Stag's Leap by Sharon Olds
In this magnificent collection of linked narrative poems, Stag's Leap, Sharon Olds explores both the grief and the sense of possibility inherent in a relationship's end, presenting the reader with a "make-believe paradise" and its "uninhabitable beauty." Presented in six sections, which are organized by different moments in time (for example, "Winter," "Spring," and "Years Later"), the individual poems in this finely crafted book subtly undermine this linear structure, exploring the myriad ways that time is recursive, memory a palimpsest that is constantly being erased, rewritten, and erased again. As the book unfolds, Olds challenges and revises conventional frameworks for organizing time and history, a critique that proves intricately linked to the progressive treatment of marriage that permeates the collection.
For Olds, this notion of time as linear is gendered, perhaps as much so as the rhetoric surrounding marriage itself. Throughout the book, she interrogates the tendency in our culture to blame the wife, and to call into question her femininity, when a husband strays. What's fascinating about Olds's critique is that she reveals these master narratives surrounding marriage as intricately linked to a linear model of history, which is fixed and not subject to revision. I'm intrigued by Olds's presentation of an alternative model of time, which is elliptical, palimpsestic, and recursive, allowing these master narratives to be erased, written over, and transformed. She writes in "Known to Be Left":
I believe he is not coming back. Something
has died, inside me, believing that,
like the death of a crone in one twin bed
as a child is born in the other. Have faith,
old heart. What is living, anyway,
As Olds describes the loss and rebirth inherent in a failed relationship, she presents time in much the same way, operating in cycles of grief, joy, and rejuvenation. This alternative model for understanding time allows for not only emotional healing, but revision of the narratives that circulate within culture, and within the individual consciousness. As these cycles of birth, death, and rebirth unfold, the meaning of loss, or what seems at first to be loss, changes, particularly as it opens up new possibilities. Stag's Leap is filled with beautifully crafted poems like this one, which prove as lyrical as they are philosophical.
Olds's use of repetition in the collection is also striking, enacting on a stylistic level many of the larger social and cultural concerns of the work. By pursuing a few carefully chosen imagistic motifs throughout the book, Olds suggests that objects, mementos, and artifacts of relationships metamorphose, acquiring multiple and often conflicting meanings for the individual. In much the same way that memory circles back to past events and narratives, the objects around us are inscribed and reinscribed with many possibilities for interpretation. Consider "On the Hearth of a Broken Home":
Slowly fitting my pinkie tip down
into the feral eggshell fallen
from inside the chimney, I lift it up
close to my eye, the coracle dome
hung with ashes, rivered with flicks
of chint, robes of the unknown -- only
a sojourner, in our home
What's particularly interesting about this passage is the way that Olds takes something that the speaker has encountered every day of her married life (the hearth) and presents it in an entirely new context. As the marriage falls apart, the hearth begins to house the rubble, the debris, and the wreckage, rather than warmth. I'm fascinated by Olds's use of a familiar image to show that the narratives we create, about events, ourselves, and our relationships, are subject to constant revision. This re-envisioning of narrative is frequently projected onto the objects that surround us: "a feral eggshell," "the chimney," its "ashes" and "flicks of chint." This poem, like the collection as a whole, conveys ambitious arguments about the nature of time and memory through subtle choices, such as the careful presentation and reimagining of a single image. In short, Stag's Leap is a stunning addition to Olds's already accomplished body of work.
Stag's Leap by Sharon Olds
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of twenty books, which include Melancholia (An Essay), and Scorched Altar: Selected Poems and Stories 2007-2014. She was recently selected as a Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome.