looks like my husband, casting himself off a
cliff in his fervour to get free of me.
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,
unwieldy. He bears its bony tray
level as he soars from the precipice edge,
dreamy. 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. It’s so quiet,
and empty, when he’s left. I feel like a landscape,
a ground without a figure. . . .
. . . Oh my mate, I was vain of his
faithfulness, as if it was
a compliment, rather than a state
of partial sleep. And when I wrote about him, did he
feel he had to walk around
carrying my books on his head like a stack of
posture volumes, or the rack of horns
hung where a hunter washes the venison
down with the sauvignon? . . .
Sharon Olds won the TS Eliot Prize last year for her new collection, Stag’s Leap, and the judges were apparently unanimous, something that rarely happens with literary prizes. I’m always in two minds about Sharon Olds’ poetry - it’s musical and muscular and beautifully constructed, but a part of me feels . . . What do I feel? Slightly embarrassed, squeamish even, about the frankness of her revelations, particularly about other people. I would never be able to expose my family like that - but perhaps that just being British! In the beginning, such frankness was very original - a woman ‘writing the body’ in a way that had never been written before. But then it became a little boring - I sometimes wanted her to write about other things. So I approached Stag’s Leap with caution, and was bowled over by it.
Stag’s Leap is the label of a vineyard - the favourite wine of Sharon and her husband of thirty years. But it became the symbol of her husband’s leap for freedom when he left her for another woman - a medical colleague. In the sequence of poems that tells the story of the breakdown of her marriage and its aftermath, she freely admits the part her own revelatory poetry had played in it.
Her husband was a very quiet, private man, and she was the opposite, and she had never realised the impact her very frank and uninhibited poetry was having on him. In revealing the details of her own sex life, she had also revealed his.
One of her poems describes how her husband would stand up whenever there was a call for ‘a doctor in the house’, and she would be proud. But she realises now that ‘when words were called for, and I stood’ it was very different for him. Now when the call comes he and his new wife can stand up together - partners in everything.
During the break-up, Sharon Olds is astonished by the courtesy with which they treat each other, the habit of physical intimacy that still exists in those last days.
. . . ‘He shows no anger,
I show no anger but in flashes of humour,
all is courtesy and horror.’
She goes through all the phases of relationship grief - bewilderment, anger, self-blame, the pain of loss, numbness, to acceptance. Being able to see things from his point of view is an extra pain.
. . . ‘did his spirit turn against the spirit which
tolled our private, wild bell
from the public roof top, I who had no other
gift to give the world but to hold what I
thought was love’s mirror up to us.. .
. . . ‘but then one day
I woke, and feared he felt he was the human
sleeper, and I the glittering panther
holding him down, and screaming.’
Stag’s Leap tells the story from the moment of discovery when Sharon finds another woman’s photograph in her husband’s running shorts - a woman she knows. The night he tells Sharon that he is in love with the other woman and that he will ‘probably’ leave her. The story moves through the dividing of possessions, the construction of a life alone, the realisation that what she had taken for granted was a good relationship was quite the opposite for him. ‘I hadn’t known he could lie’.
The sequence is very moving, perhaps because of its absolute honesty and humility, but it also thrills in the way it uses language - this is a major poet in complete command of technique and language. The complex rhythms and linguistic twists in ‘Left-Wife Bop’, ‘Red Sea’ and ‘Left-Wife Goose’ leave you giddy. The ending is very powerful - in ‘Years Later’, they meet again, briefly.
. . . ‘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.’
Stag's Leap, by Sharon Olds, published by Cape Poetry.
This is Sharon reading at the TS Eliot Awards, introduced by Ian MacMillan
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