I went back and read my review of 'The Father' by Sharon Olds from three years ago, and find many similarities in my reaction to 'Stag's Leap'. Monkey and I started taking part in an online course on Literature and Mental Health on Futurelearn, and the first week has been discussing the stress relieving nature of poetry. It was an interesting idea but having just finished reading this book I can certainly attest that it is not true of all poetry. Some poetry certainly can make you less stressed, if it contains images and sparks responses that are considered soothing, but it is really dangerous to generalise about such things. 'Stag's Leap' documents the breakup of a marriage, its happening, its immediate aftermath and its long term impact. There is not much there to relieve any stress, in fact it bought to the surface for me all sorts of quite disturbing and anxiety creating emotional reactions.
The collection is very intimate and heartfelt, but unlike the grief she writes about in 'The Father' the process seems to stall at denial, as if she cannot, and does not want to get over him. In the first section she catalogues the last moments and events of the marriage, and through the book he moves gradually from 'almost-no-longer husband' to 'once husband' to 'ex', to a final, somewhat wistful 'then husband'; she lets go of the word, but she seems unable to let go of him. In the section marked 'Winter', after the divorce:
Minute by minute, I do not get up and just
go to him -
by day, twenty blocks away;
by night, due across the city's
woods where night-crowned heron sleep.
It is what I do now: not go, not
see or touch. And after eleven
million six hundred sixty-four thousand
minutes of not, I am a stunned knower
My body may never learn
not to yearn for that one, or this could be
a first farewell to him, a life-do-us-part.
(Not going to him p.25)
Once in a while, I gave up, and let myself
remember how much I'd liked the way my ex's
hips were set, the head of the femur which
rode, not shallow, not deep, in the socket
of the pelvis
(Once in a while I gave up p.43)
And I know, I know, I should put
my dead marriage out on the porch
in the sun, and let who can, come
and nourish of it - change it, carry it
back to what it was assembled from,
back to the source of the light whereby it shone.
(Sleekit Cowrin' p.55)
And then 'Years Later' she is still lingering over him being part of her life:
When he left me, I thought, If only I had read
the paper, and vowed, In two years,
I will have The Times delivered, so here
I am, leaning back on the couch, in the smell of ink's
oil, its molecules like chipped bits of
ammonites suspended in shale,
lead's dust silvering me.
I have a finger, now, in the pie -
count me as a reader of the earth's gossip.
I weep to feel how I love to be like
my guy. I taste what he tastes each morning
without moving my lips.
(On reading a newspaper for the first time as an adult p.71)
Still in 'Years Later' she holds on, thought the notion is getting more vague, an 'idea' rather than the physicality of him:
And slowly he starts to seem more far
away, he seems to waft, drift
at a distance, once-husband in his grey suit
with the shimmer to its weave
I do not let
go of him yet, but hold the string
and watch my idea of him pull away
and stay, and pull away, my silver kite.
(Slowly he starts p.74)
It is not until the almost final poem of the collection that she appears to find some small measure of closure:
entered my strictured heart, this morning,
slightly, shyly, as if warily
untamed, a greater sense of the sweetness
and plenty of his ongoing life,
unknown to me, unseen by me,
unheard by me, untouched by me,
but known to others, seen by others,
heard, touched. And it came to me,
for moments at a time, moment after moment,
to be glad for him that he is with the one
he feels was meant for him.
(September 2001 New York City p.87)
I was left a little disquieted because the poet is so exposed and vulnerable. It feels like an intense love story, because throughout she gives you glimpses into their life together, though always with this sense of slightly agonised longing for the now unattainable. She empties their shared house of his belongings, misses his body and his voice, mourns a miscarried child, revisits events and places, but there is never a trace of anger. Somehow I wanted her to be more angry, I felt there should at least have been one outburst of fury. Perhaps it is a measure of true love that she did not need to be.