I have just learnt – via Twitter – that Sharon Olds has won the T.S Eliot poetry prize for her collection ‘Stag’s Leap’. I did not realise it was being awarded this evening and I have to say, my heart leapt.
I think it’s the first book of poetry that I have ever read through from cover to cover – though if I remember rightly, it was over two sittings. It’s a sad book, telling the story of a divorce from the inside. And, of course, from one side. But it is not saddening. Rather the insights are enlightening and in places elating – not because of their pleasantness but because of their bright inventiveness and plain truthfulness.
It was the deep empathic engagement with the other that really caught me: she says how her heart leaps when anyone escapes. ‘Even when it is me who is escaped from, / I am half on the side of the leaver.’
It reminds me of a day in Durham a few years ago when a prisoner escaped from a van. Passers by, probably as tough on crime as any other random sample, shouted ‘go on, run!’ Bad ethics – but a truth about the living heart.
There is a poem about a miscarried child which is as raw, and as painfully replete with forgotten yet remembered pain and hope, as any other lines I have read.
The previous one in the collection about the agony of continuing to love and desire, even when it is too late, and the conscious mind is trying to learn indifference towards the one who did the leaving. It makes me think of the way frozen shoulders can be ripped apart in treatment. That happens under anaesthetic. There’s no analgesic for divorce.
Her ‘Poem for the Breasts’ is an extraordinary account, not of the need to be loved, but of the desire to love. ‘They seem, / to me, like a gift I have to give…. All year long they have been crying to my departed husband, / singing to him, like a pair of soaking / sirens on a scaled rock.’
It’s a beautifully humanizing and enriching collection, born of loss and sadness and a determination to transcend pain by embracing its awful complexity with candour and a twinkle of persistent hope.
It’s about love, of course. But its one book of love poems you really can’t give your lover.