Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds

A review of the award-winning poetry collection Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds.

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Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds is a certified masterpiece of a poetry collection that won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, as well as the T.S. Eliot Prize. It catalogues Olds’ thirty-year marriage and its demise, in which her husband left her for another woman, and was published fifteen years after these events. This is a collection that is as devastating as it is exquisite. Everyone loves ‘breakup material’—which is guaranteed to sell—because everyone wants to know that others have experienced heartbreak in the excruciating way that they have.

This collection presents the dichotomy of life to the reader. All poets would want their collections to be skilful and win the most prestigious prizes, yet what do such things mean in light of the fact that Stag’s Leap was written about the loss of one of the most precious things in life? Is such a loss worth such gains? Can life be equated this way? Olds herself provides the reader with some insight into these questions when she writes:

And it came to me,
for moments at a time, moment after moment,
to be glad that he was with the one
he feels was meant for him.

Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds

On opening this collection, immediately what struck me was that it is refreshingly unpretentious. All the poems are laid out to the left, without any stanza breaks. The book is simply divided into seasons, which helps create a sense of time passing. Laying out your poems simply, or in the way that you want, is a privilege afforded to poets of Olds’ calibre, rather than young poets who have just written their first collection, however there’s still something pleasing about reading simply laid out, adept poetry, as the two factors juxtapose each other. There’s nothing wrong with ambitious formatting, but a break from it can be welcome. The enjambments within this collection are also particular to it; lines don’t end after a full sentence or a fragment of one that makes sense on its own, but rather end on connective words, making poems seem as if they have jagged edges. Although this is usually a pet peeve of mine, in this case it helps make Olds’ poems appear raw and as if they were rendered straight from her mind to the page. Of course this is only an effect, effective only because of exceptional writing. Naivety in writing is far rarer in poetry than one would assume.

It’s also rare for a poetry collection to give you the sense and weight of a lifetime as their subject matter. More often, poetry collections are a series of snatched moments. Half the time the poems in a collection are not even thematically linked, let alone about a long stretch of time. Therefore this sense of time that Stag’s Leap retains makes it somewhat unique, giving it gravity and a sobriety that other collections lack.

As well as the journey of a marriage and its breakup that a reader experiences along with the poet, the reader learns that the poet herself underwent a journey of reflection and acceptance during the writing of these poems, a journey that is recounted in a searingly beautiful way. This can be seen in the poem ‘Unspeakable,’ in which Olds writes:

Now I come to look at love
in a new way, now that I know I’m not
standing in its light. I want to ask my
almost-no-longer husband what it’s like to not
love, but he does not want to talk about it,
he wants a stillness at the end of it.

Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds

As readers, we get a sense of the function of this collection of poetry; it was an exercise to enable the poet to cope with the events that happened in her life, as well as being a natural outpouring. One’s partner leaving is not a situation in which a person has control, and so this collection feels like an attempt to regain control. Interestingly, Olds’ children made her promise not to publish anything about her divorce for ten years.

In some ways one could read this collection the way one would a novel as it is not a collection of unrelated pieces and the characters within it are consistent. Therefore, perhaps one can become more emotionally involved with the characters. However, one must not forget that they are just that: characters. In this collection, we see Olds’ ex-husband through her eyes.

There is a reality and fiction divide in poetry in particular, because since the confessional poets of the 50s, people expect poetry to be a beautiful representation of reality, but in becoming a representation, reality becomes fiction. One has to be careful when talking about poetry as factual, because even when it’s factual the poet always makes themselves and everyone they write about a fictional character, even if they didn’t mean to. Reality is a slippery, impossible achievement for a poet.

Another aspect to appreciate about this collection is that it is very human, both in the emotions and the physicality that it presents. As people who are often engaged with films, television programmes, magazines, music videos and other conventional media, we are bombarded with images and of ideal bodies and perfection. Even the most discerning individual can be influenced by this, thinking that these, rather than the quality of the time spent with someone or kindness, are the important factors in a relationship. In Stag’s Leap, Olds shows us what it is to truly love someone for their idiosyncrasies. More realistic representations of love between people of all appearances should be more prevalent, especially for young people, who are overwhelmed by the opposite. Another aspect of this collection to enjoy in relation to this point is that it is so sexualy tender that it borders on the erotic. The reader may experience something of the voyeur’s interest when reading this collection, which can be seen in many examples, such as in the poem ‘Gramercy,’ in which Olds writes:

He was solid
within me, suing for peace. And I
subsided, but then my bright tail
lolloped again, and I whispered, just one

Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds

This would be a poorer collection if the wreckage of life presented in it were not balanced with the humour that it is. Olds leaves us with the idea that even during one of the hardest things that can happen to a person, there is still humour and joy in life. She does this, crucially, without cliché. With Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds shows readers what it is to love and presents love as more glorious for being seen in every light.

Setareh Ebrahimi performs regularly, and is a poet working in Faversham, Kent. She is the author of In My Arms from Bad Betty Press.

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