Stag's Leap

Stag's Leap

by Sharon Olds


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Stag’s Leap is stunningly poignant sequence of poems that tells the story of a divorce, embracing strands of love, sex, sorrow, memory, and new freedom.

In this wise and intimate telling—which carries us through the seasons when her marriage was ending—Sharon Olds opens her heart to the reader, sharing the feeling of invisibility that comes when we are no longer standing in love’s sight; the surprising physical bond that still exists between a couple during parting; the loss of everything from her husband’s smile to the set of his hip. Olds is naked before us, curious and brave and even generous toward the man who was her mate for thirty years and who now loves another woman. As she writes in the remarkable “Stag’s Leap,” “When anyone escapes, my heart / leaps up.  Even when it’s I who am escaped from, / I am half on the side of the leaver.” Olds’s propulsive poetic line and the magic of her imagery are as lively as ever, and there is a new range to the music—sometimes headlong, sometimes contemplative and deep. Her unsparing approach to both pain and love makes this one of the finest, most powerful books of poetry Olds has yet given us.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375712258
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/04/2012
Pages: 112
Sales rank: 452,069
Product dimensions: 5.96(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.36(d)

About the Author

SHARON OLDS was born in San Francisco and educated at Stanford and Columbia universities. Her first book, Satan Says (1980), received the inaugural San Francisco Poetry Center Award. Her second, The Dead and the Living, was  both the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1983 and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Father was short-listed for the T. S. Eliot Prize in England, and The Unswept Room was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Olds teaches in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at New York University and is one of the founders of  NYU's writing workshops for residents of Goldwater Hospital, and for veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Read an Excerpt

Stag's Leap

By Sharon Olds


Copyright © 2012 Sharon Olds
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780307959904

The Last Hour

Suddenly, the last hour
before he took me to the airport, he stood up,
bumping the table, and took a step
toward me, and like a figure in an early
science fiction movie he leaned
forward and down, and opened an arm,
knocking my breast, and he tried to take some
hold of me, I stood and we stumbled,
and then we stood, around our core, his
hoarse cry of awe, at the center,
 at the end, of our life. Quickly, then,
the worst was over, I could comfort him,
holding his heart in place from the back
and smoothing it from the front, his own
life continuing, and what had
bound him, around his heart—and bound him
to me—now lying on and around us,
 sea-water, rust, light, shards,
the little eternal curls of eros
beaten out straight.

Stag’s Leap

Then the drawing on the label of our favorite red wine
looks like my husband, casting himself off a
cliff in his fervor to get free of me.
His fur is rough and cozy, his face
placid, tranced, ruminant,
the bough of each furculum reaches back
to his haunches, each tine of it grows straight up
and branches, like a model of his brain, archaic,
unwieldy. He bears its bony tray
level as he soars from the precipice edge,
dreamy. When anyone escapes, my heart
leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from,
I am half on the side of the leaver. It’s so quiet,
and empty, when he’s left. I feel like a landscape,
a ground without a figure. Sauve
qui peut—let those who can save themselves
save themselves. Once I saw a drypoint of someone
tiny being crucified
on a fallow deer’s antlers. I feel like his victim,
and he seems my victim, I worry that the outstretched
legs on the hart are bent the wrong way as he
throws himself off. Oh my mate. I was vain of his
faithfulness, as if it was
a compliment, rather than a state
of partial sleep. And when I wrote about him, did he
feel he had to walk around
carrying my books on his head like a stack of
posture volumes, or the rack of horns
hung where a hunter washes the venison
down with the sauvignon? Oh leap,
leap! Careful of the rocks! Does the old
vow have to wish him happiness
in his new life, even sexual
joy? I fear so, at first, when I still
can’t tell us apart. Below his shaggy
belly, in the distance, lie the even dots
of a vineyard, its vines not blasted, its roots
clean, its bottles growing at the ends of their
blowpipes as dark, green, wavering groans.

My Son’s Father’s Smile

In my sleep, our son, as a child, said,
of his father, he smiled me—as if into
existence, into the family built around the
young lives which had come from the charged
bouquets, the dense oasis. That smile,
those years, well what can a body say, I have
been in the absolute present of a fragrant
ignorance. And to live in those rooms,
where one of his smiles might emerge, like something
almost from another place,
another time, another set
of creatures, was to feel blessed, and to be
held in mysteriousness, and a little
in mourning. The thinness of his lips gave it
a simplicity, like a child’s drawing
of a smile—a footbridge, turned over on its back, or seen
under itself, in water—and the archer’s
bow gave it a curved unerring
symmetry, a shot to the heart. I look back on that un-
clouded face yet built of cloud,
and that waning crescent moon, that look
of deep, almost sad, contentment, and know myself
lucky, that I had out the whole
night of a half-life in that archaic
hammock, in a sky whose darkness is fading, that
first dream, from which I am now waking.


Excerpted from Stag's Leap by Sharon Olds Copyright © 2012 by Sharon Olds. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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After the Escape: Barnes & Noble Interview with Sharon Olds

As readers of Sharon Olds's poetry, we're used to knowing, or feeling that we know, what's going on in Olds's life. The "I" in Olds's poems is meant to be one who is close to or identical to the Olds that lives, breathes, chronicles, and discovers what she thinks by writing about it.

Indeed, since her first book, Satan Says, came out in 1980, Olds has made her career as a poet of the personal, forging a language of intimate detail that includes subjects as private as douching and ovaries, as well as tackling sex, love, marriage, and her struggles with her parents. Now, in Stag's Leap, her latest book of poetry, Olds records the months before and after the dissolution of her thirty-year marriage.

