In Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds re-visits the months, seasons and years following the moment her husband of thirty years tells her he is leaving her for another woman. Avoiding sentimentality and self-pity, she takes her readers to the core of her anguish, hurt and even shame. Intensely personal though they are, these poems nonetheless go beyond the confessional to open, and perhaps heal by catharsis and resolution, universally-felt wounds of loss, betrayal and grief. For although their strength is often in the carefully-observed detail so particular to Olds’ circumstances, they convey with pinpoint accuracy the panoply and strangeness of feelings, thoughts and sensations which accompany rejection and loss. Most of these poems are achingly painful to read as we empathise with Sharon Olds’ inability to simply stop feeling love and desire for her husband when he has fallen out of love with her.
The opening poem – her husband’s confession – “While He Told Me”, is all the more powerful for not dealing with the words her husband used to tell her he was leaving. Instead, she records the second-by-second details of her sensory memories as she,
..looked from small thing
to small thing, in our room, the face
of the bedside clock, the sepia postcard
of a woman bending down to a lily.
These small, domestic details resonate painfully, evoking exactly the processes by which such landmark occasions are seared into memory.
From this first poem, the collection of poetic memoir in six chronologically-ordered sections moves through a sequence of vignettes – from discovering the photograph of the “other woman” in her husband’s laundry, through telling their children that the marriage is over, to the last time they slept together and their final hour spent with each other, and beyond.However, these are by no means the outpourings of a woman wronged,. Olds’ carefully controlled pace, structure and tone ensure a detachment and restraint which only adds to the poignancy. In “Unspeakable”, “…He shows no anger,/I show no anger but in flashes of humour,/ all is courtesy and horror.” Indeed, Olds shows generosity towards her ex-husband, taking her share of responsibility for the breakdown of their relationship. In the title poem “Stag’s Leap”, she confesses, “..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.” Later, in “The Worst Thing”, she feels she has failed, even harmed, love itself by not managing to sustain the relationship.Amongst the surreal horror in these poems, there are moments of bittersweet humour. In “Material Ode”, Olds intones, “…O satin, O/sateen, O velvet, O fucking velveeta –/the day of the doctor’s’ dress-up dance”.In a couple of poems, form and voice are derailed – “Left-Wife Goose”, for example, is in nursery rhyme form with the refrain, “Had a husband, could not keep him”, and Olds’ puns (such as “cloud cuckold land”) will either delight or dismay.
Many of the poems in “Stag’s Leap” confront the pain of continued sexual desire after the ending of a relationship:
Once in a while, I gave up, and let myself
remember how much I’d liked the way my ex’s
hips were set, the head of the femur which
rode, not shallow, not deep, in the socket
of the pelvis..
This is an intense collection which confronts difficult events with ruthless and, at times, shocking honesty – courtesy and horror indeed. For its services to everyone who has ever loved and lost, as well as its technical and lyrical virtuosity, and its sheer range and depth,Stag’s Leap would be a most worthy winner of the TS. Eliot Prize.