For poet Sharon Olds, liberty and responsibility are a blessing and jinx. They’re a tightrope walk in New York City, or in New Hampshire, a log across the brook where one does a little windmilling in the middle. Life wouldn’t be the joyous hell it is without testing one’s feet, without a little exploratory swing and sway. Olds’ new collection of poems, “Stag’s Leap” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), performs just such a literary transit. At 71, she’s publishing work she lived through years ago. Clearly she’s reached the other side, wiser and happier. We’re lucky to have her join us in rural New Hampshire when she’s not teaching in NYC.
Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and the international T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry, Olds’ double play is impressive. “Stag’s Leap,” her twelfth book, chronicles the dissolution of a 30-year marriage as her doctor husband leaves her for a colleague with whom he’s fallen in love. Olds’ dedicated readers will already know the cast of characters as she’s constructed them for us over the last several decades.
The poems are accessible to any broken-hearted person who, however blinded, has learned to re-see. There are the first several years of leave-taking, time spent in bewilderment and wakening, and one or two spent sorting, reflecting, grieving and angering. The culmination metamorphoses some time distant, when the book’s reflection, grace and gallantry, are hard-won.
Olds and her partner have two children (a third, miscarried 30 years ago, is also eulogized here). The family has been fodder for decades of personal and explicit poems. In this case, she acquiesced to her offspring’s request for a moratorium on publishing this subject matter. The book comes 15 years after the split. My guess is that this has saved us from some of the rawness of the experience. The time Olds has taken to write, reflect, revise, and reawaken serves all of us well. Rookie confessionalists often can’t distinguish venting from poetry. Olds’ artfulness is beyond compare. Where the rookie besmirches the audience, Olds the artist explores the intersection of personal and universal and finds their paradoxical unities.
How else might one craft an angry and at turns hilarious language-play like the nursery rhymish “Left-wife Goose.” Unable to keep her husband in real life, Olds ensconces him in the “pumpkin shell” of a poem like vengeance upon an unfaithful Peter, Peter:
“Hoddley, Poddley Puddles and Fogs,
Cats are to Marry Poodle Dogs;
Cats in Blue Jackets and Dogs in Red Hats,
What Will Become of the Mice and the Rats?
Had a trust fund, had a thief in,
Had a husband, could not keep him.”
The book has been described by critics and reviewers as a divorce journey. I’d say that’s a bit simplistic. This is not Gluck’s “Wild Iris” nor Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking.” The complexity of Olds’ work has historical and artistic precedent in confessional poetry, but Olds for years, when questioned, has refused to speak about her work’s “trueness.” Her desire is to have the poetry discussed on its artistic merits. Her amazing eye for detail, ear for the music of language, and feel for the workings of the human psyche form the tripartite that makes her an award-winning poet, not simply her ability to “get through it.” Her poetic process is diligent and artful.
T.S. Eliot Prize contest judge and British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy shared with The Guardian: “This was the book of her career. There is a grace and chivalry in her grief that marks her out as being a world-class poet…. Her journey from grief to healing is so beautifully executed.” I agree the poems are beautifully executed, but find the declarative “book of her career” comment problematic. This collection’s poems appear along Olds’ well-traveled continuum of sense-making and are not a final destination or “arrival.”
Since her early volumes, Olds has learned the world through authoring it. Human power dynamics, and the complexity of the relationships that develop because of them, are her life’s work as an artist and writer. Her explicit storytelling has been called both pornographic and liberatory. This volume is marked by Olds’ willingness to share with readers that her work is autobiographical. The suffering of a child of abusive parents can now accompany the solace and healing found in her marriage and motherhood. Their interstices and complications, long intuited by readers, now have the poet’s full acknowledgement for the first time. Olds’ writing “embraces contraries,” to borrow a phrase from writer Peter Elbow. That’s the joy of its complications and interrogations, as well as the discomfort for those whose desire is for something more fundamental and simplistic.
Many of these poems first appeared in ones and twos in journals like Poetry, The New Yorker, Tri-Quarterly, Slate, The Atlantic. “Stag’s Leap” concentrates the body of work and creates a prolonged narrative, an elaborated story arc, and a complete learning cycle.
As her family relationships are redefined by the parting of ways, the inevitable time passed means that everyone has grown into their next chapters. And in fact, her poetry career had already parted her in some ways from her ex, Olds begins to acknowledge. She’s in love with language and he is a man of fewer and fewer words. He realizes he loves a fellow doctor, someone more like him, and must go. As a poet, she’s been more capable of inventing and romanticizing. A number of the poems realize the drawbacks of this “creative power” to anesthetize oneself rather than to awaken—and, conversely, to pain her partner.
Much of her life has been spent teasing out her ex’s voice and expression. Paradoxically, she discovers the lifelong voice and avocation she found in her writing was a gift from him. The poem “The Easel” is written in the book’s sorting and angering phase. As a young couple, he often painted her portrait, and this, she realizes now, showed her how to render their family as art.
Olds lights a bonfire to dispense with her ex’s “left-behind craft” and to rid herself of the vestiges of his abandoned artistic pursuit. She long ago took the torch from him, kindling a symbolic fire. She reflects as his easel burns that:
“…I am burning his left-behind craft
he who was the first to turn
our family, naked, into art.
What if someone told me, thirty
years ago: If you give up, now,
wanting to be an artist, he might
love you all of your life − what would I
have said? I didn’t even have an art,
It would come from our family’s life −
what could I have said: nothing will stop me.”
Olds, in the end, becomes both the artist and the healer too, using her voice and encouraging the voices of others as not only a poet, but a writing teacher and a role model for other poets. As a survivor, she’s the bridge and the crosser. It’s a perverse pleasure to watch her wobble and a delight to watch her right herself.
Sharon Olds will sign books and read her poems for a neighborhood poetry event on Thursday, June 13 at 7 p.m., at Scenic Theatre, 6 Depot St., Pittsfield (15 minutes north of Northwood on Route 107), 603-435-8852. An $8 donation is suggested.
− Rick Agran