our Son and the Water Shortage being the last featured poem. However I have some difficulties regarding the above poem and hope you guys can help me out. How do you interpret these few lines?

“when my boy is sick I sit on the lip of
nothing and hang my legs over
and sometimes let a shoe fall
to give it something.”

What message is the poet trying to convey here?

(Updated on 1 January 2006)


Gilbert Koh said...

The literal picture is that she's sitting on her own chair in her own home doing nothing because there's nothing else she can do to help her son. She feels quite helpless and it's very quiet and not being able to bear the noise, she lets a shoe fall off her foot just so as to make a noise.

More figuratively, she's been thinking (imagining) her son's death or serious illness. It is a state so far removed from his ordinary self that she depicts it like a journey to the "rim of the world", "the edge they saw
when they knew it was flat" – this is a reference to the ancient explorers who were looking for the ends of the world (not knowing that the world was actually round).

She imagines that she has reached the end of the earth and is looking down:

"I sit on the lip of
nothing and hang my legs over"

it is a great emptiness, a great void, (like death would be), so she lets a shoe fall into it "to give it something".

Alson Teo said...

Thanks Gilbert this poem is much clearer now. :)