Poems With People In ‘Em

Sharon Olds Lucky Man reads  The Stag’s Leap

Since I started writing this post back in March sometime, The Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds (left) has won the T.S Eliot Prize (first woman so honoured), the Pulitzer just this week and in the interim had” Six tips for the newly divorced” posted on Ophrah Winfrey’s website. An unusual trifecta, and quite a remarkable achievement. If you want to find out what I think about the poems in her most recent collection portraying the end of a 30 plus year marriage you’ll have to wait or go to D, because like usual I feel compelled to explain why the writing of Sharon Olds is important to me


 cover17My poetry collection Lucky Man (Hagios 2005) was my first book publication since 1985.  The poems in the collection go back that far, but in finishing the collection for publication it also covered a family romance which changed direction reflected in poems as recent as 2004.  It included poems of love, childbirth, fatherhood, motherhood, children in life threatening situations, divorce, and the death of my parents.

Critics who think they’re praising writers by saying they make the mundane and the everyday seem extraordinary or universal to humanity[1] make me curse. It’s a backhanded way of saying the subjects included in this discourse are less important than say epic battles between good and evil, war (once upon a time) nature, or language (more currently) and like a dog walking on it’s hind legs, it’s simply amazing writers can do it at all. There are many great themes, and I argue that the family romance carries as much weight in this century as it did in century of Freud, Lacan, Klein and Kristeva.


Yes I like poems and pictures with people in them, which is why I’m working with Richard Hines on the Skin and Bone project. My interest began with the usual mid-20th century young man’s fascination with disordering the senses(Rimbaud), the perfumes of Baudelaire, Blake, the English Romantics, followed up with the nihilism of Artaud (mixing nicely with the Sex Pistols) and writing and films of Jean Cocteau. Switching to  contemporary poetry I was attracted to the work of Leonard Cohen in Canada and Sylvia Path who broke trail for me to appreciate the works of Hart Crane, Theodore Roethke, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop[2] and later Anne Sexton, Muriel Rukseyer and Adrienne Rich.  Waking up to Canada in a parallel universe, Alden Nowlan, Al Purdy, Dorothy Livesay, John Newlove, Pat Lane, Lorna Crozier, Fred Wah and Robert Kroetsch…and later about the same as Sharon Olds, Sharon Thesen and Patricia Young – who edited my Lucky Man which I finished by phone in the Patricia Blondal Memorial (MWG) residence near Arnes, Manitoba.


The first talk I gave about poetry was called, Poetry, Ethics, and Privacy at a meeting of the League of Canadian Poets in Winnipeg shortly after the publication of Correct in this Culture which included poems about people I was married too, and not so, but with few exceptions the poems had people in them. People I knew.

My introduction to the work of Sharon Olds was the stunning collection The Gold Cell (Knopf 1987, now also available as an eBook). Olds had published two books previously, pretty much all poems with people in them, and the people pretty much those in her orbit including the boyfriend who dies, her parents who married with much unhappiness (Explored on another collection called The Father, Secker & Warburg, 1992), her lover, her husband to be.  Her work since the 80s focuses on her body, her lover and husband, and her children. She published the most striking poems about sex that I read in the 1990s, and about motherhood and her children as the primary subjects of her work.

My first “real” book (though I feel I continue to be most remembered as the author of the Jimmy Bang Poems, a Turnstone chapbook published in 1979).) was Correct in this Culture in 1985, edited by the much missed Caroline Heath. The Gold Cell was published in 1987, and showed me what could be accomplished with a focus on family, even within a fairly static style, if it was pushed by subject (expanded to family romance) and metaphor.  I probably was brought to Old’s work by Michael Ondaatje’s praise of her at the time, and the birth of my sons in 1984 and 1986.

Some of Olds’s critics trash the much maligned “confessional” narrative poem as outdated or uninteresting, and the style pretty flat, as it has remained generally the same from her first book to her latest. Her admirers put her in the league of the feminist poets who preceded her and recognize their own experience (however intensified and compressed) in her work, often absent and certainly under represented in contemporary poetry. She does not play a lot of games in her writing, though occasionally positioning the voice of the Poet for effectiveness and impact and comic relief.


Stag's leap book 2  imagePoems in The Stag’s Leap (Random House, 2012) follow the dissolution of romance, marriage  and sex from the bedroom to the cliff  where  she associates her departing husband casting himself  over the edge,  with the  stag on the wine label, to be free of her.   “I let him go,/I  lay and stretched on love’s / fucking stretcher”  she is in a later poem And that’s another reason I like Olds’ writing. She writes fuck or fucking and it is, as in the line above, suited perfectly to the poem.