Sometimes, when recording things as small as the movement of her gaze, her poems feel immediate. They capture the kind of upending moments that make divorce surreal -- like the moment when furniture leaves a house or the moment when the person being left actually comforts the person who is leaving. But even as these poems feel immediate, they have been delayed by time. Olds has waited fifteen years -- half as long as her marriage existed -- to put the book together.

Olds, who teaches in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at NYU, and who helped found NYU's writing workshops for veterans at Goldwater Hospital, spoke with me by telephone about how she composed her new collection and what consolation art can offer in the face of loss. --Tess Taylor

The Barnes & Noble Review: These poems intimately trace the year after a divorce, season by season, in close detail, but then end with a sequence that moves quite far away, a kind of zooming out that lets the reader know that the construction of the book has been years in the making. How did the actual book come together? How did you craft this work?

Sharon Olds: Well, when I put a book together, I look for what I think are the best poems; I guess I ask them to tell me, when I spread them out on the dining room floor, what their order is, how I should make an outer organization to reflect them. I wrote many many poems about the parting, and so, much later, when I began to think of making a book of those poems, I found a lot from that first year. I suppose the construction of the book felt like an approximation of a chronology. First, I went month by month, and then I wanted to pull the lens back and go season by season, moving from shock to grief, and then pulling out to years after. Some of those poems were written just a few years ago, but most of them were within the few years following.

BNR: Indeed, you've been gathering these poems for some time. How long has it been?

SO: I said to our kids -- our grown children -- that I wouldn't put a book together for ten years; I thought it's weird enough having a parent that's a family poet! So I told them it won't be for ten years, and it turned out to be longer than that. It's been fifteen years, and these poems were written over the fifteen years, in a spirit of slow learning.

It takes a while to get over thirty years! When a poem came to me, I would write it in terms of itself, not thinking about whether or not it would eventually be in a book. And when that last poem came along, that poem of release, I didn't know it would be the last poem in the book. But later, when I began to put Stag's Leap together, I saw it should be the last one. BNR: You just mentioned your considerations for your kids. I wonder also about your considerations for your ex-husband. For instance, your title, Stag's Leap. Were you at all worried that it would seem like a jab at him, that he would seem somehow old?

SO: I don't think the picture on the wine bottle is old! I don't think of stags as old. The title seemed to me to fit -- but I asked people in different walks of life about it. Most people said the title made them think of a deer getting away. I guess I thought of the male deer leaping, of the male deer as a beautiful leaper. In the dictionary, I don't find an age for "stag." It is an ageless male -- a grown one, surely, but not an old one.

If I hadn't written that poem, "Stag's Leap," and it hadn't appeared in The New Yorker, and the owner of the winery hadn't sent me a big bottle of Stags' Leap Cabernet Sauvignon -- who knows?! As it was it just felt like the right title and title poem. It contains a line "When anyone escapes, my heart / leaps up. Even when it's I who am escaped from?"

All the poems, of course, are from the point of view of the speaker in the poems -- the "I." But I didn't want the book to be too lopsided, I wanted it to reflect some understanding of -- I wanted it to sing, insofar as it could, both members of the former couple.

BNR: In Stag's Leap you're sharing personal moments, but you've always been a poet of the personal -- all the way from Satan Says to One Secret Thing. But divorce is so intimate. In this book, you write that you fear you've angered the god of love, that you've failed at love -- and you experience moments of seeming self-incrimination. "I did not know him / and I did not work not to lose him / and I've lost him" you write in one poem. Were these poems more terrifying than others to write?

SO: Well, as to blaming myself: I think a marriage is fifty-fifty. When it doesn't work we must look to each person for half the cause.

As for it being scary: I find writing much more pleasurable than scary. And when we are trying to write truthfully, true to the poem -- whether literally, or an imaginative truth -- we aren't writing to look good.

What's thrilling is when we can write a line -- whether it's good or bad about the self -- with some truth to it. This is beyond looking good, it's kind of the opposite of that. Instead it's about something else, you're about something else. In a way it's not personal at all. When you're writing you're not exactly in control and you have a story you want to tell and music you're hearing -- it's almost a different level beyond the self.

In my poems, the qualities that I have to work against are self-pity, sentimentality, and too many adjectives! When I'm rewriting, I'm on guard against those. But no, this wasn't more scary than the others. And to me, woe over imperfections doesn't overwhelm the feeling that perhaps I've written a line that is true.

BNR: It sounds like this truth is a kind of consolation. What does art offer a grieving process like the one you've been through? At one point you write, "but from within my illusion of him. I could not see him, or know him?" and later you write "I did not have the art / or there's no art/ to find the mind's construction in the face." Does art actually help us see something as messy as a divorce more clearly?

SO: I don't know. In ways, in moments. You do want to make something that might have some value, some usefulness. It's a social art. And, for us narrative poets, it's a kind of record, a vision record. I guess when I'm writing, or talking to a close friend, insights can emerge. But while I'm writing a first draft, I'm pretty much completely focused on the emerging poem, the making. Each of those poems reflects some understanding, or some reading of an understanding. But equally or more important is music, rhythm, shape.

I don't know what art does -- though in our NYU outreach writing workshop programs in hospitals, schools, a prison, I have seen again and again that making a work of art is extremely valuable to communities, to selves.

But how do you know what art does? You write. Over years you get stronger. Your living shows you things, your writing also shows you things. You're lucky to be well and alive and writing. And you go on.

--September 24, 2012

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Stag's Leap: Poems 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
dwayneandpeggy More than 1 year ago
Master of confession
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
1that was really wierd 2 she has emotions, ok!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Xav alive
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Why did you change? You know bery well that Fang is one of my closest friends. And you just sit there and laugh? What happened to you? *he shakes his head and leaves*