Poems by Carolyn Oliver


My Son Tells Me He Loves Me Like the Stars


Wonder is what I tried to save of faith,
what I hold out for him to take: inchworms
and whirligigs, geodes and oyster shells,
icicles and lemons and postage stamps.
I wanted to give him the galaxy,
since even on the coldest moon-dim nights
I can’t place a single constellation
(my pains to parse dimension and distance
always fruitless)—so we resolved to drive
through Shenandoah, away from sunset’s
city-shine. The road unwound like a strand
of pitted pearls slipped over knolls and drops
our headlights barely touched. We stopped
to wait for our eyes to remember dark.
Because he’d read the trailhead warnings—bears
abroad and gorging—he scanned out, not up,
scouring the hillside woods for a shadow
shifting against the breeze, and meantime twitched
at each new peeper’s bleat. Idly I swirled
his thistledowny hair, and—expecting
the sea-spray shock I once saw splashed across
another country’s night—I almost missed
a film barely risen to the surface
of the sky—like a scrap of cloud or mist,
except for its seeming stillness. A scrap
of cloud it could have been, for all the boy
beside me cared, too fixed on bears and moths
and surely-rabid bats to be impressed
by luminous mysteries: blue giants
and supernovas, binary systems
devoured and devouring, pulsars
and teeming nurseries—and somewhere
in the arc of dust swept overhead, life
swimming, perhaps, in its orbit: a star,
a cool red dwarf with fuel enough to burn
until the heat death of the universe comes,
a star that will outlive all the others.
So I might have preached. But he needed sleep,
and night would likely knot the homeward miles.
Dreaming against the window, he didn’t see
the bear cub stumble off the road in time,
silver-struck eyes bewildered by the light
we couldn’t help but spill ahead of us.




after Francisco de Zurbarán’s Christ and the Virgin
in the House at Nazareth (oil on canvas, c. 1640)


Our Lady of the worry-wearied world,
your broken face is stained the same wan red
as your stiff silk dress and the blown roses
someone’s sent, as if you need some token
reminder of your own grace—you, plagued
by its surfeit, asked to swill from a chalice
exhaustion never drains: under your robes
your hips are braced sciatica-wide, while
your head rests on a wrist thick with sorrow’s
swell. Your bones ache with the weight of a child
who sways toward an end you can’t escape—
this is what it means to be full of faith.
You are so spent with knowing. So tired
that in the needle’s steady bite and drag
you lose track of days, weeks, the sky always
smoke-storm through this window chiseled
out of stone, so tired you’re resigned,
almost, to the languid celestial light
that uninvited descends on your son,
its careless spill gilding the fruit you chose
for him, the drawer he’s forgotten to close
again, books bought with the work of your hands.
These stupid putti pull the dark away
like a curtain, as if your life’s a stage,
as if the shadow isn’t real, as if
every hour here is not an hour of death.
Bodiless, what can they know of your fear,
what could they possibly know of your pain?
But you’re powerless against all of it:
light, shadow, how he only runs at dusk,
his sandals loose over the sharpest rocks,
how he’s been painted mostly wrong:
too pale and vague, shrunken adult instead
of a boy. Heedless of your silent tears,
the reproach of his mending, endless, heaped
at your feet, this boy draped in blameless blue
ignores lilies for thorns, plays at weaving
a crown just for you. Bleeds. Your knees wore out
years ago: you know begging is useless,
that even if you could reach up and snatch
the weightless halo above your head, tear
it in pieces to bind his hopeless hurt,
even if you could dash this bitter cup
from your lips, unstitch time, unsay the word
to undo what was done unto you—yes,
even then you would still be a mother
with cold floors to scrub, pigeons to strangle
and roast for supper, best bowl to keep full
for strays that pace just out of frame, their tongues
thirst-swollen, speechless, desperate for grace.


Carolyn Oliver is the author of The Alcestis Machine (Acre Books, forthcoming 2024), Inside the Storm I Want to Touch the Tremble (University of Utah Press, 2022; selected for the Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry), and three chapbooks. Her poems appear in The Massachusetts Review, Copper Nickel, Poetry Daily, Shenandoah, Beloit Poetry Journal, 32 Poems, Southern Indiana Review, At Length, Plume, and elsewhere. She lives in Massachusetts, where she is a 2023-2024 Artist in Residence at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Her website is carolynoliver.net.


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