Cape Poetry, French Bra, Jonathan Cape, Left-Wife Bop, Not Quite Enough, poem, Poem for the Breasts, poems, poet, Poetry, review, Shakespeare, Sharon Olds, Stag's Leap, TS Eliot Award, Venus and Adonis, verse, What Left?, While He Told Me, Years Later
In his Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare’s goddess attempts to seduce the youth saying, ”since I have hemm’d thee here / ‘Within the circuit of this ivory pale, / ‘I’ll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer; / ‘Feed where thou wilt, on a mountain or in dale: / ‘Graze on my lips; and if these hills be dry / ‘Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie’. Shakespeare presents Venus wearing the trousers: the walls of her park physically circumscribe Adonis, while her language of power would have him play the submissive role in a fantasy of female dominance and pleasure. Hunting deer was an aristocratic pursuit back in the day and, in playing the stag, Adonis is asked to become a kept man: kept by someone whose power is the word.
In Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds considers poetry’s role, the word’s role, in the end of her marriage. In Not Quiet Enough, when speculating about the divisive effect of the sounds of her passion, she then wonders whether ‘maybe / it was not my chirps, not the sounding / flesh of those sheets, floor, chairs, back / porches, a hayloft, woods, but this telling / of them – did his spirit turn against the spirit which / tolled our private, wild bell / from the public rooftop, I who had no other gift to give the world but to hold what I / thought was love’s mirror up to us – / ah now, no puff of mist on it’. Here it’s possible to catch a strain of Yeats’ Man and the Echo which solemnises the tolling, private, wild bell as the death knell of a calculated and idealistically motivated sacrifice. After all, in Left-Wife Bop, Olds recognizes that ‘he did not give / his secrets to his patients, but I gave my secrets / to you, dear strangers’. Our discovery of our inclusion in the poem is unsettling. At least the doctor knows his patients, whereas the female writer is, once again, cast as prostitute: able to sell herself to stranger upon stranger, night after night. This is a charge which has been levelled against the woman writer since the beginning and, with discomfort, we acknowledge our complicity, our awkward presence in this failed marriage. Finally, in Years Later, we meet Keats’ immortal Bird, as ‘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.’
As the document of a failed marriage, Olds’ poems are superb but they also shine on their own terms and, in documenting the body, her language demands that we confront our physicality and mortality anew. Stag’s Leap presents an animal very different to Venus’s park bound deer: ‘Then the drawing on the label of our favourite red wine / looks like my husband, casting himself off a / cliff in his fervour to get free of me’. The irrepressible survival instinct of the husband is feral, unknowable to the human other. ‘His fur is rough and cosy, his face / placid, tranced, ruminant’ and here Olds presents this alien face as inscrutable, as we later learn in Not Quiet Enough that ‘He lived / so enclosed in himself, he seemed alive not exactly like others, but hibernating’. The ‘rough and cosy’ fur chimes with the chest described in While He Told Me, where, while Olds hears the bad news, she sees ‘his deep navel, and the cindery lichen / skin between male breasts’. This is a beautiful, arresting image of age but one which also characterises the husband as made of stone: the only part of him which lives is the surface, and this hides the man beneath. Poem for the Breasts feels like the partner piece to Stag’s Leap and the opening conceit is instantly memorable: ‘Like other identical twins, they can be / better told apart in adulthood. / One is fast to wrinkle her brow, her brain, her quick intelligence. The other / dreams inside a constellation, / freckles of Orion’. Olds sustains this quality of writing in poem after poem and, even the bra is transformed, ‘fitted with struts and ailerons, / fragile as a silk biplane’. Developing this romantic wartime image into one of transgression and polari, Olds muses that ‘It’s as if / I’d been in a club, with him, with secret / handshakes, and secret looks, and touches, / and charmeuse was in the club with us, and / ribbon, they were our wing’d attendants – / and satin, and dotted swiss, they were our / language, our food and furniture’. Yet this exotic excitement is exchanged for the dregs of a pair of cups, as Olds views ‘the empty costumes / of luxury, the lingerie ghosts of my sojourn’.
Stag’s Leap charts an uplifting journey and the final poem, What Left? is structured around independent, yet paired, clauses: ‘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’. These signal an acceptance of a once shared, now separate life and provide a fitting conclusion to what is an uplifting collection of poetry. As I write this post, Olds’s TS Eliot Award victory has gone unreported by British mainstream television news: shame. This is a collection which will speak directly to thousands of general readers and deserves the widest possible readership.