Unexpected love poems

Last modified: Sunday, October 07, 2012
Divorce after a long marriage usually leaves at least one former spouse bitter and angry. The pain of betrayal blots out all else. Knowing, as I did for years, that Sharon Olds was working on a collection of poems about the breakup of her 30-year marriage, I winced when the book showed up in my mail.

Imagine my delight when I discovered that Olds had not written Stag's Leap to vent about the man who left her for another woman. Instead the poems' subject is what she lost: her lover in body and soul, the faith she had placed in their marriage vows, love itself. Not to sound too country-corny about it, Stag's Leap is about love in the rearview mirror.

Olds, who lives much of the time in Pittsfield, is a poet in her prime, and these poems are full of wisdom. Divided into sections titled after the seasons, the book reads like a journal, each poem capturing a new aspect of life as the spurned spouse. The wonder is the way Olds sustains the intensity of feeling while exploring her plight from so many perspectives. The poetry is beautiful, heart-felt, jarring, honest.

Here is an excerpt from an early poem in the collection, "Telling My Mother":

I'd practiced the speech,

bringing her up to the truth slowly,

preparing her. And the moment I told her,

she looked at me in shock and dismay.

But when will I ever see him again?!

she cried out. I held hands with her,

and steadied us, joking. Above her spruce, through the

coastal mist, for a moment, a small,

glistening star. Then I

felt in my whole body, for a second,

that I have not loved enough - I could

almost see my husband's long shape,

wraithing up. I did not know him,

I did not work not to lose him, and I lost him,

and I've told my mother. And it's clear from her harrowed,

sorrowing cheeks and childhood mountain-lake

eyes that she loves me. So the men are gone,

and I'm back with Mom.

Like all the poems in Stag's Leap, this one is clear and accessible. It moves along on the strength of its verbs: steadied, glistening, harrowed, sorrowing and, especially, wraithing. It describes a difficult task from the abandoned wife's long to-do list while also capturing her gauzy, sleepwalking consciousness. And, although the poem's narrator goes on to say that something in her always feared this outcome, it isn't as bad as she thought. She survives it. Life will go on.

The husband does not remain a wraith in these pages. There is a poem - "Tiny Siren" - in which the first sign of his infidelity should have been apparent to the narrator, but wasn't. And yet for the most part in these poems, he is a pleasant memory. Sometimes against her will, the narrator conjures him as a companion, a sexual partner, an artist, a smiling father, a sick man in need of a haircut.

And sometimes, as in "Pain I Did Not," she cannot suppress her anger with him. Unlike many others who lose their lovers, she was not "thrown against the iron grille" of pain and anger, and she envies the "honest suffering" of those who are. She feels her own pain as a "slowly shut gate" and faces it with simple, direct words and the reluctant sighing pauses of commas and long dashes:

I think he had come, in private, to

feel he was dying, with me, and if

he had what it took to rip his way out, with his

teeth, then he could be born. And so he went

into another world - this

world, where I do not see or hear him -

and my job is to eat the whole car

of my anger, part by part, some parts

ground down to steel dust.

The divorce happened long ago. From the handwritten squiggles in her notebooks to the printed page, her poems take years to make. Her last collection, One Secret Thing, came out in 2008. By then she was already far along in the creation of the poems of Stag Leaps. The key to such an approach is to use time not just to polish the work but to test the cool ashes of feelings that once burned hot.

Deep emotion, relentless self-searching and lovely language propel the poems of Stag's Leap. Divorce after long marriage is a personal tragedy no less ruinous for being so common. Olds has turned hers into a beautiful book about love.