Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Sharon Olds. Stag’s Leap. Knopf.

Reviewed by Rachel Heimowtiz
Vol. 87 Issue 3

Sharon Olds’s most recent collection of poems, Stag’s Leap, winner of the 2012 T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, tells the story of the breakup of the poet’s thirty-year marriage. Olds, a seasoned confessional poet whose first book, Satan Says, was published in 1980, is the first American woman to win the T. S. Eliot Prize. Olds’s strong, distinctive voice brings to this book, which has been described as ‘‘beyond the confessional,’’ an example of the poet’s full control over her art. These poems deal with some of the most painful subjects concerning her feelings about the end of her marriage, her ex-husband, and herself. Olds has often spoken of wanting to depict life so exactly and so honestly that the experience would be like ‘‘just being an ordinary observer and liver and feeler and letting the experience reviews get through you onto the notebook with the pen, through the arm, out of the body, onto the page, without distortion.’’ It is something she has clearly achieved in this collection.

In Stag’s Leap there is a wonderful variation in tone from the almost funereal ‘‘Bruise Ghazal,’’ which is not a true ghazal but carries the didactic, relentless quality of the form, to the playful ‘‘Left-Wife Goose,’’ with its use of the rhythms and syntax of a nursery rhyme. But the real surprise of this book is how, despite the quite difficult subject matter of the collection, so many of the poems end with a simple micro-turn, making even the saddest poems finish on an optimistic upbeat. Olds gives us a book in which poem after poem of devastating despair leaves us with a feeling of hope.

In ‘‘Poem for the Breasts,’’ the poet uses her own breasts as metaphors for longing for a lost love. The poet’s breasts are described as separate from herself, even separate from each other, each with its own qualities. The poet grieves with them, ‘‘I hold them a moment, / one in each hand, twin widows, / heavy with grief.’’ But both are as docile and simple as cows:

. . . they are waiting for him, my
Christ they are dumb, they do not even
know they are mortal—

By separating her breasts from herself, Olds is able to use them as a most personal metaphor for grief and loss. In ‘‘Tiny Siren,’’ the poet finds a picture of a woman at the bottom of the washer ‘‘like a girl / brought up in a net of fish.’’ She soon recognizes the woman in the picture as a colleague of her husband. The gesture of drawing this very small, almost lost image, this hint of a husband’s duplicity out of the depths of the washer, is brilliant.

For a book about the breakup of a marriage, there is a good deal of sex going on. Couple that with Olds’s characteristic scathing honesty and we may start to have a sense of why this collection has garnered so much attention. In ‘‘Material Ode,’’ the poet tells the story of a husband going off to an annual event, one the poet and he have enjoyed together in the past. The speaker’s husband tells his long-time wife that she can’t go to the ball because it will be awkward for his lover to see the wife dancing with him. He takes off in his tux, leaving her behind, with a smile on his face. And when he comes home, the poet admits, she has sex with him. There is something raw, honest, visceral, and painful about this moment—Olds manages to avoid, at least in this instance, a kind of victimhood. That the speaker (and by this I mean Olds) reveals a peculiar complicity in her own crushing moment is at once unsettling and strangely liberating.

Throughout the book, Olds returns to metaphors of silence and birds. It is through these two images that she demonstrates what she considers to be the reason for the downfall of the marriage. In several poems reference is made to her husband’s desire for silence: ‘‘He wants a stillness at the end of it.’’ But the poet admits this is not something she could give him, as the ‘‘gift of gab’’ is her singular marker of self and personhood. The poet is the bird. She sings. She is caged. She is ‘‘not quiet enough / in our bed.’’ She is the warbler, ‘‘unlike the warbling of coming, I sang / for two.’’ She is the confessional poet. She tells the family secrets in her poems, and it is those poems and her life as a poet that the husband cannot embrace or accept. Her protection of her position as poet comes with a heavy cost.

And he did not give
his secrets to his patients, but I gave my secrets
to you, dear strangers, and his too—

And so, in the penultimate poem of the book, ‘‘Years Later,’’ the poet looks out into a green park, but sees only an imagined graveyard with no dead in it except

under some years of leaves
and rotted cones, the body of a warbler
like a whole note fallen from the sky—my old
love for him, like the songbird’s rib cage picked clean.

Throughout this collection, Olds shines a small light into this dark story with poems that end with new openings.

In her poem ‘‘Red Sea’’ she uses an archetypal image to express her optimism. She encounters her ex at a party, and their meeting is almost romantic: souls swimming towards each other. They then enter a place of banter that is playful even if combative. But then the poem ends with the archetypal image of the parting of the sea. Though the poet ends with ‘‘a wall’’ of water on either side, we can’t help but think about the extraordinary image of freedom and promise that the parting of the sea portends.

In ‘‘September 2001, New York City,’’ the poet says she can never write about the breakup, and she counts the days since she last saw him. But at the end of the poem, as she holds her dying mother, ‘‘the almost warbler / bones of her shoulder under my hand,’’ she comes to understand the ‘‘luck and the luxury’’ of the hour of leaving and the wonderful gift it is to be a poet. So many of the poems in this book end with this very slight demi-détourné, an almost imperceptible, upbeat turn.

Stag’s Leap is a magnificent book rendered with a controlled, delicate touch. It is a book that moves with an electric friction that arises between despair and hope. Olds reveals her deepest secrets and examines not only her feelings of loss, but also her own part in the breakup of the marriage. But, like all the surprise endings we see in Stag’s Leap, in the poem, ‘‘The Easel,’’ as the poet sets fire to her husband’s old easel, she admits that if she had been asked to give up her poetry she would answer, ‘‘what could I have said: nothing will stop me.’’ The end is a curiosity since in what would have been an earlier version of the poem, published in Granta in May 2011, instead of the final phrase ‘‘nothing will stop me’’ the poem ends with a question, ‘‘What could I have said?’’ The addition of that reviews question to the current version does not clarify what that answer may have been, and therein lies its beauty. Indeed, the poet may well be saying that ‘‘nothing will stop’’ her from giving up all art for the sake of everlasting love. Of course, one is more likely to read the poem’s ending to mean ‘‘nothing will stop’’ her from being a poet and artist, especially given the leadership of her husband who used his family to serve his art. Olds’s deft use of ambiguity captures perfectly what the collection does very well—it complicates motives, fears, desires, and sorrows, even as it simplifies the contradictory impulses that mark the relationship she describes.