Tuesday, January 15, 2013


A few days ago the clouds looked so wonderful, so 3-D -- ordinary tumbled white clouds with grayish underbellies -- that I thought, “I don’t need to ask for anything more of life.”

The next instant, however, I thought that I’d ask not to be parted from this beauty. But scientists still seem a long way from defeating the built-in aging clock of the body, if they ever get there at all (the first “death switch” is puberty; theoretically, we could be immortal if we gave up reproduction).

Many people say that it’s not dying that bothers them; it’s watching and experiencing the process of aging. “Don’t you just hate aging!” is what I hear from women, and no one even remembers the consolation of “inner beauty.” Old is not beautiful, but the only thing we can do is “age gracefully” (or perhaps disgracefully, why not), with acceptance.

The huge popularity of plastic surgery testifies to our growing rejection of “looking our age.” So a poem about welcoming and even celebrating the changes that aging brings to the woman’s body is a true surprise. Sharon Olds, arguably the most famous American woman poet and the most recent recipient of the T.S. Eliot Prize, has written such a poem.

The Older

The older I get, the more I feel

almost beautiful -- not my face, plain

puritan face, but my body. And I will be
fifty, soon, my body getting

withery and scrawny, and I like its silvery

witheriness, the skin thinning,

surface of a lake crumped by wind, ruched 

wraith, a wrinkle of smoke. Yet when
I look down, I can see, sometimes,
things that if a young woman saw she would
scream, as if at a horror movie
 turned to crone in an instant -- if I lean

far enough forward, I can see the fine
birth skin of my stomach pucker
and hang, in tiny peaks, like wet stucco.
And yet I can imagine being eighty, made
entirely, on the outside, of that,  
and making love with the same animal
dignity, the tunnel remaining
the inside of a raspberry 
bract. Suddenly I look young to myself
next to that eighty-year-old, I look
like her child, my flesh in its loosening drape
showing the long angles of these strange
bones like cooking-utensil handles in heaven.
When I was younger, I looked, to myself,
sometimes, like a crude drawing of a female --
the breasts, the 1940s flare of the hips --
but this greyish, dented being is cozy as 
a favorite piece of clothing, she is almost
lovable, now, to me. Of course, it is 
his love I am seeing, the working of his thumb
over this lucky nickel -- five times
five years in his pocket. Maybe
even if I died, I would not look ugly
to him. Sometimes, now, I dance
like shirred smoke above a chimney.
Sometimes, now, I think I live
in the place where the solemn, wild drinking
of coming is done, I am not all day coming
but living in that place where it is done.

~ Sharon Olds, The Unswept Room, 2003 

“Sometimes, now, I dance / like shirred smoke above a chimney.” What an amazing ending from that point on! At first reading, I understood “coming” as “arriving,” in terms of the metaphoric “journey of life”; only after a while I recalled the sexual meaning. Of course it’s richer with both meanings present. And I am not surprised at the “posthumous” feeling; there is something posthumous about the very act of writing, which seems the opposite of living. 

As someone said, you can’t write about making love while making love. 

This is an extraordinary poem, with an astonishing counter-culture beginning, coming from a woman:

The older I get, the more I feel
almost beautiful -- not my face, plain
puritan face, but my body.

We take it for granted that the older a woman gets, the worse she looks, and consequently feels less beautiful. “The older I get, the more I feel/ I look like a fright” -- would be something that a woman reader would nod her head to. Then, another surprise: Olds is not talking about her face -- and to a typical woman, but especially the kind of woman who was praised for her beauty when she was young, her face is what his penis is to a man: a secret foundation of her self-esteem. Not the entire foundation, no: but a more significant part than most women would like to admit.

Olds dismisses the importance of the face. She’s interested in the body. But for all her bravado about the beauty of an older body, she does admit to moments of dread:

       . . . Yet when

I look down, I can see, sometimes,
things that if a young woman saw she would
scream, as if at a horror movie,
turned crone in an instant -- if I lean 
far enough forwad, I can see the fine
birth skin of my stomach pucker 
and hang, in tiny peaks, like wet stucco.

