Sunday, January 19, 2014

Stag’s Leap By Sharon Olds

Stag’s Leap
By Sharon Olds
Alfred A. Knopf
New York
ISBN: 978-0-307-95990-4
89 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Confessional poetry never caught my imagination. But I do remember some breathtaking exceptions. I’m thinking of the intensity of Sylvia Plath’s Daddy and W.D. Snodgrass’ affecting Heart’s Needle. That’s a bit of my background and part of my peculiar bias.

Sharon Olds’ 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning collection entitled Stag’s Leap (the name and cover logo borrowed from a cheesy wine bottle trademark) spotlights all the worst faults of confessional poetry with few off-setting virtues. One of this book’s blurbs calls Stag’s Leap a “stunningly poignant sequence…contemplative and deep.” I find the same sequence, for the most part, pathetic shallow pabulum.

Poetically chronicling the decline and death of a marriage daunts and dispirits many writers, but it can be done. I know because I recently reviewed two of them. Mary Jo Salter’s Nothing by Design (Knopf) and Owen Lewis’ Sometimes Full of Daylight (Dos Madres) bring very different strengths to the table. Salter filters her sorrow and anger through a breathtaking command of formalist techniques. Her private emotions become public and high art to boot. On the other hand, Lewis is Everyman. He offers his gut wrenching confessions cold turkey in a free ranging way that allows him to connect with the reader, and the reader to then identify with him.  Stag’s Leap, however, provides little technique of interest and no connectivity. In fact Olds’ persona wallows in what seems like staged self-absorption. She seems convinced that her story is unique and has intrinsic value simply because she is who she is.

The collection’s first poem, While He Told Me, I found odd. After the husband informs the narrator that he is leaving her for another woman, they flirt and smile and go to bed in an oh-so-civilized but hackneyed scene. Later she awakes to an artsy image that does not have the right feel to it. Here’s how the poem ends,

…I followed him,
as I often had,
and snoozed on him, while he read, and he laid
an arm across my back. When I opened
my eyes, I saw two tulips stretched
away from each other extreme in the old
vase with the grotto carved out of a hill
and a person in it, underground,
praying, my imagined shepherd in make-believe paradise.

In a poem entitled The Flurry, Olds continues her chronicle with clichéd dialogue and tone-deaf imagery. The poet says,

I tell him I will try to fall out of
love with him, but I feel I will love him
all my life. He says he loves me
as the mother of our children, and new troupes
of tears mount to the acrobat platforms
of my ducts and do their burning leaps…

The term ex (as in ex-husband) is used in a number of these poems. It not only sounds off key in this context, but seems to cut off any subtle feelings that might inhabit these pieces. It sounds absolutely grating in the French Bra. Listen to these lines,

… it’s as if my body has not
heard, or hasn’t believed, the news
it wants to go in there and pick up those wisps,
those Hippolyta harnesses, on its pinkie,
and bring them home to my ex and me,
mon ancient mari et moi

Almost no one came to a seafood banquet Olds and her husband hosted and they both lived on the food for a week. Her husband during this time already had made plans to leave her. Yet Olds speaks of him with what sounds like a mathematically calculated unemotional sympathy. She almost anthropomorphizes her doctor-husband, in the sense that she imbues him with questionable humaneness, and she insists upon motivations and feelings that don’t seem to be evident from the bare sanguinity that she presents. Consider these lines,

…the wasted food was like some kind of
carnage. We lived on it for a week, as we’d been
living, without my seeing it,
on the broken habit of what was not lasting
love. When I remember him
at the stove, the sight pierces me
with tenderness, he was suffering, then,
as I would soon.

I hear the words but I don’t believe them. Is the poet simply deluded?  In her poem Crazy she seems to answer that question. She says,

…it is true that I saw
That light around his head when I’d arrive second
At a restaurant—Oh for God’s sake,
I was besotted by him.

Okay that I believe. But that does not, in itself, make for interesting poetry.

One of three or four decent or better pieces in the book, Olds’ poem Maritime works from start to finish. It is very good and the language dances. I can see why this poet has the reputation she does. The piece begins impressively,

Some mornings, the hem of the forewash had been almost
golden, alaskas and berings of foam
pulled along the tensile casing.
Often the surface was a ship’s grey,
a destroyer’s, flecks of sun, jellies,
sea stars, blood stars men and women of war,
weed Venus hair. A month a year,
for thirty years.

Running Into You, a poem destined to be forgotten, descends again into the pedestrian environs of who-really-cares. Consider these dreadful lines,

It was never in doubt that you had suffered more than I
when young. That moved me so much about you,
the way you were a dumbstruck one
and yet you seemed to know everything
I did not know…

Ugh! Accessible writing with little value added doesn’t deserve the notice that this collection has received. If you value your reading time, avoid Stag’s Leap.


  1. Anonymous8:16 AM

    I guess I won't be reading this book. never really got into her poetry so its not a big thing. thanks for your honesty

  2. Anonymous8:04 AM

    i just read stag's leap for the second time. i find it amazing.