Why Reading Sharon Olds Makes You a Better Person

By | 1 August 2018

Shifting deixis in Stag’s Leap

In the second poem, ‘Unspeakable’, we experience a deictic, temporal shift, such that ‘now’ comes to mark a presence in the past:

Now I come to look at love
in a new way, now that I know I’m not
standing in its light. I want to ask my
almost-no-longer husband what it’s like to not
love, but he does not want to talk about it,

Note that the speaker does not look at things differently now that she ‘is not / standing in its light’, but rather because she knows that she is not standing in its light. This is something of an Aristotelian view of love, wherein the legitimacy of love is contingent on the truth conditions on which that love is based.2 On such a view the legitimacy of emotions can shift – one can realise retrospectively that, despite feeling in love, one was actually not (because one of the conditions, such as fidelity, on which that love is based, did not hold). Similarly, the speaker here does not move from ‘standing in (love’s) light’ to not (standing in love’s light), but rather from not knowing she was not standing in its light to knowing she was not standing in its light – the shift is epistemic rather than ontic.

Slight differences in phrasing such as this have a profound impact on how we come to see the narrator in the poems, not only as suffering a destabilised present, but a destabilised past and future. Mary Lane sees these temporal gaps as pivotal to the text’s creation of a lyric self. She diagnoses

a linguistic tension that arises in the gap between I speaking in the present and the I remembered in the past. In its refusal to transcend that gap, Olds’s lyric stance can then be seen not as resting on an essential self that unifies the poem but as a literary technique to explore the nature of that discursive I.3

This is furthered by the ever-shifting deixis in terms like ‘now’, ‘almost-no-longer’ and ‘the end.’ Each term is unstable, lacking a fixed start and end point, pulling toward the past (in the narrative, since we recognise the ‘now’, the ‘soon’ and even ‘the end’ as being past from the present narrative ‘I’ that exists over and above the ‘I’ of the current poem), while referentially pulling toward an uncertain future. This temporal slipperiness underpins feelings (in the narrator and the reader) of uneasiness, which culminates in the exchange referenced in the final five lines of the second poem:

I show no anger but in flashes of humor,
all is courtesy and horror. 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.4 

There is a candidness in the admission that the narrator, unlike her husband, displays anger ‘in flashes of humour.’ She displays anger, tempered with a facetiousness that is consistent with the double-edged nature of other emotions displayed thus far. Note the distinctly polarised terms, for example, in the next line’s ‘all is courtesy and horror’: courtesy marks the domestic, the polite, and emotional control, while horror marks the other-worldly, the uncontrollable, the extremes of emotion. As we have seen, such doublings of emotionality result in an emotional liminality, where there is a residual striving-for the requisite tone, rhythm or sub-dominant emotion that would match emotion presented in the text. The most obvious result of such liminality is, at the risk of seeming tautological,5 a state of uncertainty in the reader. At this stage of the text the separation is only beginning, and the speaker is expressing a range of (often conflicting) emotions, most markedly fear, shock and apprehension. Accordingly, it is fitting here that we experience an unsettling balance of emotionality that is disorienting, aligning with the narrator’s emotional state.

The reader’s emotional response in ‘Unspeakable’, then, is some mix of confusion and sadness, which quickly shifts to surprise and perhaps shock in the final lines:

her, and he says, No, it’s about
you, we do not speak of her.6

The crushing silencing of the husband’s refusal to speak of ‘her’, enacted in the poem’s abrupt ending, pulls the reader (with the speaker) from a state of confused ignorance into understanding of at least one reason why the separation is occurring. And yet it is a closure without closure, all we receive is the existence of ‘her’, nothing further. The information, similar to the opening lines of ‘While He Told Me,’ inspires two conflicting intellectual and emotional states: on the one hand we learn something, which inspires sympathy and empathy from the reader. On the other hand, so much is withheld, which inspires some frustration and unease (the very next lines in the collection have shifted topic, time and tone).

The reader’s emotional responses are thus conflicted: surprise, sadness and empathy, underpinned by frustration in the lack of narrative closure. What we experience is dialectical meta-emotion that is vastly incongruent with our usual emotional experience. In our daily lives, the experience of sympathy and empathy for someone is rarely accompanied by feelings of frustration and unease. This explains why the shift toward the end of the second to third poem is such a compelling moment in the work, not only because we have learnt something new, but we are feeling something new (or at least rare). It is also the first instance at which Olds creates conflicting, dialectical meta-emotions; emotions that, as I will argue, have the ability to increase a propensity for empathy in the reader. A brief digression into some terminology from evolutionary psychology will help frame the arguments to come.

  1. Olds, Stag’s Leap., 14.
  2. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics / Aristotle; with an English translation by H. Rackham., see Book IX.
  3. Lane, “And I Will Tell About It”: The Dialectical Poetry of Sharon Olds., 14.
  4. Olds, Stag’s Leap, 15.
  5. ‘Seeming’ because this is in fact not tautological – we have moved from emotionality (text) to (reader) affect.
  6. Olds, Stag’s Leap., 15.
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