As I’ve previously alluded, one of my standards in my evaluation of most artforms including writing was learned from the insistence of my music teacher and well known Manitoba choral conductor and professor Henry Engbrecht that in performance, opening  a chorale (for instance)well and finishing even more strongly were critical to its reception by an audience.

While there is much to like about this book, it a does not start or end well, and I’m not talking about the divorce. While reading back and forth through the collection which is divided into seasons closing with “Years later” which is the weakest section of the collection, analysis, as is often the case, less interesting than the actual suffering. If the collection had stopped with “Bruise Ghazal” (p.67) the closing lines would be

…Sleep now Sharon,
sleep. Even as we speak, the work is being
done, within. You were born to heal.
Sleep and dream -but not of his return.
Since it cannot harm him, wound him in your dream.”

with the line break “the work is being/ enough to redeem the rather banal “You were born to heal. “And the bruising of the husband is in her dream, rather than the actual one on her hip which opens the poem, a bit of honest angry residue despite her seeming wish not to harm him.  Closure is not complete.  The last poem however (p89) with the clever title “What Left” has a the feeling of a summary and closure concluding with

I did not deceive him. He did not deceive me,
I did not leave him, he did not leave me,
I freed him, he freed me.

Sounds like revisionism to me announcing recovery from the state of “Known to be left” (pp 18,19)  where we read

……I am so ashamed
before my friends- to be known to be left
by the one who supposedly knew me best,
each hour is a room of shame,

My mother on her deathbed  insisted hers had been a good life,  revisioning at least her first 40 years, and I so reported in Lucky Man.

“While He Told Me” which opens the collection  closes with two tulips in a vase stretching away from each other, a fairly unimaginative and obvious metaphor, almost saved by the description of the vase “with a grotto carved out oif a hill/and a person in it, underground,/praying my imagined shepherd in make-believe paradise.”

My wife of five years has come home with tulips and put them in a tulip vase, no grotto, no shepherd, no make-believe. I’ve had a strong black coffee, hoping I might get to the end of this, before my bedtime meds kick in.

The strongest poems in the book do start early on, with “Material Ode,” showing some humour by going over the top and appealing directly to the reader, better though is “Gramercy” about the last time she slept with her departing husband -descriptions of sex, as I’ve said, always presented with power, here for example;

betweenb the unrollings, he put his palm
on my back, between the shoulder blades.
It was as if he were suing for peace,
asking if this could be over- maybe not
just this time, but over. He was solid
within me, suing for peace. And I
subsided, but then my bright tail
lolloped again, and I whispered, Just one

The tension, and the play in  the langauge, not just in the situation. This one poem, I think is good enough to add The  Stag’s Leap to your library, and for me to recommend reading it. If you’re new to Olds and just discovering her because of the prizes and publicity do get some of her other books, The Gold Cell is especially  recomended. Wait, I’m not finished yet.

The virtues noted above, tension and play, lets say also precision and compression make this poetry, and good poetry.  There are too many others in the book where the language is slack and prosaic. I think again about  the choice of genre – questions I’ve put to Rhoda Janzen and Carrie Ann Snyder without satisfactory answers. This book could as easily have been memoir and stood comfortably next to Joyce Carol Oates’ book on becoiming a widow, and possibly soldmorecopies,  It could have been fiction,  better to protect the innocent, though her children are noticeably absent from this collection . Where best to lay the I to rest.

Of course, there are more than two good poems in this collection, Olds has been writing good poetry for a long time and when she hits it, it is very good.

The other strong poems follow  “Gramercy,” page 9 to 18,  including “The Last Hour” where she speaks of the bonds falling away from his heart “…around us/sea water, rust, shards,/the eternal curls of eros/beaten out straight.”

I’ve already quoted the fucking stretcher line from “Love” (p.31)actually more amazed at the courage of titling the poem, but finally I want to bring this to “The Healers” (P33) where she refers to doctors being paged in theatres or airplanes and her husband standing up – and now also his new partner,  dismissive but confessing …Oh well. It was the way/it was, he did  not feel happy when words/were called for and I stood.”  Poetry, ethics, and privacy…what place these days in this “reality” obsessed, constantly narrated and surveilled world!


The title poem is better than the image on the cover which is taken from a wine label. It’s mildly interesting this was a favourite wine of Sharon and Dr. Olds (?), and a wonderful opportunity for product placement, me thinking about Ballentines and my mouldering  “Conversation with George” poems. More interesting, though, with the help of Dr. Google I was able to find the winery, and to my pleasure found that they actually host artists in residence. Check it out.

































[1]Trace – Blake “see the universe in a grain of sand”

[2] Patrick Friesen gave me a hardcover edition of Poets in their Youth by Eileen Simpson


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