A beautiful meditation on the loss of a beloved sister to a long, slow battle with cancer, braided with poems the writer read during that experience:
Before a person dies, you talk to them. They die, and you still want to talk to them. But their body is gone. When my sister would come home from college, I would sometimes go into her room and just sit there, hoping she would ask me about what felt at the time to me like the major dramas of my life (I would have been fourteen, fifteen). I was too shy to raise them with her. Now she was drifting away and I was in that same room, holding a book of hers from those same years, her notes inside, and all I could do was read to myself.
The touchingly literal conceit of the Olds poem is that death is like this: a problem of a body having gone missing. You face somebody when you talk to them; if their body is gone, and you wish to go on talking, you must search for a new way of facing them. The poem elaborates this hypothesis, testing it out. The speaker turns to a “new rose,” only to realize that at night we can’t see color, leaving the lawn “grey,” the rose “glowing white.” Has the poem found a new way of seeing in the dark, or has grief drained all color from the world?
The desire to talk to the dead requires the “as if” of figurative language: a descent from the world of the living to an underworld. As the poet addresses the absent grandmother, she conjures her into the poem, and yet what appears is a person who had already, even in life, turned toward the darkened state of death: not knitting, not reading. The only unbroken lines in the poem are its final ones, in which the speaker seems to have reconciled herself to having nothing more than the imperfect, residual knowledge that death allows.
At the heart of the poem, though, lies a terrible doubt. “Are the dead there / if we do not speak to them?” If our speech is what has seemed to grant others their presence in the first place, have we been fooling ourselves all along? Have we mistaken the projection of our own imagination, reflected back to us at night, for a dim impression of the person whom we miss? “Why do I tell you these things?” John Ashbery asks at the end of one poem. “You are not even here.”