May 5, 2013

‘Stag’s Leap’ shows triumph of art over heartbreak

“Stag’s Leap: Poems” by Sharon Olds (Knopf, 112 pages, $16.95, paperback)

“Stag’s Leap: Poems” by Sharon Olds (Knopf, 112 pages, $16.95, paperback)

Whoever thinks that the confessional movement in American poetry died with Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton in the 1970s should think again.

Sharon Olds has made a stunning career out of undressing her soul poetically before thousands of readers. Her raw, rhythmic diction of marriage, motherhood and, above all, her body leaves her standing naked before us, emotions exposed, vulnerabilities bared – far more than most of us would dare risk in public.

Olds sings the body electric and the self domestic – the psychic intersection of her wounds and wonder, the animating principle of her flesh in all its frail, fallible, unflappable presence.

To call her a female Walt Whitman would exaggerate only a little. The pull of Eros on her personality is as strong as on his.

Only the maternal marveling at the miracle of her children and the sophisticated tensions of her prosody set her apart from his more declamatory verse.

Now, at the wise and slightly wizened age of 70, she has come fully into her own, first winning the T.S. Eliot Prize in Britain for “Stag’s Leap,” her collection of connected poems detailing the fracture and aftermath of a divorce that ended her 30-year


Then, last month, she won the Pulitzer Prize for the same volume.

          Quickly, then,

the worst was over, I could comfort him,

holding his heart in place from the back

and smoothing it from the front, his own

life continuing, and what had

bound him, around his heart and bound him

to me now lying on and around us,

sea-water, rust, light, shards,

the little eternal curls of eros

beaten out straight.

“Stag’s Leap,” whose title comes from a Napa Valley wine, chronicles the shock, sorrow and resignation of a life’s love lost. Yet in the face of such trauma, Olds proves remarkably resilient; her poetic line pulses with assonance, alliteration and hypnotic repetition. Divorce cannot diminish her care for her philandering “stag,” nor her artistic prowess.

Unlike more traditional confessional poets, Olds has iron in her soul, an analytic ballast to her bouts of tenderness. She can scrutinize her self in all its neediness and yearning, as well as uncover the cruelty of her former husband’s acts. Everything is held in a gaze of searching honesty, of finding the essential core of the shattering event.

     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.

Each poem paints a piece of Olds’ heartbreak calligraphy; she draws her ideograms in indelible ink.

That she waited more than a decade to write about her divorce shows her loyalty to her children. She wanted them to mature to the point of tolerating a display of their parents’ unraveling.

Neither fire nor ice, her poems in “Stag’s Leap” exude a continually surprising warmth. She makes clear that her emotional openness stems from love and no other force; even her anger remains subdued, rising in gentle gestures of denial.

National Poetry Month officially ended on April 30, but if you had considered buying a book of poems last month and didn’t, this is the volume to get. It shows how viable the genre is, how it regenerates itself in the hands of a writer with genuine talent.

Whether Olds is our “greatest living poet,” as some have claimed, remains open to debate. But no one can doubt that she towers among the great.

“Stag’s Leap” resounds as a seasoned poet’s masterful achievement. The power of its poems will resonate long after Olds’ prizes have been laid upon her shelf.

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