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>Alcatraz

April 19, 2010

>A few days ago, Nymeth featured a poem by Sharon Olds about her father, from a recent volume (The Father) that I haven’t yet read. Reading that one, I remembered this Sharon Olds poem (from The Gold Cell), which has always been one of my favorites, partly because it’s so good out loud:

Alcatraz

When I was a girl, I knew I was a man
because they might send me to Alcatraz
and only men went to Alcatraz.
Every time we drove to the city I’d
see it there, white as a white
shark in the shark-rich Bay, the bars like
milk-white ribs. I knew I had pushed my
parents too far, my inner badness had
spread like ink and taken me over, I could
not control my terrible thoughts,
terrible looks, and they had often said
they would send me there–maybe the very next
time I spilled my milk, Ala
Cazam, the iron doors would slam, I’d be
there where I belonged, a girl-faced man in the
prison no one had escaped from. I did not
fear the other prisoners,
I knew who they were, men like me who had
spilled their milk one time too many,
not been able to curb their thoughts–
what I feared was the horror of the circles: circle of
sky around the earth, circle of
land around the Bay, circle of
water around the island, circle of
sharks around the shore, circle of
outer walls, inner walls,
iron girders, steel bars,
circle of my cell around me, and there at the
center, the glass of milk and the guard’s
eyes upon me as I reached out for it.

Doesn’t that take you back to what it feels like to be young and helpless before the court of your parents, in a world of seemingly arbitrary and impossibly rigid adult rules?

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. April 19, 2010 3:35 pm

    >Despite the fact that we have two copies of The Gold Cell in this house, Mr. Spy and I each owning one, I have not read this in a very long time. I do think it captures that lack perception of scale of the doling out of justice. I was always fascinated with the spelling of Ala Cazam, which seemed designed to mimic the spelling of Alcatraz, but was not the way I would ever has spelled it.

  2. April 19, 2010 3:54 pm

    >Oh yes. Not that my parents ever threatened me with prison (never sure why some kids believe that, I wouldn't have)but this sense that you could just be wrong because of your age followed me through school. Teachers could just shout, because you did one wrong thing and all the time spent being good never seemed to make an impression.

  3. April 19, 2010 3:55 pm

    >Yes.

  4. April 19, 2010 6:30 pm

    >It absolutely does. I haven't read The Gold Cell, but clearly I should.

  5. April 19, 2010 9:46 pm

    >Harriet, Ala-Cazam always reads to me like a kid's made-up magic word. Back before Harry Potter kids used to make up all sorts of words starting with "ala" that were obviously magic just because of that prefix.One of the things I like about Olds' free verse is the line breaks–"men like me who had/spilled their milk"! Breaking up the magic word gives the line that moment of anticipation when you wait breathlessly to see what magic your parent is going to invoke upon you. Jodie, I love the way you put it–"you could just be wrong because of your age." Yes.FreshHell, okay, glad to know!Nymeth, all her volumes are powerful; the poems stay in my mind for a long time.

  6. April 20, 2010 3:15 pm

    >Overloaded brain. I couldn't think of any other intelligent thing to add but wanted to comment. 🙂

  7. April 20, 2010 6:25 pm

    >FreshHell, it makes you sound mysterious, possibly someone who triumphed over childhood abuse.

  8. April 20, 2010 10:44 pm

    >I read it aloud per your suggestion. It IS a good one. Thank you.

  9. April 21, 2010 2:11 pm

    >Care, I think most poetry is best read out loud, but especially Sharon Olds'.

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