What do you do when, after 30 years, your husband tells you he is leaving you for someone else? If you're poet Sharon Olds, you grab your spiral-bound notebook and write about it. And though the marriage ended in 1997, she has waited 15 years to tell us about it — half as long as her marriage lasted.
What do you do when the life you've believed in suddenly unravels? Divorce is surreal, and this book's portraits capture the upending feeling of lives growing separate. Tracing first the 12 months and then the year after the parting — Olds' poems depict things as intimate as sex during the last weeks before being left, the final moment of really looking into her former beloved's eyes, and the moment when, even as the World Trade Center towers come down in the city they now separately share, Olds finds herself wishing her former husband well.
Olds is known for being a poet of the personal. She has spent her 32-year career documenting family, sometimes in crushingly close detail. But here, loss is also slowed by the desire to chronicle it. In furious detail, the poems in Stag's Leap craft stations of grief and then move through them. At moments the grief itself is refined into a macabre, courtly dance:
"I show no anger but in flashes of humor,
all is courtesy and horror," Olds writes, early on.
This book is not perfect. I didn't love how the title poem, riffing on the name of a popular Napa Valley wine, captured the husband as a stag leaping away.
There were moments that made me squirm, like the poem where Olds compares the loss of her marriage to losses experienced by those in the trade center bombing. Yet for me, the way Olds pits the immediately surreal details of loss against the resounding finality of being left formed an indelible, undeniable shape.
What haunted me after I put this book down was the way it captures the strangeness of enduring loss over time — the way it makes a sort of prolonged sculpture out of the oddness of parting. How is it that two lives that felt joined can become so separate? Or that one person, once so deeply known, can become a stranger?
Olds tallies the scale of this human mystery in household objects, hips and shoulders, the forms of a common life. And at her best, the Olds who so fiercely details her specific suffering becomes someone we all recognize, an almost universal figure who is a supplicant before the gods of love.
In this, the book is both personal and impersonal — and moves beyond Olds to offer an alphabet of grieving, to gather a shape of losing, as well as perhaps offering us some clues about beginning anew.
Poet Tess Taylor was All Things Considered's NewsPoet in August. She teaches writing at University of California, Berkeley, and her first book, The Forage House, is due out next year.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. The double dose of speeches last night from President Obama and Vice President Biden at the Democratic Convention made for yet another busy night for fact-checkers. Yesterday, on the program, we asked Robert Farley of factcheck.org to run through claims made by former President Clinton. And today, we've brought him back to talk about the Obama and Biden speeches. Robert, thanks for being with us again.
ROBERT FARLEY: Oh, thanks for having me.
BLOCK: And Joe Biden went first last night and so will we. He said this about Mitt Romney.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: When he was asked about bin Laden in 2007, here's what he said. He said it's not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just to catch one person.
BLOCK: Now, Robert, Mitt Romney did say those precise words. It was in an AP interview when Osama bin Laden was still alive. You call, though, what Vice President Biden said baloney. Why is it baloney?
FARLEY: Well, because he said a few more words after that. He said that the focus shouldn't be on just one person, but there should be sort of a broader strategy to defeat the Islamic Jihad movement in general. So it wasn't that he didn't think it was worthwhile to pursue bin Laden, but not just bin Laden.
BLOCK: Here's another statement from Vice President Biden last night, and this one has to do with taxes.
BIDEN: Governor Romney believes it's okay to raise taxes on the middle class by $2,000 in order to pay for another - literally another trillion dollar tax cut for the very wealthy.
BLOCK: Robert, you've been looking into this. What did you find?
FARLEY: This is based on an analysis by the Tax Policy Center of some goals that Romney set out for tax cuts. He said he was going give a 20 percent across-the-board tax cut and that he was going to pay for it by eliminating or reducing tax deductions and credits. Meanwhile, he was going to make this all revenue neutral.
Well, the Tax Policy Center said that, look, he's overpromised here. He can't accomplish all those goals. And if he wants to keep it revenue neutral, it's going to end up in a $2,000 tax increase for some folks in the middle class. But Romney has said specifically that he does not intend to raise taxes on the middle class. This is really an assumption that he's going to compromise on that particular part of his plan.
BLOCK: Let's move on to President Obama's speech where he also made a claim about something that Mitt Romney said in the past.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My opponent said that it was tragic to end the war in Iraq, and he won't tell us how he'll end the war in Afghanistan.
BLOCK: Okay. So tragic to end the war in Iraq. How did you rate that statement?
FARLEY: Not quite. What Romney said was that he didn't like the pace of withdrawal. He thought it was too quick. He called it precipitous and felt like we were going to be giving up some of the hard-fought battles that we'd won and thought that we ought to leave a residual force in the country. So he thought the pace was too quick, the withdrawal, but he didn't think that it was tragic that we were ending the war in Iraq.
BLOCK: It's interesting because the timetable for withdrawing troops was actually set under the Bush administration. It was the question of how many trainers would be left in the country that ultimately fell apart.
FARLEY: That's right.
BLOCK: President Obama also made a case last night for his bailout of the auto industry. Let's take a listen to what he said.
OBAMA: I've met workers in Detroit and Toledo who feared they'd never build another American car. And today, they can't build them fast enough because we reinvented a dying auto industry that's back on the top of the world.
BLOCK: Back on top of the world? You say that's not quite right.
FARLEY: Not quite true anymore. It was true last year. GM took over the top spot in global sales, but in the first six months of this year, Toyota regained the top spot and Volkswagen is actually on target to bump GM down to third place by the end of this year.
BLOCK: One other thing that President Obama told his audience last night is that he is committed to deficit reduction. Here's what he said.
OBAMA: Independent experts say that my plan would cut our deficit by $4 trillion.
BLOCK: Okay, cutting the deficit by $4 trillion. Robert, you write that at least one independent expert calls that into question.
FARLEY: Yeah, Maya MacGuineas, she's the president of the Committee for Responsible Federal Budget, called it a gimmick to include $1 trillion in savings from the drawdown of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. She had an interesting analogy. She said when you finish college, you don't suddenly have thousands of dollars a year to spend elsewhere. You have to find a way to pay back your loans.
So essentially, he's including a trillion dollars from the drawdown of these troops, which was deficit spending to begin with.
BLOCK: Overall, as you looked at both speeches from Vice President Biden and President Obama, did you come to any broader conclusions about how truthful or untruthful they were?
FARLEY: I'll just say this: It's going to be an interesting few months from both sides. Both Republicans and Democrats, over the last couple of weeks, have managed to distort an awful lot of information so people are going to have to pay attention.
BLOCK: OK. Robert Farley, deputy managing editor with factcheck.org. Thanks again.
FARLEY: Well, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.