Statement of Prejudice: I quite like Olds. I remember reading The Father several years back, after I’d heard it was all (shudder) ~fiction~, and thinking it was still rather affecting. I’m usually put on the defensive by overtly confessional stuff, seeing as poetry usually ends up confessing more than it intends to anyway, but Olds has a good ear and some complex emotional moves, and I’m optimistic.
The book’s divorce storyline has been drearily trotted out every time Stag’s Leap is mentioned, so I’m trying to ignore the marketing ploy at work there. The blurb in the book’s flyleaf is utter tripe and whoever is responsible for its publication needs to feel bad about themselves and think hard about what they’ve done.
Reality: So far so good. I’m four poems in, and “Material Ode” has just knocked my socks off. The poem does a lovely job with its little refains, the voice turns inward and as Olds describes the post-announcement-of-potential-break-up sex she addresses us with ‘Reader, I slept with him’ in a grimly resigned and forlorn inversion of the Bronte thing. It’s so self-pitying, and knowingly self-pitying, and knowing that self-pity is still a powerful thing that can move us, cuz who hasn’t felt that, the pain of another human’s animal self-interest, or caused it? This is a ruddy good poem, one that looks frankly and woundedly at its own delusion and presents it unflinchingly. Or it at least seems to.
One last side note on the whole poetry/fiction thing: if Olds is fibbing, and this is all a big scam, then she is capable of almost pathological imaginative empathy, and worth spending a lot of time over. Whether this is of the I-feel-your-pain species or the look-at-how-sad-I-might-be-maybe is trivial.
“Last Look” is another stupidly moving piece of work. Okay, the subject matter of loss, particularly the loss of love, is as close to a gimme as poetry gets, but Olds does something pretty unusual with it all. The last lines, “not to have lost him when he loved me, and not have / lost someone who could have loved me for life” should be schmaltzy as hell, but the fact that they’re only a little schmaltzy, and still powerful in their schmaltz, the sheer bluntness in the expression of the emotion put beside the complex understanding of the politics of the relationship is near-unique in the contemporary poetry of my acquaintance. Shouldn’t there be some irony here? A wry smile? On the other hand, there’s still sixty-odd pages of this book left, let’s not prematurely reckon the poultry.
Aaaaagh and “Stag’s Leap” is wonderful too. Gosh darn but I’m nearly ashamed of myself for enjoying someone so successful. Again, the whole husband =stag = domineering and careless masculinity doesn’t quite map out that simply in the poem, as Olds just about transposes her own image into the cervine label on the wine bottle, ‘Even when it’s I who am escaped from, / I am half on the side of the leaver.’ Sure, it’s the self-pity thing again, but it feels real, and more like a confession (in the telling your friends way rather than the religious/poetic-taxonomic way) than a pose. Just listen to this:
His fur is rough and cosy, his face
placid, tranced, ruminant,
the bough of each furculum reaches back
to his haunches, each tine of it grows straight up
and branches, like a model of his brain, archaic,
Furculum = ‘little fork’, meaning the antlers. See also ‘bifurcating’. Anyway, isn’t that great writing? Look at what we can pick up about the husband from this, how easily we can see the deer and how pretty all the words sound. It also builds beautifully on from earlier poems, ‘the cindery lichen / skin between the male breasts’ in the book’s opener. Again, another killer ending, as the poem goes further into the image on the wine label, into the distant vinyards and the almost certainly imaginary glassblower creating the press’ bottles, ‘growing at the ends of their / blowpipes as dark, green, wavering groans.’ Aaaaaaahhhhh. I am making that gesture at the end of a meal where you put all your fingers and thumbs together and kiss them and open your hand and go ‘mwah’.
So after that one I just went heave-ho right to the end of the book almost in one sitting – reading in the NLS and got hungry, such is life – and was at no point bored/impatient. The book is long and monotopical, but, given that the topic is love, its nature and interpersonal complexities and particularities, that’s a fascinating question to dive into, and one on which Olds has a darned solid grasp.
This is an emotionally complex, self-aware chunk of writing that sounds bloody good, free verse at its finest. Olds knows how to construct a singing line, even if many of her lines sing rather similarly, and can pack a punch when that rhythmic pattern is broken, as in the last line of “Tiny Sirens”, a poem in which she finds a photograph of her husband’s lover in the laundry: ‘Just for a few minutes I had felt a little nervous’ is brutally powerful in its sudden absence of guile.
Stag’s Leap even talks openly and frankly about the role the poetry might have played in the real-life divorce, and Olds’ perspicacity about not just her writing but the personality that produced it is tough love to say the least. But it works: in the writing the balance of power between the two actors is believable, engaging, and when, in “Not Quiet Enough” Olds wonders ‘did his spirit turn against the spirit which / tolled our private, wild bell / from the public rooftop, I who had no other / gift to give the world but to hold what I / thought was love’s mirror up to us’, there’s a sense that this is more than just elaborate, elegant, aurally bountiful rhetoric.
It’s not always easy going, and I imagine as many will be totally revulsed as engrossed, but Olds aims at some fine emotional targets, and hits more often than not. It’d be pretty easy to dismiss it as much of an Oldsness, but Stag’s Leap is a more considered, complex and curious book that any that came before, and I present the Marmitean “Sleekit Cowrin’” [sic: shouldn’t that be cow’rin? - ed] as evidence. Smack in the middle of the book, it presents its metaness in the title and talks about a dead beastie in a trap being eaten by bugs, ‘as if the rodent / were food rejoicing.’ All well and morbid, but here’s how it ends:
And I know, I know, I should put
my dead marriage out on the porch
in the sun, and let who can, come
and nourish of it – change it, carry it
back to what it was assembled from,
back to the source of the light whereby it shone.
I think this might be the key to whether this book will complicate your ideas about a life shared with other people or make you politely place it back where you found it. It seems like Olds resigning herself to the necessity of her own (perceived or not) personal failings as much as justifying the content of her poetry. The two are intertwined. And okay, maybe the poem figures her work as a corpse and the reader as ravenous coleoptera but that does ask questions about the contract we enter into when we open the newest Sharon Olds, when she presents her life and we take something from it. How does that make you feel?
The easy answer is to say ‘pretty good, I’m enlightened and entertained, and no one made her write it’. But Olds’ questions run throughout the book: could the marriage have lasted if the poetry hadn’t happened? Olds takes full responsibility, of course, but she repeatedly wonders about the nature of the relationship between herself and her work (and, obvs, her relationships). What are you willing to sacrifice for art? What if the sacrifice produces further art? And what if that art changes someone’s understanding of love, as Olds hopes in “Sleekit Cowrin’”, and prevents further mishap? The relationship between artist, art and audience is also tricky, and I found it difficult while reading Stag’s Leap to imagine the audience as a non-factor in the equation.
ANYWAY. The tl;dr is that this is a pretty great book, and hits its marks powerfully and engagingly. Read Carol Ann Duffy’s Rapture if you think an entire book on love is a tap-in. There are a couple of early poems that open with variations on ‘when my husband left’ that cause a little emotional fatigue, but only a couple, and the book’s Winter-Spring-Summer etc structure mitigates the usual mid-collection doldrums.
Of course, I’ve only read two books on the shortlist, the next on the list being Kathleen Jamie, so I’m thoroughly ready to rescind this opinion at zero notice, but for now, huge congrats to the TS Eliot judges for choosing a worthy winner.