Yorkshire Times
Weekend Edition
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
12:00 AM 11th June 2024

Poem Of The Week: 35/10 By Sharon Olds


Brushing out my daughter’s dark
silken hair before the mirror
I see the gray gleaming on my head,
the silver-haired servant behind her. Why is it
just as we begin to go
they begin to arrive, the fold in my neck
clarifying as the fine bones of her
hips sharpen? As my skin shows
its dry pitting, she opens like a small
pale flower on the tip of a cactus;
as my last chances to bear a child
are falling through my body, the duds among them,
her full purse of eggs, gold and
firm as hard-boiled yolks, is about
to snap its clasp. I brush her tangled
fragrant hair at bedtime. It’s an old
story—the oldest we have on our planet—
the story of replacement.

If Sharon Olds’ poem of youth and ageing looks anachronous to readers privileged by forty-odd years of hindsight, it may be because her tone encourages a degree of cynicism in a world less enamoured by domestic platitude.

But the sudden, and self-lacerating, counterpoints that often animate Olds’ poems rescue them from the accusation of sentimentality. And if the American poet’s ballad of ageing in ‘35/10’ – a reference, we assume, to the respective ages of mother and child - pirouettes around a natural juxtaposition of efflorescence and decay, then there is truth and real beauty in the rendering.

For the poem is balletic in its gentle description of a relationship of unequals: here the disjuncture is measured, not in the grinding of antithetical gears, but rather in insight dignified by the mellifluous cadences of acceptance, even contentment.

Olds’ use of alliteration, and employment of well-placed pauses, help to savour a moment. The act of combing the child’s hair is the focus for a lyrical meditation on contrast, overwhelmingly preoccupied, in an access of maternal love, on the ‘fragrant’ innocence of the girl, whose rising puberty is realised in exquisite metaphors. In the end, the reader is grounded by the counter-intuitive finality of the closing lines.

‘35/10’ is taken from The Dead and the Living, published by Knopf (1984)