“Stag’s Leap” is no exception to poet Sharon Olds’s unswerving devotion to total recall, recounting in often discomfiting detail the months and years following her divorce in 1997 after more than 30 years with her husband. You can learn a lot about Olds by reading Olds; and to some readers, that’s the problem.
For her critics, myself often among them, the self-awareness that has saturated Olds’s poetry for 30 years — a hardcore candor that hunts down details and does not spare them — amounts to a generosity that can often tip into something more like exhibitionism. Elegant oversharing: It’s her thing, and it neatly splits the love-hers from the hate-hers.
It’s also something she hasn’t necessarily fessed up to over the years. Back in 1996, she said something to Salon that still gnaws my craw: “To me the difference between the paper world and the flesh world is so great that I don’t think we could put ourselves in our poems even if we wanted to.” A few years before that, she allowed only that her work was “apparently personal poetry” (“[B]ecause how do we really know? We don’t.”).
But we do, don’t we? Putting aside too literal a distinction between the worlds of paper and flesh, it may come as a surprise to fans and nose-pinchers alike that Olds isn’t in her poems. A hundred-thousand MFA students producing opaque magnet poetry in reaction would beg to differ.
Is the poem a lens or a mirror? Five years before Olds published her 1980 debut, “Satan Says,” John Ashbery had attempted to explode the choice with his convex glass, but poetry still groans under the weight of the question. Olds may see herself as more aligned with the directness and detail of poets like Muriel Rukeyser and Philip Levine than with the self-revelation of Sylvia Plath or Robert Lowell, but she remains among the closest we have to a living, breathing confessional specimen — unless Billy Collins’s bird sightings count as confessions.
For the most part, we have read these poems before, and throughout “Stag’s Leap,” Olds’s language is as lovely as always (even when she stirs in a pebble like “iliofemoral”). What makes this a refreshingly worthwhile (and often engrossing) collection is how the self, diminished by loss, survives the journey into her lines. With enough distance, the losses of separation have become clear; and as she burns her ex’s easel in the family hearth in “The Easel,” not only do we get a hint at what happened (“I am burning his left-behind craft,/ he who was the first to turn/ our family, naked, into art”), but we get a reassurance that, for Olds, “craft” is no match for fire.
“Stag’s Leap” moves through the stages of post-divorce life — the reconciling with fact, the slow acceptance of parting, the indulgence in erotic remembrance, the freedom in forgetting. And while her imagery is no softer (nor more subtle) than before — the air is tinged with decomposed mice, overgrown garlic, and wasted food from a failed dinner party — the emotional acumen in her lines is still steak-knife sharp. She describes their miscarried child as “a small impromptu/ god of the partial”; at losing her husband due to preference and not death, she says “my job is to eat the whole car/ of my anger, part by part”; and seeing her ex with his new love, she calls him “covered with her, like a child working with glue/ who’s young to be working with glue.”
There’s a handwritten feel to these lines, a vibe of therapy that could make some readers shift in their chairs, and others lean into the pages. Hers is a bodily poetry, and in the same Salon interview, she made the importance of this part of her process clear: “Just being an ordinary observer and liver and feeler and letting the experience get through you onto the notebook with the pen, through the arm, out of the body, onto the page, without distortion.”
This intention to cede intention, this naïve faith in writing (or reading) transpiring “without” distortion; to savvy (read: cynical) young poetry-types still trembling from time spent in the MFA trenches, these are the sorts of old-world poetic concerns that must be workshopped out of you.
But in “Stag’s Leap,” Olds’s generosity suits her task. The poems feel like inventories of what remains, and reassurances that beginnings aren’t just as possible as endings, they’re inevitable:
“I didn’t even have an art,/ it would come from out of our family’s life –/
what could I have said: nothing will stop me.”