Published in 2012 and winner of the T.S. Eliot prize and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Stag’s Leap charts the poet’s journey through the end of a thirty year marriage. Poignant, passionate and unrelentingly personal, it’s an astonishing collection.
The collection follows a chronological order as Olds takes us through the breakdown of her marriage and brings us with her to the other side. The poems in the first section are raw with grief and disbelief. They are also filled with tender, intimate details “I saw…the cindery lichen/skin between male breasts”. The depth of bewilderment in poems such as ‘Unspeakable’ is gut-wrenching as the speaker spins, unable to comprehend their new situation:
“When he loved me, I looked
out at the world as if from inside
a profound dwelling, like a burrow, or a well.”
In this first section, the poet is trying to make sense of this momentous shift in their situation. The poems flicker from the brave-faced “how blessed my life has been” to the nihilism of the awful “What is living, anyway,/ but dying.” that closes ‘Known to be Left’. Through the use of the first person and the focused, intimate lens, Olds pulls the reader through this rollercoaster and we plunge straight into the middle section of the collection.
The poems in this section are divided by seasons. The use of the passage of time as a marker in itself gives us hope that the pain will ebb. However, there is still the immediacy of “Minute by minute, I do not get up and just go to him” that opens ‘Not Going to Him’, a beautiful poem filled with tender detail. As in the first section, the poems in ‘Winter’ fluctuate in tone as the poet tries to right herself, dragging herself through broken memories for clues and trying to reconcile herself with the notion that the person she thought she’d known best was really a form of stranger.
“I knew and did not
know his brain, and its woody mountain
casing, but the sheer familiarness
of his brow was like a kind of knowledge.”
It feels a little like the husband is being committed to memory as the comparison to the natural world begins to add some distance.
By the time we arrive at the poems in ‘Spring’ Olds has begun to move forward away from ruminating on her husband’s physical form. “Once in a while, I gave up, and let myself/ remember”. He becomes “My son’s father” and by summer, it becomes “my dead marriage.” Poems such as ‘Sea-Level Elegy’ end with a declaration of strength:
“once a year, I have mercy,
I let myself go down where I have lived, and then,
hand over hand, I pull myself back up.”
The final season, Fall, shows a definite shift. Yes, there’s still the occasional slip – we’re told at the beginning of ‘The Haircut’ that “against my will I thought of the day he’d been/sick” but here, memories are told in the past tense. There’s more distance and they feel more nostalgic than immediate.
In the last section, ‘Years Later’, there’s a definite sense of healing – not just because it’s how ‘Bruise Ghazal’, the last poem in ‘Fall’, ends but because it opens with ‘On Reading a Newspaper for the First Time as an Adult’. As the collection closes, we’ve moved on “my old/ love for him, like a songbird’s rib cage pickled clean.” It’s a wonderful collection, with much to savour.