Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Tending

Text by Leon Wing
Poem by Sharon Olds, from The Unswept Room, published in 2002 by Jonathan Cape, UK

The Tending

My parents did not consider it, for me,
yet I can see myself in the woods of some other
world, with the aborted. It is early evening,
the air is ashen as if from funeral-home
chimneys, and there are beginnings of people
almost growing—but not changing—on stalks,
some in cloaks, or lady’s-slippers,
others on little trellises.
Maybe I am one of the gardeners here,
we water them with salt water.
I recall the girl who had a curl
right in the middle of her forehead,
when she was good she was very very good, I was not like that,
when she was bad she was horrid, I am here
as if in a garden of the horrid—I move
and tend, by attention, to the rows, I think of
Mary Mary Quite Contrary
and feel I am seeing the silver bells
set down clapperless, the cockleshells
with the cockles eaten. And yet this is
a holy woods. When I think of the house
I came to, and the houses these brothers and sisters
might have come to, and what they might have
done with what was done there,
I wonder if some, here, have done,
by their early deaths, a boon of absence
to someone in the world. So I tend them, I hate
for them to remain thankless. I do not
sing to them—their lullaby
long complete,
I just walk, as if this were a kind of home,
a mothers’ and fathers’ place, and I am
among the sung who will not sing,
the harmed who will not harm.


We wonder what that “it” is, which the poet’s parents didn’t consider for her. Is “it” the “woods of some other/ world”? We make this association when drawn to the alliteration of the w of “woods” and “world”. In some mythology a world of woods can either be paradise, a garden or some kind of Hades.

From “stalks”, “trellises”, “gardeners”, and “water them”, we gather “it” would most probably be some kind of garden. But, with “the air is ashen as if from funeral-home/chimneys” and “we water them with salt water”, we can narrow “it” down to a cemetery.

More so when “and there are beginnings of people/almost growing—but not changing—on stalks,/some in cloaks, or lady’s-slippers,/others on little trellises.” These “people” are “beginnings of people”, as when the old die they are said to have gone back to the beginning, before there is life. They are “almost growing “, planted beneath the ground. But they cannot “grow”; they are “not changing”, remaining the age when they died. The only growth to be seen around their graves are “stalks” and “little trellises”, which support these plants, these leaves. Some are buried with their belongings (“cloaks, or lady’s-slippers”).

This would be the place where the poet comes to weep (“we water them with salt water”) and remember the past , the good and the bad recollections (“I recall the girl ...”; “Mary Mary Quite Contrary ...”). She also comes to tend to the “rows”: her parents’ graves and tombstones.

Besides her parents’ graves, she also sees others, with younger people inhumed: “the houses these brothers and sisters/might have come to”, “their early deaths”. She pities them and their “aborted” lives, and so helps to tend their graves, as well. She takes on the role as “one of the gardeners”.

She is well aware that the “it” is a “holy wood”, that it is her parents’ resting place(“a kind of home,/
a mothers’ and fathers’ place”). This is also the resting place of all the other “brothers and sisters”; their “house”, as it were.

She walks among the “rows” of graves and gravestones, “among the sung who will not sing,” because “their lullaby” is “long complete”. And, “the harmed who will not harm”, because if some of the buried were harmed in death, they do not have any inclination for harming back. We see the manner in which lives come back to the beginning, a revolution from birth to death, in the circuitous way the lines run in “might have come to, and what they might have/done with what was done there,/I wonder if some, here, have done”. We are all reconciled to the ineluctability of dying: “a boon of absence/to someone in the world”.

Harking back to the first line, “My parents did not consider it, for me”, we now see how her parents – any parent – would never want their children to die before they do. We can confirm this view from “aborted”: parents do not wish to see their children’s lives cut short.

Note: Yesterday Eric Forbes of the famous goodbooksguide blog asked me if I had any idea what Sharon Olds's "The Tending" was all about.  He actually meant for me to give just a simple,  informal interpretation.  However, a mere summary turned into a full-fledged 500-word piece.

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