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I read Stag’s Leap over several weeks during 2013. It was written by the American poet Sharon Olds and it won the 2012 TS Eliot Prize.
From the moment I turned the first page I knew this book was going to be pretty special.
The first poem, ‘While He Told Me,’ has an unique tone. It’s clearly about a husband’s betraying his wife and yet the language used to describe the wife’s response is not angry; it’s affectionate and even needy:
“I called out something like flirting to him”
“I lay in dreading
bliss to feel and hear him sigh
It feels wrong. Why is she not lashing out? Why is there not a fight? And yet it also feels entirely believable. It feels honest. And indeed, it is honest, because this book is about the very real breakup of the author’s marriage with her husband of thirty years.
It’s a remarkably brave project. Olds lays herself bare before us and invites reactions not just of sympathy for her but sympathy for her husband. She doesn’t shy away from the fact that hers was a marriage in which there was a lot of love, which cannot be easily thrown away and forgotten. At times her affection for the man who is abandoning her makes her a somewhat comic and pitiful character.
It all makes for a compelling read, and some quite beautiful lines of poetry.
“Now I come to look at love
in a new way, now that I’m not
standing in its light.”
“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.”
“Then against my will I thought of the day he’d been
sick, and I’d cut my then husband’s hair
to cheer him up.”
“When I remember him
at the stove, the sight pierces me
with tenderness, he was suffering, then,
as I would soon.”
You see what I mean? It is love, not anger, that comes across most strongly in these poems. But make no mistake, the anger is there. It’s under the surface, and it makes itself felt most strongly aimed at Olds herself, for how she is feeling:
“But maybe I
was crazy about him – it is true that I saw
that light around his head when I’d arrive second
at a restaurant – oh for God’s sake,
I was besotted with him.”
In terms of the poems themselves, the structure and style is very similar throughout. Olds sticks to a loose iambic pentameter or tetrameter that allows the narrative voice to take control. It’s a simple form that doesn’t distract the reader from the content of thge poems. Olds uses it well.
As the book develops we see Olds slowly move on from the relationship and the strength of her emotions lessen.
“And slowly he starts to seem more far
away, he seems to waft, drift
at a distance, once-husband in his grey suit”
(‘Slowly He Starts’)
“Years later, long single,
I want to turn to his departed back,
and say, What gifts we had of each other!”
(‘Poem of Thanks’)
Stag’s Leap isn’t the sort of book I’d necessarily expect to enjoy, but as you’ve probably gathered it completely won me over. It’s certainly the best book I read in 2013 and I’d highly recommend it.
Here is a clip of Sharon Olds reading from the book:
Five Words that describe this book: honest, open, sympathetic, brave, confessional.
Stand Out Poems: ‘Stag’s Leap’; ‘Slowly He Starts’; ‘Once in a While I Gave Up’; ‘Gramercy’; ‘Love’; ‘Not Going to Him’; ‘Years Later’.
Killer Line: “Minute by minute, I do not get up and just / go to him.” (from ‘Not Going to Him’).
Kate Kellaway, in The Observer, says that “Sharon Olds’s moving, insightful poems about the end of her marriage are her best yet”: “deserted after decades of marriage, she describes a love for her husband that refuses to die to order.”
DavePoems thinks that the book “is an emotionally complex, self-aware chunk of writing that sounds bloody good, free verse at its finest.” “Gosh darn,” he exclaims, “but I’m nearly ashamed of myself for enjoying someone so successful.”
Lisa Wells, in The Rumpus, observes that “where another poet might seek distance to guard against sentimentality, Olds manages the raw pain and rage in Stag’s Leap by implicating herself equally, questioning whether she’s been complacent in her marriage, complicit in its unraveling.”
Ruba Abughaida, in Wales Art Review, describes Stag’s Leap as “a beautifully and poignantly written collection” and concludes that “it is confessional poetry at its best, a clear and no holds barred account of a marital break-up.”
Huffington Post has an interview with Sharon Olds in which she discusses Stag’s Leap, her divorce and her ex-husband.