Jessica Mayhew reviews
by Sharon Olds, winner of the 2012 TS Eliot Prize
Arranged chronologically, Stag’s Leap begins at the instant, ‘While He Told Me.’ Here, the poet’s clear gaze is drawn to the minutiae of separation, from the face of the bedroom clock, to the ‘cindery lichen skin’ of her husband’s chest (‘While He Told Me’). This immediately situates these poems in the everyday, a world that seems unbearably familiar, and yet distant. Olds writes of how her husband wakes early on the morning after, and goes to read on the sofa:
as he often did,
and in a while I followed him,
as I often had,
and snoozed on him...
(‘While He Told Me’)
In the repetitions of Olds’ explanations of their actions, the reader can feel the pain of being forced to confront and unlearn the routines of a marriage. These lines have a sense of delay, showing the poet’s attempt at adjustment. Later in the collection, ‘Tiny Siren’ examines the moment that she found a ‘surprise trout/ of wash-day,’ a photograph of her husband’s lover in with his washing. Although she is reassured by her husband, the poem ends with the lines:
...I felt a touch seasick, as if
a deck were tilting under me –
a run he’d taken, not mentioned to me,
a fisher of men in the washing machine.
The unobtrusive music of these lines sends a shiver of unease through the poem, while the sibilance sets up the sea-grief of poems such as ‘The Worst Thing’. The question of how you are defined outside of love threads through this collection. In ‘Unspeakable,’ Olds leads the reader from inside ‘love’s sight,’ to the unknown expanse outside if it. At the poem’s close, she asks her husband:
...is this about
her, and he says, No, it’s about
you, and we do not speak of her.
Separation, like marriage, draws new borders which Sharon Olds records with a tender and painful clarity. These poems are often charged with longing and eroticism. In ‘Not Going to Him,’ the poet explores the whole terrain of her husband’s body that she knows by heart:
...I run my irises
over his feathered chest, and on his neck,
the scar, dollhouse saucer of tarnish...
(‘Not Going To Him’)
The poem explores the delicate balance of familiarity, and the knowledge that this body must begin to be unknown. This attempt to learn how to stop desire is tempered by the poignancy of past sexual encounters:
...Colleague of sand
by moonlight – and by beach moonlight, once,
and of straw, salt bale in a barn...
(‘Poem of Thanks’)
These experiences have power in the imagination, and bring the pair together again, as ‘equals.’ It is not until ‘Bruise Ghazal’ that Olds acknowledges the dichotomy of inner and outer lives, when she says, ‘[m]aybe I’m half over who he/ was, but not who I though he was’ (‘Bruise Ghazal’).
It seems obvious to claim that grief is a central theme of the collection, but it is also matched with compassion, for herself and for her ex-husband. ‘The Worst Thing’ opens with a description of a sea view:
The other, in the distance, the tidal waves,
estuaries, bay, throat
of the ocean.
(‘The Worst Thing’)
The imagery of the throat of the sea brings to mind stinging saltwater, so that when the dashes effectively begin to reveal the hitching of poet’s voice, the reader is already attuned to the swell of grief:
what I minded was – say there was
a god – of love – and I’d given – I had meant
to give – my life – to it...
(‘The Worst Thing’)
Where there is mourning in Stag’s Leap, there is also celebration. There is even the surprising image of her ex-husband and his new lover rising with ‘wading-bird wings – like storks’ (‘The Healers’), united by their shared medical profession. In turn, Olds acknowledges that her husband ‘did not feel happy when words/ were called for, and I stood’ (‘The Healers’). It is not just her husband who is able to ‘leap,’ or indeed, the poet herself. This collection rejoices in mutability, in life’s freedoms:
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.
Olds expresses a mutual experience of separation, that ‘I freed him, he freed me,’ (‘What Left?’), that it must belong equally to both of them.
Stag’s Leap is a surprisingly generous account of separation. Olds leads her reader through the tenderness and grief of the ending of a marriage, and the difficulties of loss. But these are also poems that leap up, and find catharsis. ‘Years Later’ describes a walk that the poet and her ex-husband take together in the park. She longs to hear the staple line of how well she looks, but instead she asks about his happiness. She leaves the meeting knowing that she no longer loves him, and knows that somewhere in the park, under a fall of dead leaves, there is:
...the body of a warbler
like a whole note fallen from the sky – my old
love for him, like a songbird’s rib cage picked clean.
Jessica Mayhew is a graduate student in English Literature, and a young British poet. She reviews regularly for Eyewear.