Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds, is the most recent winner of the TS Eliot Prize for poetry. It is a beautifully and poignantly written collection that charts across the years that her husband left her for another woman. It was praised by the judges as “a tremendous book of grace and gallantry which crowns the career of a world class poet,” and in reading it, it is easy to agree with this description. The Chairman of the judging panel said that “there is grace and chivalry in her grief that marks her out as being a world-class poet. I always say that poetry is the music of being human, and in this book she is really singing. Her journey from grief to healing is so beautifully executed.”
Olds’ writing is courageous and intimate. She writes in the first person, the effect of which is that the reader is immediately pulled into her world. We are not voyeurs however, as the calibre of the writing is such that although we are unknown to her, as she is to us, there is a collective feeling that we are all friends and confidantes. She acknowledges this in Left-Wife Bop by writing: “he did not give/his secrets to his patients, but I gave my secrets/to you, dear strangers.”
Olds’ writing is courageous and intimate.
It may be a collection specific to the breakdown of one relationship, but Olds’ words have a sense of universality to them so that it is possible to identify with her story on a wider scale while she takes us along the seasons as her marriage was ending. She is generous with her writing, seemingly not holding back the details of love, sadness, the memories and then ultimately how she comes out whole on the other side of infidelity.
The writing is rhythmic and pulls us along to a beat in a way that is raging and musical. Reading Olds’ is similar to listening to a rich and evolving symphony. It is mesmerising and we are tethered to the stories, become invested in her life, until the very end of the sequence. It could easily be a work of fiction since each of the poems arch their way along the book in a chronological order. However, the bonus here is that it is not a novel or a collection of short stories but poems so that by their very essence they must be intense. Each word matters and we hang on to each syllable, just as Olds hangs on to each word her ex-husband says or each reaction he has in the hope that something would change.
It must have been an extraordinarily difficult and surreal time and her struggle to fix things, while at the same time knowing that it is the end, jumps out at us through the reading. Olds’ writes: “Now I come to look at love/in a new way, now that I know I’m not/ standing in its light” in the poem titled ‘Unspeakable’. In ‘French bra’, she says, “Then low in a fancy shop, near my/anklebone, like a Hermes heel-wing/fitted with struts and ailerons/fragile as a silk biplane, the soutien/gorge lies lissome, uncharged/slack as a snakeskin husk.” In using alliteration to bring her point across, Olds is like a wife repeating herself over and over again, and although in a relationship it may have been to no effect, in this collection it is to such great effect that we are left reeling along with her. The writing has such a powerful narrative element as she shares her life. In a memory sequence where Olds is describing how her husband read the newspaper in the morning, she describes this ritual by writing “that sitting waltz with the paper/undressing its layers, blowsing it/opening and closing its delicate blows.”
Olds confronts herself and her physicality in a raw and exposed manner, questioning herself, her body, her decisions and how she came to the place that she was at, but there is redemption in the end.
Olds promised her children that she would not write about the divorce for at least ten years afterwards. It actually took her 15 years to publish the collection and although she does not spare the details, she unfolds each of them in a way that is carefully and delicately considered so that we are immersed in the fragility of what we are learning about Olds and her husband, about the stories of their daily lives together and even of the surrounding environment that becomes like a third person between them.
Olds divides her book into the four seasons and we are able to see how she goes through the same transformation as nature around her. It is confessional poetry at its best, a clear and no holds barred account of a marital break-up. She confronts herself and her physicality in a raw and exposed manner, questioning herself, her body, her decisions and how she came to the place that she was at, but there is redemption in the end. We read about how Olds is bruised during the process but in being stripped down to the basics of her pain, she also writes about how she was able to come out clearer on the other side. It is in way a positive journey and the final poem, What left? balances out the rest of the loss in the sequence. Olds’ takes us by the hand to sit with her and ex-husband when the storm has passed and they have both made peace with their new reality, separate from each other. She writes in paired sentences: “I did not deceive him, he did not deceive me/I did not leave him, he did not leave me.” It is a collection that can connect with readers across a wide spectrum as Olds uses poetry to consider her life and to teach us about difficulty, acceptance and forgiveness.