on January 17, 2013
A recent film, "A Late Quartet," is about a chamber music group forced to confront the cellist's illness. The movie is a kind of classical music soap opera, and there's a subplot I could have done without, but most of the writing is crisp and the acting is sensational. I was especially taken by a scene in which Philip Seymour Hoffman apologizes to his wife, Catherine Keener, for a stupid night of infidelity.
Hoffman: I love you more than anything in the world. I made a stupid mistake.
Keener's response is inconclusive.
Hoffman: Do you really love me? Or I am just... convenient?
Keener: What do you want? What is it you want me to tell you?
That exchange broke me because the language and the emotion merged --- in that desperate moment, you don't have Shakespearean eloquence, just raw hurt.
Those emotions are written in blood in the 49 poems in "Stag's Leap," the new book by Sharon Olds. If you've read her, you know that politics and poetics are not her topic. She is. And this time, she has an epic event to write about.
When she was 55 and had been married for 32 years, her husband announced that he had fallen in love with another woman and was leaving her. That was devastating for Olds --- she had often written about her marriage, and for those who read her poems as a diary, it was passionate and profound. Now, reflexively, she began to write again. She made one promise, and it was to her two adult children: I won't publish anything for a decade.
Fifteen years later, she published "Stag's Leap. " The reference is to her husband's favorite wine. Equally, that stag jumping off a cliff was a metaphor for her husband's exit: "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."
Those lines set a tone. She's not sticking pins in her husband's back and muttering voodoo - she is coming to terms, she is working to see how they have both gone wrong, how she has been a partner in this. Even in "The Last Hour," when you expect self-control to be lost:
Suddenly, the last hour
before he took me to the airport, he stood up,
bumping the table, and took a step
toward me, and like a figure in an early
science fiction movie he leaned
forward and down, and opened an arm,
knocking my breast, and he tried to take some
hold of me, I stood and we stumbled,
and then we stood, around our core, his
hoarse cry of awe, at the center,
at the end, of our life.
Sharon Olds won the 2012 T.S. Eliot prize for these poems. The vote was unanimous. As Britain's Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, chair of the judging panel, said: "This was the book of her career. There is a grace and chivalry in her grief that marks her out as being a world-class poet. I always say that poetry is the music of being human, and in this book she is really singing. Her journey from grief to healing is so beautifully executed." [To buy the paperback of "Stag's Leap" from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
Olds is eloquent about what she learned in the writing of these poems: "We'd had a lot of good years; then our lives slowly changed, our characters changed, and we were not so well suited to each other anymore. He just realized it long before me. As I began to be able to see some of what happened (not all) from his point of view ---- his wish to be with someone more like himself, someone not a writer ---- then I didn't feel like a victim but more like an equal."
As one of the poems in "Stag's Leap" says: "50/50 we made the marriage/ 50/50 its demise."
Or, as she writes in the final lines of the last poem: "I did not leave him, he did not leave me, I freed him, he freed me."
Long ago, Sharon Olds said, "I want a poem to be useful." For anyone in a failing or failed relationship, these poems are nothing less than a lifesaver, a revelation, a cleanser --- a short cut to a clearer future.