Author: Sharon Olds
Genre: Poetry, 2012
Summary: A collection of poems from Sharon Olds, dealing with the emotional devastation of her divorce from her husband of 30+ years.
Sharon Olds is one of my favorite poets. I have more of her works of poetry in my library than any other poet. If you've read one her poems in an anthology, its a good chance that poem was about her love for her husband. I would guess about 50% of her entire work and the overwhelming majority of her famous poems were centered around the theme of how besotted she was with her husband. I was shocked (and even grieved) to read that her husband left her after 30+ years of marriage for a younger woman. This book of poetry is about the emotional devastation of that abandonment.
This was an emotional read for me. As a fan of her work, you are forced to retcon her prior poems, as she herself as retconned them. These lines from the poem "Stag's Leap" (which gives the book its name) cut me, knowing how much they must have cut her:
...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
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?
How painful this was to read when you juxtaposed it against one of her most anthologized poems, the brutally joyful "Greed and Aggression" (from my favorite book of hers, The Gold Cell):
Someone in Quaker meeting talks about greed and aggression
and I think of the way I lay the massive
weight of my body down on you
like a tiger lying down in gluttony and pleasure on the
elegant heavy body of the eland it eats,
the spiral horn pointing to the sky like heaven.
Ecstasy has been given to the tiger,
forced into its nature the way the
forcemeat is cranked down the throat of the held goose,
it cannot help it, hunger and the glory of
eating packed at the center of each
tiger cell, for the life of the tiger and the
making of new tigers, so there will
always be tigers on the earth, their stripes like
stripes of night and stripes of fire-light––
so if they had a God it would be striped,
burnt-gold and black, the way if
I had a God it would renew itself the
way you live and live while I take you as if
consuming you while you take me as if
consuming me, it would be a God of
love as complete satiety,
greed and fullness, aggression and fullness, the
way we once drank at the body of an animal
until we were so happy we could only
faint, our mouths running, into sleep.
If you've never read her work before, this isn't a good place to start. These poems are mainly serviceable, not bad certainly, but not great either. Perhaps intense grief, leaches too much out of you, for you to be articulate about it. There's a surprising lack of fury about her husband's affair. She's still sleeps with him after learning about it with none of the rancor Anne Carson so aptly distilled in her poem "The Glass Essay"
Everything I know about love and its necessities
Instead her emotions are forgiving, even grovelling in her poem "Gramercy":
It was as if he was suing for peace,
asking if this could be over-maybe not
just this time, but over. He was solid
within me, suing for peace. And I
subsided, but then my bright tail
lolloped again, and I whispered, Just one
more?, and his indulgent grunt
seemed, to be, to have pleasure, and even
affection, in it
It seems as if Olds couldn't summon the energy that the emotion of betrayal requires. I'm not critiquing that, I think the emotional response you have to romantic failure is heavily dependent on your age and the length of your relationship. I just find these heartbreaking poems not easily relatable, as I haven't, and indeed few people have, been in the position of the failure of a marriage that last as long and was as seemingly nourishing as Sharon Old's marriage.
That being said, this work is by no means an artistic failure, just not a good introduction to her work. My favorite poem from this collection is "The Flurry" is as good as anything Olds has ever written.