On the surface, the poem deals with tropes I'm not excited by: the destruction of an ex's property, choosing art over family/love. I sped through reading this one the first time, but I'm glad that I returned to it.
Yes, the speaker is dismantling and then burning her ex-husband's easel. But of course, the easel is more than an easel. Once she has set it alight, "by the flame-light" she realizes that this easel is more than just something he once owned, but something that was integral to their early life together:
...all told, maybe
weeks, a month of stillness--modeling
for him, our first years together,
That honeymoon year, a month in hours of when she was his object.
Olds is famous for mining her family's life for her art. Her poetry is unabashedly autobiographical, confessional. When she writes:
… I am burning his left-behind craft,I cannot help but read this as an accusation, or perhaps a defence of her own choices. Ending the line on "to turn" is important, a signal to the subtext of the phrase.
he who was the first to turn
our family, naked, into art.
The final seven lines explores the question whether or not she would have not pursued her craft if it meant he would never leave her. Upon first read, it feels a little trite, a little too predictable to me:
… --what would I
have said? I didn't even have an art,
it would come from out of our family's life--
what could I have said: nothing will stop me.
The last line feels a tad rah-rah-sisterhood, rah-rah-artist. But, there is more to it than that. Do we read that his abandoned craft is analogous to hers? That the abandonment of his craft didn't save their marriage any more than if she would have? Or do we read it that, ultimately, this is what she wanted? That she wouldn't go back in time give up her art because not only did the last thirty years of marriage give her great fodder for great art, but this moment, this divorce is also the case?
She's not saying she would chose art over love. She chose art because of love and both were inevitable.
In the poem, she is sacrificing (burning on a pyre) his lost art, while she is creating her own art out of it. In the first-half of the poem she writes
… And laying its
narrow, polished, maple angles
across the kindling, proving for updraft--
She is conscious here, lays the groundwork for the rest of the poem: her art is fed off of his, even in its absence, even (more so) in its distraction. Good, indeed.