Stag's Leap

Olds, Sharon

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Annotated by:
Aull, Felice
  • Date of entry: Jun-25-2013
  • Last revised: Jun-21-2013


With the publication of Stag's Leap, it is very publicly (on the flyleaf) revealed that Olds is writing about the sudden, unexpected death of her 32 year marriage when her husband left to be with another woman. She waited 15 years after the event to publish this book, not wishing her children to have to face the immediate publicity.  Stag's Leap refers both to the favorite wine that she and her husband drank together, and to his leap out of the marriage.

The collection is divided into sections: the year of her husband's revelation and departure, beginning with "While He Told Me"; several years following, divided into seasons; and "Years Later." The poems detail her shock, grief, and eventual acceptance, covering a wide range of emotion, hindsight, and insight. Since the poems were written more or less in the moment, and extend over several years, the reader experiences Olds's evolving inner landscape along with her. The perspective is one of shock - with only the slightest hint of possible trouble ahead: while doing the laundry, she found a picture of the "other woman" in her husband's running shorts ("Tiny Siren," p. 56). But "he smiled at me, / and took my hand, and turned to me,/ and said, it seemed not by rote, / but as if it were a physical law / of the earth, I love you. And we made love, / and I felt so close to him - I had not / known he knew how to lie. . ."
Throughout much of the book there is this theme of blissful ignorance torn to shreds and a questioning of how the poet could be so deceived in her assumptions about the relationship - "when I thought he loved me, when I thought / we were joined not just for breath's time, / but for the long continuance" ("Unspeakable," p. 4). The realization of self deception and love lost is both annihilating and shameful: "if I pass a mirror, I turn away, / I do not want to look at her, / and she does not want to be seen  . . . I am so ashamed . . . to be known to be left" ("Known to Be Left," p. 18).

These poems are an intense self-examination and an attempt to understand what happened. "I was vain of his / faithfulness, as if it was / a compliment, rather than a state / of partial sleep" ("Stag's Leap," p. 16). "I think he had come, in private, to / feel he was dying, with me" ("Pain I Did Not," p. 26). "maybe what he had for me / was unconditional, temporary / affection and trust, without romance" and "what precision of action / it had taken, for the bodies to hurtle through / the sky for so long without harming each other." ("Crazy," p. 65 ). There is a recognition that their two worlds were vastly different - he a physician, she a poet - and that their personalities were vastly different - he taciturn, she verbal and open. Olds speculates that even her writing about family and marriage could have been a factor in the divorce: "And he did not give / his secrets to his patients, but I gave my secrets / to you, dear strangers, and his, too . . Uneven, uneven, our scales / of contentment went slowly askew" ("Left-Wife Bop," p. 83).

Still, Olds finds something redeeming: "I saw again, how blessed my life has been, / first, to have been able to love, / then, to have the parting now behind me  . . and not to have lost him when he loved me, and not to have / lost someone who could have loved me for life" ("Last Look," p. 14). "What Left?," the last poem in the collection, presents the marriage and its aftermath as a movement: "we did not hold still, we moved, we are moving / still - we made, with each other, a moving / like a kind of music: duet; then solo, / solo." (p. 89)


Sharon Olds has long written about intimate family life - abusive parents, dying father, conjugal intimacy. For years her readers speculated about whether her poems were autobiographical while she avoided straight answers to that question. Only recently has she admitted her work is autobiographical. At a reading at Columbia University's Narrative Medicine Rounds in 2011, she said "For so many years it was so important to me not to say whether my poetry was autobiographical or not - partly not to have the focus of any conversation there might be about it to be just on the biographical facts. I wouldn't say it was; I wouldn't say it wasn't. The truth is, it never crossed my mind that anyone would think that anyone would make up the stuff in my poems!" (Literature and Medicine, Vol. 29, No. 2, 2011, p. 229).

Sharon Olds seems to write best when she writes of personal trauma. Stag's Leap is the work of a mature, skilled poet who has dared to explore and reveal and make into art one of the most devastating experiences of adult life. Her tone is rarely angry and the emotions are controlled, but the lengthy, difficult path is vibrantly communicated. The book needs to be read in its entirety because it is a journey, although one could select individual poems for medical humanities teaching purposes.

In addition to the PBS video link above, two shorter links in which the poet discusses and reads from the book are worth looking at:


Stag's Leap won the T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize and the Pulitzer Prize.


Alfred A. Knopf

Place Published

New York



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