But what follows another amazing passage, when she places herself next to the eighty-year-old she imagines becoming: 

Suddenly, I look young to myself
next to that eighty-year-old, I look
like her child, my flesh in its loosening drape
showing the long angles of these strange
bones like cooking-utensil handles in heaven.

The bones as "cooking-utensil handles in heaven" is just wonderful. And, needless to say if you know all the poems Olds wrote about sex, she imagines herself as “sexually active” at eighty -- how unpuritan can you get, how opposite of “prim and proper.” And even in that PR photo of hers at seventy, note the long hair and the somewhat daring (by East Coast standards) hair clips, and that defiant posture of a sex diva. I guess her PR photos are closer to her poems than her everyday persona. At eighty, she’ll be photographed in the nude, so we can compare that with the poem :)

Toward the end, the “shirred smoke above a chimney” (in another poem Olds states that she wants to be cremated) brings us back to the first mention of smoke at the beginning: 

The older I get, the more I feel
almost beautiful -- not my face, plain

puritan face, but my body. And I will be
fifty, soon, my body getting

withery and scrawny, and I like its silvery

witheriness, the skin thinning,

surface of a lake crumped by wind, ruched 

wraith, a wrinkle of smoke.

Smoke is an image of something airy, insubstantial. The skin keeps on thinning, getting closer and closer to becoming crematorium smoke. (“ruched / wraith, a wrinkle of smoke” -- this is brilliant writing). Olds does not treat the body as a metaphor for the mind or personality. The body is literally thinning out, as if preparing to be smoke. 

Sharon Olds at 70

But the greatness of this poem lies partly in the fact that Olds does not end simply on dying. As is typical of her, she finds an affirmation. Note that she is dancing like smoke, celebrating the richness of life. She can imagine her life as already over, and still feel joy at having been alive. 


Gloria Steinem wrote that when she was diagnosed with cancer, her first thought was, “I’ve had a fabulous life.” I think Sharon Olds, when she thinks of dying, would say the same. But we don’t need to famous to feel that way. Simply existing is transcendent.

It’s stunning that Olds can using even aging and dying to celebrate life. She finds beauty even in the aging body, and that dancing “wrinkle of smoke” above the crematorium chimney becomes a smile.


If I remember correctly, when someone brought up the “poet of the body” label, Olds replied, “I am surprised that every poet isn’t.” And she has a point: the body is so physical, so much a part of nature, a fascinating animal. Yet offhand I can’t think of any other famous poet who describes the human body as much and in as great a detail as Olds.

But great poems don’t come only from the famous poets. I’ve read marvelous pieces from poets whose reputation is local at best. The poem below is an example. In a way, I like it even better than “The Older” -- it has a gorgeous music, for one thing, making it irresistibly lyrical. 

Elderly Mother at the Hot Springs

The old woman, standing in the shower,
hums her tunes below falling water.
She recites all night in her sleep,

her lips whisper now and at the hour
of our death, amen, forgive us our sins,
fill drowsy rooms with flecks of spirit.

She stumbles, grasps the rails of her walking,
legs blue over dead toes. The agéd mermaid
slides into warm water

and in weightless breaststroke
begins her old ballet
leading dancers through pools of earth.

As long as her watery stories pour forth
I hold my mother in fluid we share,
lime green swim suit and blue desert day,

swimmer in her high eighties, me
in my mid fifties, my smooth roundness
near the flaps of her skin

like ruffles of ashen petticoat,
layers of her cascade to ground
netted in dark veins.

She ripples in sulfur moments, returns
to the pools of prayer, and I see for the first time,
mother, naked and happy.

~ Janet Baker © 2013

While this poem does not celebrate aging per se, it does celebrate a woman in her high eighties, not quite healthy (note the “dead toes”), who manages a weightless ballet as she swims. So what if her skin is flabby and she has broken veins --

near the flaps of her skin

like ruffles of ashen petticoat,
layers of her cascade to ground
netted in dark veins.

