Sharon Olds's moving, insightful poems about the end of her marriage are her best yet
This out-of-the-ordinary collection, about the end of a marriage, goes beyond the confessional. Sharon Olds, who has always had a gift for describing intimacy, has, in a sense, had these poems thrown at her by life and allowed them to take root: they are stunning – the best of a formidable career. Deserted after decades of marriage, she describes a love for her husband that refuses to die to order. They are the most unusual love poems: fortified by years, by sexual passion of valedictory intensity and by vows she does not, at first, know how to unmake. They can be read as an ongoing narrative – a calendar of pain.
The first poem, While He Told Me, situates itself in the room where she hears her marriage is over. She sees: "the bedside clock, the sepia postcard/ of a woman bending down to a lily." No annunciation this – all renunciation. She goes on to describe her husband with possessive care: "the cindery lichen skin between the male breasts." But it is the tenses that do the agonising work:
… he got
up to go in and read on the couch
as he often did
and in a while I followed him
as I often had.
The "as I often had" delivers the pain of it: the present no longer habitable.
She is uncannily good at describing marriage as a physical entity – a body or a room: "I look up at him/ as if within some chamber of matedness,/ some dust I carry around with me." The atmosphere in the chamber is of "courtesy and horror". Her writer's curiosity exists alongside her pain – as does her sense of humour. In Telling My Mother she ministers to her mother's random needs ("I bought her a doughnut and a hairnet") and steels herself to explain. Her mother's tactless cry: "But when will I ever see him again?!" goes unremarked (the exclamation mark her only luxury). She presses on:
… So the men are gone,
and I'm back with Mom. I always
feared this would happen.
I thought it would be a pure horror,
but it's just home, Mom's house
and garden, earth, olive and willow
beech, orchid, and the paperweight
dusted with opal, inside it the arms of a
Nebula raking its heavens with a soft
Part of the excitement of Olds's poems is that one can never predict their accelerations. Here, the paperweight does not steady the poem, it presents an opportunity to let fly. Conversely, she can – wonderfully – slow into a truth: "I did not know him. I knew my idea of him."
One of the earliest poems, Unspeakable, ends: "Is this about/ her, and he says, No, it's about/ you, we do not speak of her." The other woman in the story remains scarcely alluded to – Tiny Siren a bitterly funny exception. A photograph turns up in a washing machine. "Doesn't it look like your colleague?" The truth fails to come out in the wash. Years later, Olds runs into her ex-husband with his new woman: "covered with her, like a child working with glue/ who's young to be working with glue." Funny and belittling, this is the closest she comes to cruel. Elsewhere, generosity dominates. Stag's Leap was their favourite wine, the logo a badly-drawn stag leaping off a cliff – she compares him to her husband and adds:
When anyone escapes, my heart
leaps up. Even when it's I who am
I am half on the side of the leaver.
It is this gallantry, in part, that makes these poems so moving. Her leaping past her own pain beats the stag's efforts any day.