The Last Poem I Loved : “The Planned Child” by Sharon Olds
I stood in the long line with my small stack of books. Just standing there waiting for Sharon Olds took quite an effort considering the awkward experience I had asking Larry Bird for his autograph as a kid in the summer of 1988, his no-smile face, telling me he would rather eat his lunch than sign my raggedy-ass piece of paper. Fewer than ten years later, I couldn’t gather enough courage to stand in another long line to have my copy of Howl signed by Allen Ginsberg at a Border’s bookstore just a few months before his death. The struggle was real. But in spite of my fears, prompted by my wife and two of my high school students we brought to the reading, I stood and waited.
When we made our way to the head table, Olds was gracious enough to flip through my student’s “author-focus poetry project packet” that she’d brought to be signed, marveling a little at the fact that her work had been memorialized in a three-ringed binder, complete with a brief biography, a thematic analysis of her poems, and an original piece written her style, covered with a magazine collage of her poems’ themes. In this moment a certain, foreign pride swelled in me, and I couldn’t help but look over my student’s shoulder—this child who was not my child—with a longing for approval. A smile from Olds would give this student a little light and life that she didn’t often see and, to me, a little validation for my role in this student’s life and her homemade poetry packet.
After Olds signed my student’s work, she signed the front covers of each of the books I had with me. But for her newest collection, The Wellspring, I opened it up to the poem “The Planned Child” and asked her to sign at the bottom of the page. My wife and I didn’t have kids then. We didn’t want kids then. In fact, I married her with the full knowledge that she was not interested in having kids at all. I liked the poem despite the fact that maybe I wasn’t supposed to relate to it so acutely, a poem where two women are sharing a glass of wine and one of them laments how she was conceived or “planned.” My wife and I never discussed the stories we knew about our own conceptions and births, even if there were such stories to share. But I liked the poem all the same—a speaker wrestling with her own existence, her own understandings of how she came into the world, trying to reconcile her desires (her own mythology) with reality. Isn’t that what we’re all doing, navigating our relationships with our parents or our fleeting visions of possibly becoming parents one day?, I thought while reading the poem for the first time.
The speaker of the poem begins by narrating her origin story to a friend: “I always hated the way they planned me.” The poem contains two stanzas with three sentences and although it is not a sonnet, it is certainly structured in a similar fashion, introducing the speaker’s problem of navigating her understanding of the motivation behind what brought her into the world:
[…] – I always
wanted to have been conceived in heat,
in haste, by mistake, in love, in sex,
not on cardboard, the little X on the
rising line that did not fall again.
And at the end of this casual jeremiad, the speaker reflects, “…and you said you could tell I had / been child who was wanted.”
As the poem shifts in tone, the speaker is ushered into a new way of understanding that being both planned for and wanted might contain its own passion and intensity—its own heat.
Standing in line that evening, I had no indication that several years later my wife would walk down the stairs of our apartment and hand me a letter. Words years in the cultivating, an invitation really, welcoming the possibility of allowing more space in our lives for another human being. We were happy: two young, married kids in a metropolitan area, many hours from our hometown, like potted plants on a road trip discovering new light and becoming, always becoming. She wasn’t looking for a replacement or an object to fill a void no object could appropriately fill. She wasn’t relenting to pressures from me or distant family members. There were no pressures, only space to expand, change directions, listen to murmurings of her own heart. She was being called, it seems to me now, more than she was calling.
I wonder if our first child began to make himself known to us that evening, while I stood in line at the reading, while I flipped through a book of poems, while my wife stood next to me, waiting. She knew that I liked the poem, but she also knew that I liked burritos and the St. Louis Cardinals. Could it be that he, this child we didn’t know yet, began to work on our hearts a little, readying our minds when I asked Sharon Olds to place her signature right below these lines:
bearing me down, pressing me out into the
world that was not enough for her without me in it,
not the moon, the stars, Orion
cartwheeling easily across the dark, not the
earth, the sea, none of it was
enough for her, without me.
This was the primary theme of my wife’s letter to me, that she was learning to give more of herself, enlarge her capacity to love others more, even someone she had not met, yet. Even someone, just years before, who she didn’t really want to meet all that strongly.
The poem is no longer a part of the book I own. I ripped it out, had it framed, and nailed it to the wall right next to the door in our master bedroom. Like the mezuzah that’s placed on our doorframe leading into the garage, this poem, this language of love and calling will always be on our hearts and in our souls and a part of our strength. It reminds us that we were once lonely and longing, before we even knew to use such words. This poem reminds us that we need to talk about this child (and the one that followed four years later under similar, planned and expectant circumstances) and his coming into the world. These children of ours, they are written all over our hearts. And maybe Olds might agree, their planning created its own heat.