13 February 2014

On Reading: Stag's Leap, part six (and final)

I finished reading Stag's Leap Wednesday evening and I really enjoyed the final section "Years Later," especially the final few poems.

I found the whole section strong, possibly the strongest section in the book, except for one poem. While I appreciated the visual play attempted in "Read Sea," I found it lacking. I suppose there is a reason Olds doesn't often play with form. I don't think she's confident in it. I think she could be--she's clearly an excellent poet--but like anything, it's a skill that needs to honed and perhaps she's not interested in it enough to spend the time working on it.

On thing I admired in "Years Later" was how imagery found in poems throughout the collection are revisited, reach what could be considered either their pinnacle or, perhaps, denouement--celestial, marine, sexual, geological, mortality.

The morality feels more pronounced in this section, but it has a different tone. Earlier, such as when Olds had written about her miscarriage, death and loss were about lives cut too short, about lost potential, about tragedy. But in this final section the tone has shifted. In general, it feels more generous, more open, more kind, and specifically in terms of morality, there is an acceptance--no railing against what could have, should have been--but an acknowledgement of death's inevitability in mentioning her mother's and father's deaths, the hoped for long life.
Years later, during his cremation,
the liquids left my father's corpse,
and smoke left the flue. And even
later, my mother's ashes left
my hand, and fell as seethe into the salt
chop. … (from "What Left?")

Clearly, this change in tone at the end of the book signals an acceptance to the narrator's divorce. In the poem "Years Later", the narrator and her ex-husband have met in a park (Central Park this reader assumes). There is acceptance, a longing that is less mournful than stoic, and it's not a longing of desire (what she wants) but a longing of what has passed--a gentle nostalgia. The poem ends:
...And then there is the spring park,
damp as if freshly peeled, sweet
greenhouse, green cemetery with no
dead in it--except in some shaded
woods, under some years of leaves and
rotted cones, the body of a warbler
like a whole note fallen from the sky--my old
love for him, like a songbird's rib cage picked clean.
Her love for him, no longer rotting or decomposing--stinky and messy--but clean and fragile. A skeleton of what it once was. I find the final two lines of this poem stunning.

"Years Later" leads in "September 2001, New York City" a poem, we know from the title, will hold death, but not the death(s) we expect. She opens the poem with:
A week later, I said to a friend: I don't
think I could ever write about it.
Maybe in a year I could write something.
Clearly, years have passed and she has written something, but other than the dream image of a a game of jacks, the events of 9/11 aren't explored directly. What I do find interesting, is the warbler image returns, this time as her mother:
… And I thought of my
mother, minutes from her death, eighty-five
years from her birth, the almost warbler
bones of her shoulder under my hand, the
eggshell skull, as she lay in some peace
I now want to reread the collection to see if the warbler image is used earlier. Not off the top of my head, but knowing how Olds returns to images, I think it must be there. The warbler image here relates to someone fragile, someone loved. Olds requests that we make a connection between her "almost warbler bones" of her mother and the warbler skeleton of her love for her husband--something precious, something fragile.

Before I return Stag's Leap to the shelf, I want to address the last poem briefly. "What Left" is where we leave the narrator on her journey, and it's a meditation on where she was and where she is now. There is a rhythm to the piece that builds, almost an incantation. She explores conception, birth, nursing, the death of her parents (as noted above), and ultimately what she and her ex-husband accomplished together and for each other in their marriage. The final third of the poem is one long sentence:
We fulfilled something in each other--
I believed in him, he believed in me, then we
grew, and grew, I grieved him, he grieved me,
I completed with him, he completed with me, we
made whole cloth together, we succeeded,
we perfected what lay between him and me,
I did not deceive him, he did not deceive me,
I did not leave him, he did note leave me,
I freed him, he freed me.
That final line. Normally, that would make me cringe. It's sappy and sentimental, absolutely, but Olds earns it. If this line showed up anywhere else in the collection or even in the poem itself I would object, but ending the collection this way is especially rewarding for the readers who read from front to back.

I'm going to put aside Stag's Leap now, but I know I will return to it. If you've read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the collection. Do you disagree with anything I've written? Have a completely different take? Please let me know! I'd love to have a discussion about it.

If you'd like to read all six sections, you can find them here

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