POETRY MONDAY: November 4, 2013
Sharon Olds Mary Jo Salter
Two recent poetry collections – one in 2012 and one just released – deal with a topic that should be of particular interest to our readers, both professionally, because so many of you are psychoanalysts and psychotherapists, but also personally, because so many have experienced it. The topic is divorce, which in past years, reflecting prevailing cultural attitudes, was not often discussed publicly. Divorce was viewed as failure, rather than success in fixing what was broken, and divorced people, especially divorced women, as flawed.
As the co-author of a book for children of divorce, who did my doctoral research on attitudes toward single-parent families and lived through both my parents’ and my own divorce, I am intimately familiar with this topic. I am also, in case anyone is wondering, happily re-married and have been for thirty-five years.
Now we have two major American poets venturing into this painful emotional
territory and dealing with it in markedly different ways. The first, Sharon Olds
in Stag’s Leap (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), gives us a self that is splayed open and vulnerable, revealing humiliating details of a split she didn’t ask for but may have brought on; the other, Mary Jo Salter in Nothing by Design, (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), converts private pain into elegant, formal patterns.
I used to think Sharon Olds’ poems about her children were her strongest work, but Stag’s Leap surpasses them all. Curious about why she would choose a wine-maker’s logo for her cover, I turned first to the title poem. where she tells us:
… the drawing on the label of our favorite red wine
looks like my husband, casting himself off a
cliff in his fervor to get free of me.
Then back I went to the beginning and through the rest of the carefully
chronologically-arranged poems that manage to balance self-pity with self-
knowledge and – amazingly – with sympathy for the husband:
When anyone escapes, my heart
leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from
I am half on the side of the leaver.
There is no impersonal “speaker” in a Sharon Olds poem; we know that the “I” of the poem is Olds herself. “I was vain of his faithfulness,” she tells us, “as if it was a compliment, rather than a state/ of partial sleep.” In another poem, “Unspeakable,” there is this lacerating bit:
… and after the first minute, when I say, Is this about
her, and he says, No, it’s about
you, we do not speak of her.
Another, especially painful moment occurs in the poem “Years Later,” when she describes a brief reunion with the man she still loves. He says, which we infer is in response to her request:
… no, he does not
want to meet again, in a year – when we
part, it is with a dry bow
The dry bow is on a par with his cold but honest, “No, it’s about you.”
It should be no surprise that Sharon Olds, a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets who has won so many other honors for her work, in April 2013
was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Stag’s Leap.
Mary Jo Salter’s Nothing by Design is not a whole book about divorce. Instead, it is a sequence of poems called “Bed of Letters,” given its own section in a witty, eclectic and moving collection that lets metaphor tell the story in meter and rhyme. The title poem in “”Bed of Letters” perfectly concludes the sequence. She answers the inevitable question about why one would go public about something so personal – especially when her former husband, Brad Leithauser, is also a well-known poet, with an epigraph from William Blake:
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
Before we open to the poems in this section we are somewhat prepared by an ironic take on W.B.Yeats’ “No Second Troy,” which Salter calls “No Second Try.”
The speaker is a woman, talking of a mate’s infidelities. Salter doesn’t say this is personal, but it ends the previous section.
“A String of Pearls,” which opens the divorce sequence, begins this way:
The pearls my mother gave me as a bride
Well, not the pearls, but the string.
and ends with:
… Who was I? Had I unfairly classed
myself as a has-been? In the cloister
of the ovary, when
released by an extra dose of estrogen,
my chances for love dwindled, one by one.
But am I done?
In “The Gazebo” she goes back a last time to the house she and her husband
had shared and reminds herself of how:
Mosquitoes got in through these screens.
And wasps would hover …
like harmless mischief …
and remembers laughter and fun:
Paper-plate family meals, tete-a-tetes
and silent reading alone, and sunsets
one shouldn’t see alone. And a husband
who’d walk up and knock, a little joke …
He’s wrapped in a towel; he’s been in the pool,
he’s dripping on the floor, we chat,
we’re the luckiest couple you’ve ever met.
But it’s December. And the dripping now
is the sound of melting icicles
sharpening into knives.
“Bed of Letters,” is not only a perfect poem but perfectly concludes the sequence. Throughout, Salter plays with words like “note/folded into sheets,” “cross word” “fonts” “anagrams,” reminding us, from the allusive title on, that this was a marriage between lettered people who shared lecterns as well as a bed, who:
…woke and, shy and proud,
read our new poems aloud.
Their daughter, Hailey Leithauser, is also a poet.
Although still in her fifties, Mary Jo Salter has already had a long and distinguished career as a poet, editor, essayist, playwright, and lyricist.
Having taught for many years at Mount Holyoke College, where her former husband still teaches, she is now a Baltimore resident and a professor in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and educated at Harvard and Cambridge, she is the author of seven poetry collections and a well-known children’s book, The Moon Comes Home. She has been poetry editor of The New Republic, an editor at The Atlantic Monthly, and co-editor of the fourth and fifth editions of the Norton Anthology of Poetry.
Now, in the hope that you will have a really happy Thanksgiving, here’s a book recommendation for those of you not too academic to enjoy the work of a poet who is wildly popular with mainstream (what we used to call “middlebrow”) readers and who would like to read about a close relationship that doesn’t go sour, I urge you to try Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs. If you do, look for “A Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night.”