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Afric McGlinchey
Afric McGlinchey

Afric McGlinchey grew up in Ireland and Africa. A Pushcart nominee, in 2012 she won the Northern Liberties poetry prize (USA), was highly commended in the Magma (UK), Joy of Sex (UK), and Dromineer poetry competitions, and shortlisted in the Bridport. She was commended in the Poetry Space Competition (UK) in 2013. Afric won the Hennessy Poetry Award in 2011. Her début poetry collection, The lucky star of hidden things, was published by Salmon (2012). She is a book editor, workshop facilitator and reviewer. She also  tutors poetry online and lives in West Cork.

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Poets Reading Poets 20

The Promise

Sharon Olds


With the second drink, at the restaurant,

holding hands on the bare table,

we are at it again, renewing our promise

to kill each other. You are drinking gin,

night-blue juniper berry

dissolving in your body, I am drinking Fumé,

chewing its fragrant dirt and smoke, we are

taking on earth, we are part soil already,

and wherever we are, we are also in our

bed, fitted, naked, closely

along each other, half passed out,

after love, drifting back

and forth across the border of consciousness,

our bodies buoyant, clasped. Your hand

tightens on the table. You’re a little afraid

I’ll chicken out. What you do not want

is to lie in a hospital bed for a year

after a stroke, without being able

to think or die, you do not want

to be tied to a chair like your prim grandmother,

cursing. The room is dim around us,

ivory globes, pink curtains

bound at the waist—and outside,

a weightless, luminous, lifted-up

summer twilight. I tell you you do not

know me if you think I will not

kill you. Think how we have floated together

eye to eye, nipple to nipple,

sex to sex, the halves of a creature

drifting up to the lip of matter

and over it—you know me from the bright,

blood-flecked delivery room, if a lion

had you in its jaws I would attack it, if the ropes

binding your soul are your own wrists, I will cut them.



Sharon Olds’ strength is in her ability to pack an emotional punch, and in this poem she incorporates the emotive charge of love, sex, death, violence and birth. Her approach appears simple and impulsive, going directly to the heart of the matter. But ‘The Promise’ is not simple at all; it is layered with multiple emotions and directions, while retaining its spontaneity of expression.  The form, a single stanza in one long meandering column, works effectively in unearthing these layers, as an archaeologist would with a paintbrush, revealing, line by line, the depth of meaning behind the ‘promise’. The line endings are either concrete words (restaurant, table, gin, berry, hand) or enjambments which follow the breath to create the rhythm and flow of the poem, luring the reader onwards. So although the initial ‘shock’ of the poem appears early, the dénouement is in this unfolding, to the final image which combines as a metaphor.


The poem begins by placing the setting.  The restaurant table is bare, so either the couple have finished eating – they are on their second drink – or waiting for another course. There is no real sense that this is a particularly special occasion, although, ‘we are at it again, renewing our promise…’ suggests that this might be an anniversary, an annual ritual. Also, her heightened awareness of the setting indicates the significance of the moment:


          The room is dim around us,

          ivory globes, pink curtains

          bound at the waist—and outside,

          a weightless, luminous, lifted-up

          summer twilight.


The narrator’s use of the first person immediately introduces a confessional, intimate tone. This is reinforced by the cumulative impact of the pronouns:  ‘we’, ‘you’, ‘I’, ‘us’. The reader is a voyeur at this intensely private scene.


Initially, we might imagine a passionate argument: ‘we are at it again’, and take the word ‘promise’ to be ironic, meaning, in fact, ‘threaten’ to kill each other, especially as drinking is mentioned immediately afterwards.  But the couple are holding hands. The images appear slowly, creating pauses that give space to the poem: the hands, the table, and then, the drinks. These are described in sensual detail:


          You are drinking gin,

          night-blue juniper berry

          dissolving in your body, I am drinking Fumé,

          chewing its fragrant dirt and smoke…


and now the mood becomes more apparent. The speaker’s imagining of the drink ‘dissolving in your body’ suggests that she is closely attuned to the subtle changes being experienced by her lover, while ‘I am…chewing its fragrant dirt and smoke…’ This unexpected synesthesia is all the more arresting after the poetic image of the ‘night-blue’ juniper berry.


The interesting development of this long sentence, marked by commas, is activated by the suggestiveness of the ‘dirt’, and there is a complex conflation or fluidity of time and place, moving the couple from the restaurant to their ultimate destination: ‘we are taking on earth’ – this suggesting both an acceptance of a challenge (‘taking on’) and an acquiring: ‘we are part soil already’. In a kind of eternal omnipresence, they are also in bed (‘and wherever we are, we are also in our bed’) where they lie alongside each other, ‘drifting back and forth across the border of consciousness’ and then back at the table, holding hands, and slightly tipsy. There is no actual dialogue, only actions: ‘your hand tightens on the table.’ This is a relayed conversation: ‘I tell you you do not / know me if you think I will not / kill you.’ We are witnesses, but not close enough to hear the conversation directly, only from her point of view. This distancing from the direct dialogue, as well as the lack of contractions here, gives her statement gravitas, the double ‘you’ in the line, sufficient strangeness. The repeated word ‘not’, in two successive line endings also strangely reinforces her commitment to this promise.

There is a cocoon or womb-like comfort and safety to this whole scene. The room

          is dim around us,

          ivory globes, pink curtains

          bound at the waist

and they themselves are like twin foetuses, ‘our bodies buoyant, clasped’, as the curtains are, or even, as she puts it, two halves of one single creature: ‘the halves of a creature / drifting up to the lip of matter…’.


