Monday, April 19, 2010

Struggling to Be Part of the Solution

April is National Poetry Month.

To be a politically active college student in May 1968 was to live in a vortex of chaos. The year began with North Vietnam’s surprise Tet Offensive, followed by General Westmoreland’s request for 200,000 more U.S. troops. Crowds grew larger at anti-war protests and police became more aggressive, using tactics that intensified fear and anger and told us our government saw us as the enemy. On April 4th, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Suddenly, even the most privileged college students understood that almost anything could happen.

As May 1968 began, Bobby Kennedy was on the campaign trail, with one month to live. Students were protesting and staging sit-ins on campuses all over the country. I was studying fine arts at the School of Visual Arts on East 23rd Street, and poet Sharon Olds was 100 blocks north, working on her PhD at Columbia. Her poem “May 1968” is the testimony of a participant. Well over 100 Columbia students were arrested at campus protests that May.

May 1968

When the Dean said we could not cross campus
until the students gave up the buildings,
we lay down, in the street,
we said the cops will enter this gate
over us. Lying back on the cobbles,
I saw the buildings of New York City
from dirt level, they soared up
and stopped, chopped off—above them, the sky,
the night air over the island.
The mounted police moved, near us,
while we sang, and then I began to count,
12, 13, 14, 15,
I counted again, 15, 16, one
month since the day on that deserted beach,
17, 18, my mouth fell open,
my hair on the street,
if my period did not come tonight
I was pregnant. I could see the sole of a cop's
shoe, the gelding's belly, its genitals—
if they took me to Women's Detention and did
the exam on me, the speculum,
the fingers—I gazed into the horse's tail
like a comet-train. All week, I had
thought about getting arrested, half-longed
to give myself away. On the tar—
one brain in my head, another,
in the making, near the base of my tail—
I looked at the steel arc of the horse's
shoe, the curve of its belly, the cop's
nightstick, the buildings streaming up
away from the earth. I knew I should get up
and leave, but I lay there looking at the space
above us, until it turned deep blue and then
ashy, colorless, Give me this one
night, I thought, and I'll give this child
the rest of my life, the horse's heads,
this time, drooping, dipping, until
they slept in a circle around my body and my daughter

To learn more about Sharon Olds and read additional poems, visit

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