27 December 2013

On Reading: Stag's Leap by Sharon Olds, part one

(What is this? You can read about the impetus behind it here.)

Received Stag's Leap by Sharon Olds for Christmas this year, officially from my father-in-law, but chosen and purchased by my husband.

Here's a confession: I haven't read much Olds. I've read some of her work in anthologies, but I've never read an entire collection and I haven't read any of her recent work at all.

Boxing Day, I curled up with the collection and a cup of tea and began to read. The opening poem "While He Told Me" is stunning, so much so, I read it aloud to my husband. The lines:
Later, when we took off our clothes, I saw
his deep navel, and the cindery lichen
skin between the male breasts, and from
outside the shower curtains's terrible membrane
I called out something like flirting to him,
and he smiled.
are gorgeous. I hope I never forget the phrase "cindery lichen." Perfect.

The poem has a sense of foreboding to it and, having not read the back cover or managed to hear what the book is about (how, I have no idea), I imagined what he told her to be his own terminal prognosis.

I flipped the page and read "Unspeakable"--a poem about their impending divorce and the other woman--then turned to the back cover:
Stag's Leap is a stunningly poignant sequence of poems that tells the story of a divorce, embracing strands of love, sex, sorrow, memory, and new freedom.

So I looked over to my husband and asked him what he knew of the book before he bought it. "Nothing," he answered. "You're not trying to tell me something with this, are you?" I asked and then read him the back cover. We laughed somewhat uncomfortably (at least, I did).

I pause. Do I want to read a full collection about someone's divorce? It's Sharon Olds and it won the Pulitzer, so yes, I will read it, but will I enjoy it?

"The Flurry" reinforces my bias against dialogue in poetry.

The next few don't excite me. I begin to wonder if confessional poetry just isn't my thing. I don't search it out and perhaps there is a reason for this.

I read "Stag's Leap" and wonder if it's possible to become the writer-in-residence at a BC winery. I'll name my next book "Red Rooster" or "Quail's Gate" for a case or two.

The final three poems in the first section (January-December) feel stronger. Why is this? Am I breaking through the confessional wall? Why do they speak to me in ways that the middles ones didn't? There are lines in each of them that make me pause (in a good way) that the others didn't. Their endings are especially strong. The final lines of "Known to Be Left": "Have faith,/ old heart. What is living, anyway,/ but dying." I love all of "Object Loss." It feels tight and there are strong, unexpected images to ground the emotions. At first, I wasn't sure about "Poem for the Breasts." The title implied a type of poem I read too often in workshops--a "funny" poem that relies on a "twist" or that is ultimately a joke heading towards a punchline. Meh. Thankfully, "Poem for the Breasts" is not a punchline poem, but one that has depth and insight. It was unexpected and a strong way to end the first section.

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