Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Poem I Wish I Had Written


I think of it with wonder now,
the glass of mucus that stood on the table
in front of my father all weekend. The tumor
is growing fast in his throat these days,
and as it grows it sends out pus
like the sun sending out flares, those pouring
tongues. So my father has to gargle, cough,
spit a mouthful of thick stuff
into the glass every ten minutes or so,
scraping the rim up his lower lip
to get the last bit off his skin, then he
sets the glass down on the table and it
sits there, like a glass of beer foam,
shiny and faintly golden, he gargles and
coughs and reaches for it again
and gets the heavy sputum out,
full of bubbles and moving around like yeast—
he is like a god producing food from his own mouth.
He, himself, can eat nothing anymore,
just a swallow of milk, sometimes,
cut with water, and even then
it can’t always get past the tumor,
and the next time the saliva comes up
it is ropey, he has to roll it in his throat
a minute to form it and get it up and dis-
gorge the oval globule into the
glass of phlegm, which stood there all day and
filled slowly with compound globes and I would
empty it and it would fill again
and shimmer there on the table until
the room seemed to turn around it
in an orderly way, a model of the solar system
turning around the sun,
my father the old earth that used to
lie at the center of the universe, now
turning with the rest of us
around his death, bright glass of
spit on the table, these last mouthfuls.


Sharon Olds wrote The Glass in observance of her father's death. I am in awe of this poem, how she confers such grace and beauty in an object that is quite horrible. Her own repugnance is manifest at the poem's beginning, but watch as she slowly softens towards the mucus-filled glass and turns it into a glorious sun, the remnants of her father the new center of her universe.

This poem teaches me so much about the thread of tension that must pull through a piece. Here, the tension wavers between horror and awe. The poem swings like a pendulum between these two extremes, deftly and transparently.

Much of my writing has focused on my own father's struggle with cancer and eventual death. I write around events, as did Olds--she wrote many versions of this poem. All I know is every time I read these words, by the end I feel my heart has landed on its knees. Peace...


  1. What an incredible poem. I thought of my late father when I read this...and my heart broke all over again.

  2. Sharon Olds' collection, "The Gold Cell" is one of my all time favorite poetry books. She is awesome.

  3. I am just beginning to explore poetry, mostly through my class. This also broke my heart. I will get her book, Angel -- I want to read more. Peace...