Posted by: gdevi | February 2, 2013

Review: Stag’s Leap (2012)

Sharon Olds. Stag’s Leap: Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. $16. 95.

I met Sharon Olds when I was a graduate student and she came to the University of North Dakota for our Writer’s Conference. I like some of her poems, particularly, her poems about children, though I cannot really identify with her poems at all. I have always approached her poems with some curiosity, as one might some object that looks sort of familiar, but is also intrinsically different. Olds has written extensively of family life and her cast of characters over the years has included her parents, her husband, and her children, but, when we finish reading these poems about her family, we always know less about the family, and more about her.

Though, the old Olds distanced herself from Sylvia Plath and the “confessional” school of poetry, Olds has always sounded like a closet confessional poet to my ears. With Stag’s Leap, Olds’ most recent collection of poetry, the new Olds has firmly etched her name in the company of  American confessional poets. Stag’s Leap chronicles the divorce and ending of Olds’s marriage to her husband after thirty plus years of marriage and two grown children. In 1997, Olds’s husband, a psychiatrist, told her that he loved another woman and wanted a divorce.  Stag’s Leap refers to her husband’s favorite wine, which becomes a symbol of how Olds sees her husband’s own leap for his freedom. “When anyone escapes, my heart/ leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from,/ I am half on the side of the leaver” (“Stag’s Leap,” 16).  Olds  wrote the poems over the course of the next several years promising her children that she would not publish them until a decade later.

Stag’s Leap is divided into six sections: January-December, Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, and Years Later. The opening poem “While He Told Me,” describes the ordinary yet irreversibly confusing effect of this announcement on her. The poem describes her husband calmly going about his daily routine: “Near sunrise, behind overcast, he got/ up to go in and read on the couch,/ as he often did,/ and in a while I followed him,/ as I often had/” (3). If we may ascribe the term genre to describe the class of books that describes the ending of marriages and divorces, one of the salient themes in this genre is the necessary inclination, perhaps a necessary stage of the mourning, for the “left” spouse to look back and see every event in the shared life trajectory that has just conclusively ended through the lens of the divorce. In “Unspeakable,” Olds feels that when she is with her husband she is standing in “his thirty-year sight, and not in love’s sight,” and experiencing  “an invisibility/ like a neutron in a cloud chamber buried in a mile-long/ accelerator, where what cannot/ be seen is inferred by what the visible/ does” (4). Her husband’s reactions are clear and visible: “And after/  the first minute, when I say, Is this about/ her, and he says, No, it’s about/ you, we do not speak of her” (5).

It is also a fanatical theme in the literature of divorce for the left spouse to insist that they will continue to love the leaving spouse for the rest of their lives. Olds treats this theme with a certain (retrospective?) humor in “The Flurry”

“Don’t catch

my cold,” he says, “–oh that’s right, you want

to catch my cold.”  I should not have told him that,

I tell him I will try to fall out of

love with him, but I feel I will love him

all my life. He says he loves me

as the mother of our children, and new troupes

of tears mount to the acrobat platforms

of my ducts and do their burning leaps,

some of them jump straight sideways, and for a

moment, I imagine a flurry

of tears like a wirra of knives thrown

at a figure to outline it–a heart’s spurt

of rage. It glitters, in my vision, I nod

to it, it is my hope.” (6)

Similarly, there is a fanatical insistence in poems of this genre to deny sexual happiness in the future for the leaving spouse. Along with the psychological withdrawal symptoms of the ending of a marriage, many poems in Stag’s Leap describe the physical and sexual withdrawal of the left spouse for the husband who will not make love to her any more, and further to come to terms with the fact that he will love and make love to another woman. In “Gramercy,” which describes Olds’s memory of the last time she and her husband had sex, she speaks of her awareness of her husband’s “hand laid down my back.” “It was as if he were suing for peace,/ asking if this could be over–maybe not/ just this time, but over . .  . . not a gauntlet/ but a formal petition for reprieve, a sign for Grant Mercy” (9). In the title poem, “Stag’s Leap,” Olds comes to terms with the futility of sexual memories:

Oh my mate. I was vain of his

faithfulness, as if it was

a compliment, rather than a state

of partial sleep. And when I wrote about him, did he

feel he had to walk around

carrying my books on his head like a stack of

posture volumes, or the rack of horns

hung where a hunter washes the venison

down with the sauvignon? Oh leap

leap! Careful of the rocks! Does the old

vow have to wish him happiness

in his new life, even sexual

joy? I fear so, at first, when I still

can’t tell us apart. Below his shaggy

belly, in the distance, lie the even dots

of a vineyard, its vines not blasted, its roots

clean, its bottles growing at the ends of their

blowpipes as dark, green, wavering groans. (17)

There are a couple of poems in the collection where her husband’s new partner makes an appearance. It is another feature of the genre that the left wife feels animosity and jealousy towards the woman now loved by the ex-husband. Furthermore, the left spouse wants to know “why, this person, and not me?” It is part of rationalizing the end of the marriage. In “The Healers,” Olds starts with that social scenario — “If there are any doctors aboard/ would they please make themselves known?” and how her then-husband would rise from her side to do the medical tasks:

And after those first thirty years,

I was not the one he wanted to rise from

or return to–not I but she would also

rise, when such were needed. Now I see them,

lifting , side by side, on wide,

medical, wading-bird wings–like storks with the

doctor bags of like-loves-like

dangling from their beaks. Oh well. It was the way

it was, he did not feel happy when words

were called for, and I stood. (33)

It is inevitable, I suppose, that for Olds who has always looked to her own life for poems, the divorce and ending of her marriage provided rich material for a collection such as this one. When we think about the private and public contexts of a poem, Stag’s Leap, while breaking no new ground, theme or technique-wise, brings the public perspective squarely back to Sharon Olds, the poet, and how an event like a divorce affects a poet.  In the final poem in the collection, “What Left?” Olds speaks of the ending of the marriage from a point beyond that of rationalization, or perhaps standing on the final ledge of rationalization:

We fulfilled something in each other–

I believed in him, he believed in me, then we

grew, and grew, I grieved him, he grieved me,

I completed with him, he completed with me, we

made whole cloth together, we succeeded,

we perfected what lay between him and me,

I did not deceive him, he did not deceive me,

I did not leave him, he did not leave me,

I freed him, he freed me.

Olds who divides her time between New York where she teaches creative writing at NYU, and New Hampshire, where her boyfriend lives, is the recent winner of the 2012 T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry for Stag’s Leap.


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