sharon olds | stag’s leap

24 09 2012

POETRY DISPATCH No. 382 | September 24, 2012


Editor’s Note: I’m a long-time reader of Sharon Olds’ poetry, which almost always says the right thing. Things I need to fear, feel, sense on many levels. Her poems deal a lot with family, childhood, marriage, love, death. The ‘big stuff’ set down in telling words, (the old ‘ordinary’—but ‘extraordinary’) lines, stanzas that often shine in their own light.

One of her early poems on ‘grandma’ begins with the line: “Late in her life, when we fell in love,/I’d take her out from the nursing home/for a chaser and two bourbons.” What could be more ‘ordinary’ ? Variations, too, on the theme of love/sex also find a home in the soundness of her words with a passion simmering just beneath her lines: “How do they do it, the ones who make love/without love?…”

I don’t have a complete shelf of her work, but I remain especially fond of THE FATHER, (which I read often), THE DEAD AND THE LIVING, and THE GOLD CELL.

Her new book, STAG’S LEAP goes back to her well-honed theme of love/sex, with a particular emphasis on husband and wife. A marriage “gone South” shall we say, after thirty plus years. Heartbreak city–at least for her who is left what all the remains… something it takes a whole book of leaping poems to get over, though it never quite does—not the way she sorts it out, sees it, feels it, turns it over in her heart in words. “Memorable” doesn’t quite say it.

I have problems sometimes with poets as successful as Sharon Olds: San Francisco Poetry Center Award, Lamont Poetry Selection for 1983, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award…poets, in their prime, making all the right moves, the right poems…till “the light” of national attention shines down upon them so brilliantly that slowly but surely too many of them become “Poets”, so blinded by the light and they lose sight of how they used to say it so clearly in the beginning…and suddenly start stretching things a bit much…tossing in foreign phrases, words that may sound wonderful to their ears, but fall upon the readers like clunkers. There’s a bit too much of this going on in some of these poems:

“tressed with spinneret sludge, speckled with/flue-mash flecks, or the morse of a species—/” from “On the Hearth of the Broken Home”. Or…

“…His harpoon—a Beothuc harpoon—” Sorry…I come to something like this and the poem stops me in its tracks(lines) and I find myself turning the page, even worse, closing the book.

There’s more, but I’m going to end right here because I DO like this book. I do love most of the poems. I DO highly recommend it—for…women (and men) who have been left by ‘the other’…for those contemplating separation, divorce after a long or short marriage. For those left to live with the remains. This is NOT a self-help book of poems about dealing with abandonment but more like a journey, a meditation on rising to another level…love after love…which few approach, given the burden of memory. — Norbert Blei


The last time we slept together—
and then I can’t remember when
it was, I used to be a clock
of sleeping together, and now it drifts,
in me, somewhere, the knowledge, in one of those
washes on maps of deserts, those spacious
wastes—the last time, he paused,
at some rest stop, some interval
between the unrollings, he put his palm
on my back, between the shoulder blades.
It was as if he were suing for peace,
asking if this could be over—maybe not
just this time, but over. He was solid
within me, suing for peace. And I
subsided, but then my bright tail
lolloped again, and I whispered, Just one
more?, and his indulgent grunt
seemed, to me, to have pleasure, and even
affection, in it—and my life, as it
was incorporated in flesh, was burst with the
sweet smashes again. And then
we lay and looked at each other—or I looked
at him, into his eyes. Maybe that
was the last time—not knowing
it was last, not solemn, yet that signal given,
that hand laid down on my back, not a gauntlet
but a formal petition for reprieve, a sign for Grant Mercy.

Poem for the Breasts

Like other identical twins, they can be
better told apart in adulthood.
One is fast to wrinkle her brow,
her brain, her quick intelligence. The other
dreams inside a constellation,
freckles of Orion. They were born when I was thirteen,
they rose up, half out of my chest,
now they’re forty, wise, generous.
I am inside them—in a way, under them,
or I carry them, I’d been alive so many years without them.
I can’t say I am them, though their feelings are almost
my feelings, as with someone one loves. They seem,
to me, like a gift that I have to give.
That boys were said to worship their category of
being, almost starve for it,
did not escape me, and some young men
loved them the way one would want, oneself, to be loved.
All year they have been calling to my departed husband,
singing to him, like a pair of soaking
sirens on a scaled rock.
They can’t believe he’s left them, it’s not in their
vocabulary, they being made
of promise—they’re like literally kept vows.
Sometimes, now, I hold them a moment,
one in each hand, twin widows,
heavy with grief. They were a gift to me,
and then they were ours, like thirsty nurslings
of excitement and plenty. And now it’s the same
season again, the very week
he moved out. Didn’t he whisper to them,
Wait here for me one year? No.
He said, God be with you, God
by with you, God-bye, for the rest
of this life and for the long nothing. And they do not
know language, they are waiting for him, my
Christ they are dumb, they do not even
know they are mortal—sweet, I guess,
refreshing to live with, being without
the knowledge of death, creatures of ignorant suffering.

