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Calvinist Parents

By Sharon Olds

Sometime during the Truman Administration,  Sharon Olds’s parents tied her to a chair, and she is still writing about it.
            -- review of The Unswept Room

My father was a gentleman, and he expected us to be gentlemen. If we did not observe the niceties of etiquette he whopped us with his belt. He had a strong arm, and boy did we feel it.
            -- Prescott Sheldon Bush, brother to a president and uncle to another

They put roofs over our heads.
Ours was made of bent tiles,
so the edge of the roof had a broken look,
as if a lot of crockery
had been thrown down, onto the home —
a dump for heaven’s cheap earthenware.
Along the eaves, the arches were like
entries to the Colosseum
where a lion might appear, or an eight-foot armored
being with the painted face
of a simpering lady.  Bees would not roost
in those concave combs, above our rooms,
birds not swarm.  How does a young’un
pay for room and board — by belt,
by hairbrush, by 2 x 4.  They put a
roof over our heads, against lightning,
and droppings — no foreign genes, no outside
gestures, no unfamilial words;
and under that roof, they labored as they had been
labored over, they beat us into swords.

Added: Tuesday, January 30, 2018  /  From "One Secret Thing" (Knopf, 2008). Used with permission.
Sharon Olds
Photo by Hillery Stone.

Sharon Olds is most recently the author of Stag’s Leap (2012), recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and the T.S Eliot Prize (UK), and Odes (2017). She teaches in the Graduate Program in Creative Writing at New York University where she helped found the original outreach program at Goldwater Hospital, a 900-bed state hospital for people with disabilities. These programs at NYU now include a writing workshop for Veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. She lives in New York City.

Sharon Olds is a Featured Poet for Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness 2018. Visit the festival information page for details.

Other poems by this author