Poetry: Prayer by Carolyn Oliver

Some poems evoke an old voice inside—maybe manufactured by school, by history, by Dickinson—that leaps from word to word with unexpected vitality and novelty. Carolyn Oliver’s “Prayer”—a Golden Shovel, the form invented by Terrance Hayes—presses “the long lush dark” into view with a dexterity that makes the 19th century verbiage and phrases youthful and new.



++++++after Emily Dickinson’s “For each ecstatic instant”

I’ve lost the sense of it: the to, the for,
the downcast eye and bitten lip, the strike of each
syllable against gratitude, or terror, or ecstatic
relief. I caught doubt in the curdled instant
when pilot wracked ship against rock—or was it when we
caged our suspect pleasures, ordered to please? Must
break them out again, let them wing free before an-
other edict lands from on high, or the brittle anguish
of temporary censure becomes a price too dear to pay
even for possibility’s delectable promiscuities. In
their mouths I swear I’ve watched coals burning keen,
but discovered only tongues poised to lash. And
when they did I slipped, cerise and quivering,
pollinated with feeling until I swelled out of form, the ratio
of flesh to word blooming indistinct. I wanted to
ward off their need to name a source, an end, an almighty ‘the.’
I ached to wallow in wonder, in slowblind ecstasy,
to devote my flesh to all uncatalogued bliss. (For-
bearance has always slipped my clutch.) Each
plea we speak raptures into particles, into waves, beloved
cosmonaut bargainings the universe forgets in an hour
just as surely as slick spires of want or graceless sharp
breaths of savage hope. All of them pittances
hushed against the velvet of the long lush dark, the shape of
silk-strong spacetime fueling our negligible years
of unmolded experience, merciless sweet and marvelous bitter.
If I lost comfort and forgiveness, I took up the contested
mantle of point and line, theory and practice. Farthings
to rubies, or coppers to gold, they’d say. And
still I beg the world: oh, never quench me, but fill my aching coffers
with sound and sense until I’m overthrown, heaped
with titles for all I claim dear, or womb-hollowed with
the promise of holding all God cannot know. Bliss. Rage. Tears.



Carolyn Oliver

Carolyn Oliver’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Day OneTin House’s Open Bar, Scoundrel TimeAmericaTar River Poetrymatchbook, and elsewhere. A graduate of The Ohio State University and Boston University, she lives in Massachusetts with her family. Links to more of her work can be found at carolynoliver.net.

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