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In her poetry collection Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds maps out the terrain of her divorce, grief, mourning and acceptance. Married to her doctor husband for 32 years, he had an affair with a colleague, divorced Olds and then married the “other woman.” Her marriage ended fifteen years ago and the poems were written over the course of those years.

Olds is surprisingly kind to her husband in these poems, no words of hate or raw anger, mostly sorrow, confusion, shame (as though there was something she did wrong) and deep hurt as she tries to come to terms with his betrayal and the end of their life together.

She begins to suspect something when she finds a photo of a woman in the laundry. She asks him about it. He lies. And then:

In a novel, I said, this would be when
the wife should worry — is there even the slightest
reason to worry. He smiled at me,
and said, it seemed not by rote,
but as if it were a physical law
of the earth, I love you. And we made love,
and I felt so close to him — I had not
known he knew how to lie, and his telling me
touched my heart.

After he leaves and she is drinking a bottle of their favorite wine, one that has a leaping stag on the label, she thinks her ex-husband is like the stag:

casting himself off a
cliff in his fervor to get free of me.

There is much searching in the poems, lots of wondering why, but not much blame, hardly any blame. In fact, she seems to come to the conclusion that they both had an equal hand in the dissolution of their relationship:

He fell in love with her because I
didn’t suit him anymore —
nor him, me, though I could not see it, but he
saw it for me. Even, even,
our playing field — we inspired in each other
a generousness. And he did not give
his secrets to his patients, but I gave my secrets
to you, dear strangers, and his, too —

At the end os such a long relationship there are so many things that remind a person of the past and how things used to be and they always come upon one when least expected:

When my hand is groping on the toolroom shelf for ex-
marital liquor to drink by myself,
it bumps something it knows by one bump
and rustle, one chocolate bar with almonds, then the
muffled thunk of another — he would hide them,
then give me one when I was sad. When he left,
he did not think, as who would,
to go to the caches and empty them, to the
traps and spring them.

The poems are all well done. There are some beautiful lines and images. But as a whole, I found the book meh, which was disappointing especially since I like Olds and the book won the Pulitzer earlier this year. The poems felt conventional in spite of them being emotionally honest. I have never been divorced or devastated after a long term relationship so I was looking for a way to relate to the experience and situations in the poems. But there is something that kept me out. The poems didn’t move out past their singular intimacy to a broader perspective, didn’t invite me to feel involved in them. They didn’t make it out of my head. I didn’t once get a rush of excitement over a perfect line or butterflies in my stomach — what I call poetry stomach — that made me say wow, this is a really amazing poem. I am sure there are plenty of people who will find these poems deep and moving but they just didn’t work for me.

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