I’ve had some inspirational poetry strewn across my path lately, and I was trying to dig up one that I heard the other day when I came across this terrifically disturbing little gem from Sharon Olds. It reminded me of Leonard Cohen’s song, “The War” (There is a war between the rich and poor,/ a war between the man and the woman./ There is a war between the ones who say there is a war/ and the ones who say there isn’t.) Olds writes from within that war, I think. She expresses with brave, brutal accuracy her disquietude at its ongoing, tacitly sanctioned violence.
Rite of Passage
by Sharon Olds
As the guests arrive at our son’s party
they gather in the living room—
short men, men in first grade
with smooth jaws and chins.
Hands in pockets, they stand around
jostling, jockeying for place, small fights
breaking out and calming. One says to another
How old are you? —Six. —I’m seven. —So?
They eye each other, seeing themselves
tiny in the other’s pupils. They clear their
throats a lot, a room of small bankers,
they fold their arms and frown. I could beat you
up, a seven says to a six,
the midnight cake, round and heavy as a
turret behind them on the table. My son,
freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks,
chest narrow as the balsa keel of a
model boat, long hands
cool and thin as the day they guided him
out of me, speaks up as a host
for the sake of the group.
We could easily kill a two-year-old,
he says in his clear voice. The other
men agree, they clear their throats
like Generals, they relax and get down to
playing war, celebrating my son’s life.