For people who don’t often read poetry (i.e. most people) it can take a significant life change to occasion the event; marriage, death, scary illness. I remember an old boyfriend’s mother kept a shelf of Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall in an otherwise poetry-spare home. She’d collected them during her treatment for cancer, had sought out illness narratives to help make sense of her experience. In a bewildering world where cruelty and love coexist in a family, Sharon Olds has consistently served as a sense-making machine. For 30 years and over ten volumes of poetry, she’s documented both her family of origin and the family she helped to create, exploring the tension between the two to great effect. Where relationships become complicated by violence she has transcended the victim/perpetrator binary, humanizing her subjects, and negotiating the dim territory where ideas about right and wrong conflict with lived experience. This ability to speak from a conflicted perspective has become a trademark, established in her first book, Satan Says, “I love him too, / you know… I love them but / I’m trying to say what happened to us”.
Told more or less chronologically, beginning in 1997 with the days and weeks following her husband’s announcement that he is leaving her for another woman, Stag’s Leap proceeds through the seasons following his departure with the candor we’ve come to expect from Olds. Somehow, it’s still surprising, her insistence on seeing, even in the throes of total devastation; the beloved, their 30-year marriage, and her own failures. Its chronology travels loosely the stages of grief, though with Olds denial hardly figures, and a certain acceptance underwrites all her poems. In “The Flurry” the parting couple discuss when to tell their children about their separation, and anger springs, “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.”
In “Gramercy” she describes their final sex, beginning with bargaining, her husband “suing for peace,” and ending in surrender to the old passions, “his indulgent grunt / seemed, to me, to have pleasure, and even / affection, in it—and my life, as it / was incorporated in flesh, was burst with the / sweet smashes again.” These moments, where the poet reveals her sometimes desperate attempts to reconnect with departing love, are vulnerable and human. Human too, the moments when the speaker doubts her knowledge of the man she’s spent her life with, “I did not know him, / I did not work not to lose him, and I lost him,” (“Telling My Mother”) and “I was vain of his / faithfulness, as if it was / a compliment, rather than a state / of partial sleep.” (“Stag’s Leap”)
Where another poet might seek distance to guard against sentimentality, Olds manages the raw pain and rage in Stag’s Leap by implicating herself equally, questioning whether she’s been complacent in her marriage, complicit in its unraveling. This allows her to push to the edge of big feeling without tumbling into hysteria. “but what, if I / had harmed, love?” she asks, “on my glasses the saltwater pooled, almost / sweet to me, then, because it was named, the worst thing”. The husband we have come to know through her books, almost as well as the “I”, is humanized, and that fact maintains the speaker’s credibility. In the title poem she demonstrates this trademark and her central conflict, simultaneously, “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 is a guide to the end of a long marriage. Olds does a good job of conveying the breadth of her particular loss in a way that feels universal; the betrayal of a love that inflicts the pain it once provided respite from. Through its naked testimony she continues to embody her purpose, Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it. This much is true, the poet has kept her promise.