Shards of Love

Sharon Olds, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, takes us through the windows of her broken marriage.

by Meghan O'Rourke Published Summer 2013
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 Illustration by Cliff Alejandro

When Sharon Olds’s husband suddenly left her in 1997 after more than thirty years of marriage, she did what she’d long been doing — she sat down with “a ballpoint and my spiral notebook” and began writing poems about the experience. The poems kept coming for fifteen years. They chart the arc from rage and shock (“my job is to eat the whole car / of my anger, part by part”) to a belated acceptance and acknowledgment: “I freed him, he freed me.” As ever, Olds found a way to transform personal pain into powerful art.

Olds, who teaches at NYU, won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in poetry for the book that eventually emerged: Stag’s Leap, a painfully detailed, frank, and ultimately charitable account of divorce’s grief. Now seventy, Olds ’72GSAS still seems youthful in person — her hair is long, her enthusiasms are evident. This jouissance extends into her poems, which have always sought to glean meaning from trauma. Her new collection derives its disconcerting force from Olds’s eye for the telling detail and her capacious vision of the thwarted promises — and built-in limitations — of love. In the best of ways, she makes the reader reflect on how little any of us know about our partners’ inner lives. “I did not know him,” she writes. “I knew my idea of him.”

Like much of Olds’s work, Stag’s Leap has a plainspoken documentary force. In “While He Told Me,” Olds recounts how, as her husband told her he was leaving, she simply “looked from small thing / to small thing, in our room, the face / of the bedside clock, the sepia postcard / of a woman bending down to a lily.” They go to bed together, and she finds herself observing his soon-to-be-gone body. In another poem, she sees him with his new lover and thinks, “you seemed / covered with her, like a child working with glue.”

Olds has always written powerfully and without embarrassment about eroticism and the body — and in particular the male body — describing not only her father’s penis but the pope’s (“While his eyes sleep, it stands up / in praise of God”). Sexual candor is at the core of her work; in her first book, Satan Says, from 1980, she famously wrote, “As soon as my sister and I got out of our / mother’s house, all we wanted to / do was fuck, obliterate / her tiny sparrow body and narrow / grasshopper legs.” In many ways, her work epitomized a strain of confessionalist writing that dominated American poetry in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For these reasons, the poet Billy Collins has called her “a poet of sex and the psyche.” But what’s sometimes missed in all the focus on Olds’s subject matter is her fine formal control. Olds was raised in a “hellfire Calvinist” family in Berkeley, and her early poems are shaped and relentlessly driven by a four-beat hymnal rhythm not unlike Emily Dickinson’s.

Olds published Satan Says when she was thirty-seven, polarizing readers from the start with her sometimes scathing directness and her celebrations of the body in all its messy forms — the body as site of abuse and pleasure, sexuality and fecundity, but also memory and wisdom. The transgressive moments are balanced out by an intuitive, holistic searching for meaning.

The poems in Stag’s Leap have an appealing long-limbed quality. The lines extend more than halfway across the page, and the poems are dense blocks of text, mimicking the mind struggling to untangle and make sense of a new reality. Over the course of the collection, Olds describes telling her mother and her children the news (“But when will I ever see him again?!” her mother asks). She recalls the intimacy of cutting her husband’s hair one day when he was sick, how he was so tall “it was like tree husbandry.” Effortlessly, Olds sounds this mundane familiarity for depth, remembering how that night she “stroked his satiny hair, the viral / sweat creaming out at its edge,” and as he spoke to her, “love / seemed to rest, on us, in a place / where, for that hour, it felt death could not / reach.” Then there’s the moment she finds a photograph of another woman in the washing machine and “later / in the day, I felt a touch seasick, as if / a deck were tilting under me —.”

This is a remarkably generous book, in which the cast-aside wife reexamines her assumptions about a marriage, and by doing so gets at the wordless currents that underlie any long-term erotic and domestic relationship. In this sense, Stag’s Leap is consistent with Olds’s earlier work: she insists on moving beyond pieties and surfaces in order to understand the depths within, until finally time works its effects:

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 —

The lived experience of loss, Olds suggests, is a confrontation with memory and mystery.

Meghan O’Rourke is a poet and critic, and the author of the memoir The Long Goodbye and the poetry collections Halflife and Once.  

Poems reproduced from Stag’s Leap, published by Alfred A. Knopf.

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