The Ex-Bride And Groom Stripped Bare!
By Sharon Olds.
………In 1978 I bought Bryan Ferry’s album “The Bride Stripped Bare” . At the time there was much talk of its references to his ex-girlfriend Jerry Hall, who’d left him for Mick Jagger the year before. Here would be a great songwriter laying out his heart for me and others, to see and feel his pain. I thought that after all the hype it would be heartbreaking, raw, emotional.
Actually it was a bit of a damp squib to say the least. The lyrics were pretty banal and some of the songs were not that great either! And with several of the songs having been written by others, it was hardly the ‘stripping bare’ of Bryan and Jerry that the album title, and all the publicity at the time, implied!!!!
Fast forward 35 years to Sharon Olds poetry collection………….
In 2012 I read a list of ‘Guardian Books Of The Year’. It included a recommendation for the American poet Sharon Olds’ latest anthology ‘Stag’s Leap’ – it mentioned, almost in passing, that she had laid bare the break up of her marriage. I noted it as a ‘possible to buy’ on my iPhone. I bought it and read it, several times in January and February this year. That title, ‘Stag’s Leap’ did the opposite of Ferry’s – it gave no hint of what was inside and set up no false expectations – but inside this is the the break-up of Sharon Olds marriage stripped bare, and it’s a stunning, compelling anthology.
‘I think that there are fiction writers for whom that works well. I could never do it. I feel as if, by the time I see that it’s a poem, it’s almost written in my head somewhere’
Sharon Olds on writing.
The end of a marriage is I guess an all too ordinary occurrence in many respects – but there’s nothing ordinary for those at the centre of events and this is an extraordinary telling of that all too ordinary occurrence. Olds’ husband left her for a colleague at work after years together, and the book takes you on a journey with her through her discovery, feelings, memories and reactions. They were written at the time of her marriage break up across the first 18 months or so – however she’d promised her children she’d wait for at least ten years before they would ever see the light of day. She thought her kids had enough to contend with.In the end she waited fifteen years before publishing them – but they are no less powerful, no less poignant and no less dramatic for the passage of time.
What struck me time and again in this collection is the intimacy of the work – you really do live every word that she dredges up from her being. Everything is so brilliantly crafted that I’m certain it must have taken every ounce of her creativity and talent at a time when she perhaps might not have had the energy to spare – yet it reads as if it has been effortlessly put together. From the first poem in the collection though, ‘While He Told Me’, she takes a remarkable approach to the work – there’s nothing sentimental about any of the poems and yet they are warm, even when the feelings they describe are so cold.
While he told me, I looked from small thing
to small thing, in our room, the face
of the bedside clock, the sepia postcard
of a woman bending down to a lily.
Review of Stag’s Leap in The Guardian from October 2012
Sharon Olds reading some of the poems from Stag’s Leap in a short video
Interview with Sharon Olds about the poetry in Stag’s Leap from BBC Radio 4 Front Row programme
She has a generosity to her ex-husband that’s kept up throughout – with only the odd falter she even extends that generosity of spirit to his new lover – and when she does let her guard drop a little on that you’re more than ready to forgive her. There’s not a raging anger here – it’s more of a search for understanding and that illogical desire to hold on to hope or to memory. In ‘Last Look’ she describes the very moment of his departure for a new life with someone else
In the last minute of our marriage, I looked into his eyes.
All that day until then, I had been
comforting him, for the shock he was in
at his pain – the act of leaving me
took him back, to his own
early losses. But now it was time to go beyond
comfort, to part. And his eyes seemed to me,
still, like the first ocean, wherein
the blue-green algae came into their early
language, his sea-wide iris still
essential, for me, with the depths in which
our firstborn, and then our second, had turned,
on the sides of their tongues the taste buds for the moon-bland
nectar of our milk – our milk……………
That unassuming title, “Stag’s Leap” refers to the label of their favourite wine – but it perhaps does tell you everything you need to know about what you’ll find in the pages of this book. These are poems of exceptional courage for they describe that leap into the unknown of pain and reflection and coming to terms. They are told with grace and poise but they are never less than real – as you read of her standing at the abyss of the loss of her husband you just know, even though she never goes there, that she must have done so with her heart hammering in her chest and the blood pounding in her ears. It’s gut-wrenching to read some of these poems at times and it’s heartbreaking at others. But, the midst of the loss and heartbreak, these are the work of a poet who seems to me to be above all so gallant and so courageous! That is what makes these wonderfully crafted poems into something utterly extraordinary. You really should read this – even if you don’t normally read poetry, even if you read no other poetry this year – you really should read this!
Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds was published by Jonathan Cape back in 2012. I bought my copy on the strength of the Guardian recommendation – and I”m glad I did!
If you are interested in finding out a bit more about Sharol Olds, she does have her own website here. It hasn’t got a great deal on it and the blog hasn’t been updated since 2013, but it does have info on all her books and the links to other sites such as the Poetry Foundation are well worth following up.