Reprinted by permission from Repair, Farrar Straus and Giroux. For more by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, see "Redemption: A Poet's Surprise."
My grandmother is washing my mouth
out with soap; half a long century gone
and still she comes at me
with that thick, cruel, yellow bar.
All because of a word I said,
not even said really, only repeated,
but Open, she says, open up!
her hand clawing at my head.
I know now her life was hard;
she lost three daughters as babies,
then her husband died, too,
leaving young sons, and no money.
She'd stand me in the sink to pee
because there was never room in the toilet.
But, oh, her soap! Might its bitter burning
have been what made me a poet?
The street she lived on was unpaved,
her flat two cramped rooms and a fetid
kitchen where she stalked and caught me.
Dare I admit that after she did it
I never really loved her again?
She lived to a hundred, even then.
All along it was the sadness, the squalor,
but I never, until now, loved her again.