~ she still enjoys the “sulfur moments” in the hot springs.

Of course it wouldn’t do not to mention the importance of prayer for this elderly mother. Though I regard myself as a happy atheist, I can understand the comfort that the devout get from praying. I’ve discovered that I am happy when I concentrate on something outside of myself. A person busy praying is not brooding over past mistakes. That alone is part of the benefit. Another part is expecting paradise in the “great beyond.”

(Reading about the happy elderly mother, I almost wish I could pray. But emotional comfort is simply not the same as perceived truth.)

But this poem is not about prayer per se, or even about swimming. It’s about an elderly mother, “naked and happy.” Startling? Yes. Encouraging? Yes, since we do have a dread of aging, thinking we will be less happy as the body becomes increasingly dysfunctional. This doesn’t have to be. The brain constructs happiness, just as it constructs memory. If we relax and welcome whatever life brings, the brain will have us live in an “easy world.” And if an elderly woman is lucky enough to have a daughter who can take her to hot springs, all the more reason for joy.

And we are lucky to have these beautiful rhythms and slant rhymes, with a direct rhyme also present -- who’d think that “standing in the shower” could be paired with “now and at the hour” from Hail Mary? The dictum that poetry “must give pleasure” is amply fulfilled here -- even in the description of aging. 

This is not to say that it wouldn’t be wonderful to stay young and healthy forever -- or at least for a very long time. I’d want centuries. I don’t think I’d ever get bored of trees and clouds, or ever cease to be “in continual astonishment” at what life brings. But aside from “polite helplessness,” as Wallace Stevens puts it, I also want joy, regardless of age. Poems that present the possibility of happiness even in “advanced youth,” as an old friend used to call it, help us live on, swimming and dancing, or at least remembering swimming and dancing.
Why did I choose “Fire Bird” as the title of this post? No, we don’t rise again from a literal nest of flames. There is no return from the fire of the crematory. But before then, at any age, life throws challenges at us. And the point is to get through somehow -- “on a wing and a prayer,” as another friend has recently said -- and keep on dancing. There is no “fire bird” out there. The real fire bird is a human being who keeps on dancing.



I know you don’t believe in the soul, but I don’t care for all this body talk. Too much about the body.


I believe in brain function, possibly the most complex thing in the universe. We don’t yet know enough, don’t have the right way to talk about it. So we talk about the skin instead. About feet and hips and shoulders like some funny utensils. But can you imagine a hundred years from now? I can’t either.


But deep in your non-existent soul, don’t you think the body isn’t THAT important?


Just try to live without a body. The awful truth is that the brain doesn’t really care about the truth; its task is to make sure the body lives on. And if it takes a soothing hallucination to accomplish that purpose, the brain will produce just that.

This January has been particularly rich in fantasies about what my life might be if I had an undamaged left knee.  Never mind Prince Charming: these days my fantasies are all about the left knee.


Janet's aging mermaid is so touching, such a tender way of talking about her mother's aging and not at all sentimental. So many fine lines, and I relate not just as a daughter but as the mother going through this. I especially like "flaps of  her  skin like ruffles of ashen petticoats." 

To have lived at all is the miracle. Quoting Rilke:
"...to have been here this once, even if only once, to have been on this earth seems irrevocable..."

And speaking of age, it's good to see Sharon Olds winning a big prize. Her long grey hair and “plain Puritan face." She makes no excuses for aging. Another description of skin,"surface of a lake crumpled by wind...a wrinkle of smoke" was so accurate, too. Mine looks like very thin parchnent and is as thin.


