Award winner and renowned teacher, Sharon Olds is that rare fearless poet who turns away from nothing, least of all the truth about herself and those she loves. It is no surprise that this national treasure has brought us a poem about the intimate and intricate act that women everywhere engage in alone and as a sisterhood.

Self-Exam

They tell you it won’t make much sense, at first,
you will have to learn the terrain. They tell you this
at thirty, and fifty, and some are late
beginners, at last lying down and walking
the old earth of the breasts—the small,
cobbled, plowed field of one,
with a listening walking, and then the other—
fingertip-stepping, divining, north
to south, east to west, sectioning
the little fallen hills, sweeping
for mines. And the matter feels primordial,
unimaginable—dense,
cystic, phthistic, each breast like the innards
of a cell, its contents shifting and changing,
streambed gravel under walking feet, it
seems almost unpicturable, not
immemorial, but nearly un-
memorizable, but one marches,
slowly, through grave or fatal danger,
or no danger, one feels around in the
two tack-room drawers, ribs and
knots like leather bridles and plaited
harnesses and bits and reins,
one runs one’s hands through the mortal tackle
in a jumble, in the dark, indoors. Outside—
night, in which these glossy ones were
ridden to a froth of starlight, bareback.

Sharon Olds

* Originally published in The New Yorker

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  • Dr. Pat Allen March 24, 2008 at 8:17 am

    Anxiety prevents women from doing breast self exams.
    I am told, “I am afraid I will find something.”
    “Darling, that is the goal of the breast self exam,” I say.
    “Know the terrain,” I urge women.
    But never has the terrain been so beautifully, so scientifically, so medically, so sculpturally described as in this poem by the brilliant Sharon Olds.
    Now I will give out those medical handouts of HOW TO DO A BREAST SELF EXAM. Then, I will read this poem to my patients, followed by more teaching in the art of self-knowledge.

    Reply