Running into You

Seeing you again, after so long,
seeing you with her, and actually almost
not wanting you back,
doesn’t seem to make me feel separate from you. But you seemed
covered with her, like a child working with glue
who’s young to be working with glue. “If I could
choose, a place to die,”
it would never have been in your arms, old darling,
we figured I’d see you out, in mine,
it was never in doubt that you had suffered more than I
when young. That moved me so much about you,
the way you were a dumbstruck one
and yet you seemed to know everything
I did not know, which was everything
except the gift of gab—and oh well
dirty dancing and how to apologize.
When I went up to you two, at the art opening,
I felt I had nothing to apologize for,
I felt like a somewhat buoyant creature
with feet of I don’t know what, recovered-from sorrow,
which held me nicely to the gallery floor as to the
surface of a planet, some lunar orb
once part of the earth.

Years Later

At first glance, there on the bench
where he’d agreed to meet, it didn’t seem to be
him—but then the face of grim
friendliness was my former husband’s,
like the face of a creature looking out
from inside its Knox. No fault, no knock,
clever nut of the hearing aid
hidden in the ear I do not feel I
love anymore, small bandage on the cheek
peopled with tiny lichen from a land I don’t
know. We walk. I had not remembered
how deep he held himself inside
himself—my fun, for thirty-two years,
to lure him out. I still kind of want to,
as if I see him as a being with a baby-paw
caught. His voice is the same—low,
still pushed around the level-bubble
in his throat. We talk of the kids, and it’s
as if that will never be taken from us.
But it feels as if he’s not here—
though he’s here, it feels as if, for me,
there’s no one there—as when he was with me
it seemed there was no one there for any other
woman. For the first thirty years. Now I see
I’ve been hoping, each time we meet, that he would praise me
for how well I took it, but it’s not to be.
Are you happy as you thought you’d be,
I ask. Yes. And his smile is touchingly
pleased. I thought you’d look happier,
I say, but after all, when I am
looking at you, you’re with me! We smile.
His eyes warm, a moment, with the accustomed
shift, as if he’s turning into
the species he was for those thirty years.
And turning back. I glance toward his torso
once, his legs—he’s like a stick figure,
now, the way, when I was with him, other
men seemed like Ken dolls, all clothes. Even
the gleam of his fresh wedding ring is no
blade to my rib—this is Married Ken. As I
walk him toward his street I joke, and for an instant
he’s alive toward me, a gem of sea of
pond in his eye. Then that retreat into himself,
which always moved me, as if there were
a sideways gravity, in him, toward some
vanishing point. And no, he does not
want to meet again, in a year—when we
part, it is with a dry bow
and Good-bye. And then there is the spring park,
damp as if freshly peeled, sweet
greenhouse, green cemetery with no
dead in it—except, in some shaded
woods, under some years of leaves and
rotted cones, the body of a warbler
like a whole note fallen from the sky—my old
love for him, like a songbird’s rib cage picked clean.

[from STAG’S LEAP, Knopf, 2012, $16.95]



8 responses

24 09 2012
Donal Mahoney

If there is a poet writing better poems than Sharon Olds today, I’d like to know that poet’s name. I can only think of one and his work is so very different–Seamus Heaney.

Sharon Olds makes me forget about Sylvia Plath whose work I read when it was fresh and Ted Hughes was the problem and I was living in Chicago.

I don’t think Plath’s work, as a body of work, tears me up inside as much as Sharon Olds’ work does.

Sharon Olds makes it very uncomfortable to be a man.

24 09 2012
Alice D'Alessio

Oh Wow! I’d forgotten how powerful she is – how wrenching…No-one does the separation torment so well!

25 09 2012
Michael Koehler

Been a while since I’ve read Sharon’s poems. You make me want to visit with her again. As Donal alluded to, I remember first reading her, I covered my stuff with my hand, fearing she’d rip ’em off.

27 09 2012
Bob Dow

Way to wordy gurdy and boring

27 09 2012

To each his own, Bob, said the old lady as she kissed the cow.

7 11 2012

Sorry…I come to something like this and the poem stops me in its tracks(lines) and I find myself turning the page, even worse, closing the book.

Really? Then you’re not much a reader. Not that I care for Olds’ poems as I think she is the kind of poet who thinks taking off her clothes in public and telling other people’s personal business is art.

8 11 2012

Sharon Olds may be a flibbertigibbet but she is different than most flibbertigibbets in that she can write far better than most flibbertigibbets and better than most folks who are dull but not shy a few sandwiches for a picnic. An incandescent mind often has to deal with daily emotional bonfires. Too bad she didn’t take up quilting. No one would have had to listen to her talk to herself.

18 04 2013
After the storm « Letting go

[…] Poem for the Breasts […]

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