Once I was in Whole Foods in La Jolla -- you can imagine how rich the customers are -- and I saw a woman who was in her late seventies, maybe, or already past eighty. She was badly stooped -- osteoporotic spinal compression and deformation. But she obviously just had her face laser-peeled, so she didn’t have a single wrinkle. Her skin looked shiny-white and very thin, almost ghostly. That kind of laser causes a third-degree burn, I was told -- imagine, at that age, to go through a procedure like that! With most women, vanity never ends; nor is Sharon Olds entirely free of it, with her “old and beautiful” stance. At least that’s empowering. Olds gives us the courage not to lament what we see in the mirror.

Of course I agree with you and Rilke: yes, to have lived at all is a miracle, and it is irrevocable, the order of things changed a tiny bit, but forever, just because we have been here. 


Incredible images and perfect for the blog.

When I read Sharon's poem I liked the line, “Sometimes, now, I dance / like shirred smoke above a chimney” as my favorite in the poem.

Sharon is beautiful in this picture. Something of a diva. Very well preserved. If she happened to be fat and ugly, I bet she wouldn’t have written this poem.

My favorite line in the entire blog is of course: “The real fire bird is a human being who keeps on dancing.” So beautiful.


That’s my favorite passage in Sharon’s poem, too. That’s greatness: not just the use of “shirred,” but the underlying concept of already being that posthumous smoke.

There are times, once we’ve lived long enough, when we are all ages at once, including no longer any age.


“The real fire bird is a human being who keeps on dancing” - the last line always matters the most and I like it!


Glad to hear you too like it. It’s usually only quite a bit of suffering that we learn to dance on. And it’s so inspiring to know someone like Hyacinth, 86, who in spite of poor health keeps on dancing, and finds life transcendent.



Your latest blog is as timely as ever, enjoyed it very much. I turn 50 this year and could not be happier. Am a bit slower perhaps in body but all in all this is a great time. Gone are the silliness of youth and it's vanities, I so appreciate my time to read and reflect. 4 years ago I was working 60 hour weeks with big paychecks, but the long hours and stress were not worth it. I hope to make another decade or so at work and then my wife and I can perhaps travel more and 'stress less.' Birds, books and coffee; simple (some may call dull) pleasures but I'm being as honest as I can, wouldn't trade them for a fancy car or mansion. My house has heat, the pantry is full and family are healthy. Sounds trite and cliché I know but these are good times. And now I have Robert Lax to discover!


It’s thrilled to find in you the confirmation of all the studies on happiness and aging: older is happier, as long as health holds out -- and for many, that’s into their eighties.

I remember when I didn’t know about these studies, and the thought of the later decades was simply terrifying. True, there is less future, but you gain the present. I used to live in the future so much that when I suddenly realized that “the future was stolen from me” (that’s how I thought about it), I was devastated. And then being pressed against the wall by mortality cured me of depression. It was one of the most amazing events in my life.

Thanks to you I’ve looked up Robert Lax, and he’s certainly one of the most eccentric poets ever. But note the vagaries of fame: Lax’s “Circus of the Sun,” once praised as “perhaps the greatest poem of the [twentieth] century,” is now utterly forgotten. And, who knows, maybe Ezra Pound will be the next one to go. And maybe we’ll rediscover Lax. It’s completely unpredictable.

But then who’d want it to be predictable. Like the "golden years" -- I used to think it was a myth. And look. And live.


Can’t put a price tag on mental clarity and the ability to enjoy simple things, 'rivers of books and black coffee.' I'm never happier than when I see my office in my rearview; I wish I could recall the exact quote but Melville wrote to his brother once the folly of people who were caught up in their work. Now to someone whose work is their passion that's totally different, it's not work at all. The work I'm referring to is the mind numbing drudgery of petty work with petty people, no glory or honor in that. Now whaling, that was a life! I might feel different had I actually had to kill and boil one down for it's oil but for those few minutes of excitement and terror those Quaker tars of yore probably never felt more alive. As a famed poem of theirs stated;

'Death to the living
Long life to the killers
And greasy luck to whalers'

A nasty, bloody business no doubt but again, the ports one would see, the islands, marine life and wonders of the stars at night must have been unreal.


Scott, you have managed to bring Melville into this! 

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