This description mixes registers: the colloquial ‘half passed out’ suggests that they are drunk, crossing ‘the border of consciousness’ – but then she elevates the language in her description of their ‘buoyant, clasped’ post-coital bodies.  While alcohol can create this feeling, the word ‘clasped’ is old-fashioned and suggests tenderness, rather than a merely physical, lustful clutching.


A few lines later, she returns to this image of the bodies twined together, extending their union to an even more transcendental state:


          Think how we have floated together

          eye to eye, nipple to nipple,

          sex to sex, the halves of a creature

          drifting up to the lip of matter

          and over it…


The word ‘drifting’ occurs twice, the first time possibly in a state of half-intoxication, or post-coital euphoria, the second time moving into an elevated consciousness.


Olds has moved from death to birth, the bed symbolizing not only their beginnings and endings, but also rapture. This is the ultimate love poem. The ‘shock’ of the promise is artfully juxtaposed with a simple domestic setting: table, curtains, the ‘ivory globes’ of the lighting. It is all so safe, so familiar. They are quietly holding hands. The light is ‘dim’, but outside (beyond), it is ‘luminous’. The intensity of their feelings is conveyed internally, in the way their drinks are impacting on their bodies, and also the sense of ritual associated with imbibing alcohol from the juniper berry, and Fumé, ‘smoke and dirt’ (suggesting ashes to ashes, dust to dust) so that ‘we are taking on earth, we are part soil already.’ This merging of the internal/external is a kind of communion.


The image of twilight, that indeterminate ‘in-between’ time, again evokes a primordial or pre-natal world. There is a sense, in this poem, that the couple will be together in whatever form, beyond the earthiness of bodily death.


While Olds has been accused of being melodramatic at times, I feel she manages successfully to circumvent it here. Even the horror of dependence and incapacity is limited to the prospect of lying in a hospital bed (an unwanted bed this time) or being

‘tied to a chair like your prim grandmother, / cursing.’


This is a simple, but powerful, image. Obviously the word ‘tied’ is not used literally, but metaphorically it works effectively to suggest physical restraint as well. And the idea of a ‘prim’, probably dignified, grandmother being reduced to cursing says it all. The prospect of a similar fate is intolerable.


Interestingly, there is only one line where Olds uses contractions: ‘You’re a little afraid I’ll chicken out.’ There is a wry irony here, as though the promise is a kind of dare, but then the tone changes altogether, with the shift in register to the more formal: ‘you do not want’ repeated twice, and ‘you do not know’, which could have been contracted to ‘don’t’. But that would have reduced the intensity of feeling.


The language is interesting. Olds moves between the earthiness of bodily or nature (mostly Anglo-Saxon) images: eye, nipple, sex, hand, body, wrists, jaws, dirt, juniper berry, etc., to more otherworldly, spiritual, abstract (Latinate) words: consciousness, soul. The imagery offers both the concrete reality of physical existence through the solidity of objects – table, bed, chair, curtains – and a more ethereal sense of existence: ‘across the border of consciousness’, ‘weightless’, ‘luminous’, ‘drifting’, ‘floating’.


The musicality of the poem is in its incantatory effect, achieved by the extended comma-punctuated sentences, as mentioned earlier. Some lines are balanced by image/movement, for example, ‘night-blue juniper berry / dissolving in your body’ or by a parallelism: ‘we are / taking on earth, we are part soil already.’ There is also  assonance, dissonance and alliteration. Just to look at one part of the poem:


          you know me from the bright,

          blood-flecked delivery room, if a lion

          had you in its jaws I would attack it, if the ropes

          binding your soul are your own wrists, I will cut them.


There is alliteration in the ‘bright, blood….binding’; assonance in “bright…binding…I’;  and ‘know… ropes… soul’; dissonance in the whole line: ‘you know me from the bright, / blood- / flecked delivery room’; the repeated ‘l’ sounds in ‘blood-flecked delivery…lion…soul…will…’’; and the powerful ‘k’ sounds of ‘flecked…attack…cut…’ Note also the repetition of ‘if’. This reinforces the persuasiveness of her argument, a technique used elsewhere in the poem too.


The physical ‘movement’ of the poem is stunningly achieved: from the restaurant to bed, to hospital, back to bed, to floating (I imagine in amniotic fluid), to the ‘bright, blood-flecked’ delivery room. The simple mention of that phrase evokes a multitude of impressions – the brightness conveying something intense, but also positive; ‘blood-flecked’ suggesting the violence of labour, but also a delivery. And a deliverance.


This mention of ‘blood’ leads to the speculative ‘if a lion / had you in its jaws I would attack it’. The lion here symbolizes her lover’s entrapment, disempowerment, from which she would release him. Here is where we see Sharon Olds’ skill as a poet at work. It is only in the last two lines of the poem that she takes away the safety net of these physical places, and allows the more graphic ‘blood’ of the previous image to do its work, without needing to mention blood again. Blood is already implicit (and I am also reminded of oaths taken in blood):


          …if a lion

          had you in its jaws I would attack it, if the ropes

          binding your soul are your own wrists, I will cut them.


While these images might be dramatic (and the use of the word ‘soul’ in a contemporary poem is dubious), I think by the time we reach them, they’ve been earned.


In the final lines, the tense changes from the conditional to the future ‘will’ of intent: ‘if the ropes / binding your soul are your own wrists, I will cut them.’ She will not allow him to be ‘tied’ or bound like his grandmother. We know, from the way the poem has progressed, from ‘chewing’ the fragrant dirt and smoke to the post-coital bodies ‘fitted, naked, closely / along each other’, to the suggestion of a lion attack, and finally, the image of wrists, that their love will give her the power she needs both to kill and to release him.



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