Why Reading Sharon Olds Makes You a Better Person

1 August 2018

Below is a brief table of some of the points throughout Stag’s Leap at which dialectical meta-emotion occurs (though this list is far from exhaustive). I present this as evidence, and then explore three of these points in order to elucidate exactly how this occurs (space precludes my exploring all instances). Throughout, we are looking for exactly how emotion, emotionality and meta-emotion are functioning, with an emphasis on points at which appraisal and valence run in an inverted way (for the reader) as outlined above.

Table 1.0: Instances of dialectical meta-emotion in Stag’s Leap.

Poem title Lines Appraisal Valence
Telling My Mother I thought it would be a pure horror,
but it’s just home, Mom’s house
and garden, earth, olive and willow,
beech, orchid, and the paperweight
dusted with opal, inside it the arms of a
nebula raking its heavens with a soft screaming.
Negative Positive
Stag’s Leap dreamy. 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. It’s so quiet,
and empty, when he’s left. I feel like a landscape,
a ground without a figure. Sauve (…)
Positive Negative
Known to Be Left I guess that’s how people go on, without
knowing how. I am so ashamed
before my friends—to be known to be left
by the one who supposedly knew me best.
Positive Negative
Love I let him go, I lay and stretched on love’s
fucking stretcher, and let him wander on his
own the haunt salt mazes. I thought
Positive Negative
Bruise Ghazal sleep. Even as we speak, the work is being
done, within. You were born to heal.
Sleep and dream—but not of his return.
Since it cannot harm him, wound him, in your dream.
Negative Positive
Left-Wife Bop time. Please, not with her,
, and he said, All right, and I don’t know
why, when I figured it out, later,
that he’d gone to dig up our bar of gold,
I didn’t mind. (…)
Negative Positive
What Left? we perfected what lay between him and me,
I did not deceive him, he did not deceive me, as if
I did not leave him, he did not leave me,
I freed him, he freed me.
Negative Positive

Dialectical meta-emotion in ‘Telling My Mother’

‘Telling My Mother’ details the difficult moment at which the narrator informs her mother of the impending divorce, much to her ‘shock and dismay’. Yet, for such a melancholic moment in the narrative, here the speaker contrasts (and at points intertwines) the sadness and seriousness of the immediate situation with the beauty and intricacy of the surrounding environment:

a doughnut and a hairnet, I fed her. On the gnarled
magnolia, in the fog, the blossoms and buds were like
all the moons in one night–full,
gibbous, crescent. I’d practiced the speech,
bringing her up toward the truth slowly,1

There is a parallelism here between the intradiegetic and extradiegetic narrative; between the narrator in the past as character and the narrator in the present.2 Just as the past speaker (as character) is ‘bringing (her mother) toward the truth slowly’, so the current narrator brings the reader slowly, gently toward the critical moment, via examinations of the physical environment. One imagines her gaze drifting as she musters the strength to inform her mother of the news. The reader experience is a real-time anticipation of the instant of revelation, complete with the apprehension presumably shared by her mother.

The lead-up is, in terms of appraisal, an objectively grim situation; we appraise the situation as negative. Yet the moment is foregrounded by positive imagery: ‘a cypress … bending luxuriously’, ‘a gnarled magnolia’ and ‘buds and blossoms’ imagined as phases of the moon. The choices here are at once real and surreal, suggesting both familiarity and stability (note the definite articles in ‘the gnarled / magnolia’) and transience and decay (in ‘gnarled’ and the lunar phases). The imagery creates the sense of a decisively unpleasant conversation taking place in a pleasant location, diverting the reader’s experience (as valence, and with the speaker) to be largely positive, distracted from the seriousness of the task at hand by the beauty of the surrounding environment.

Later in the poem we read ‘I did not work to lose him, and I lost him / and I’ve told my mother,’ followed shortly after by

I thought it would be a pure horror,

but it’s just home, Mom’s house

and garden, earth, olive and willow,

beech, orchid, and the paperweight

dusted with opal, inside it the arms of a 

nebula raking its heavens with a soft screaming.3

Here, after the telling has passed, there is a calming, familiar domesticity to the scene. A prevalence of spondees (‘just home’; ‘Mom’s house’) and near-weighted trochees (‘garden’; ‘olive’; ‘willow’; ‘orchid’) slow the metrical patterning from a prior drumming of anapaests (‘and I lost …’; ‘and I’ve told …’), as the poem’s emotional tone turns from apprehension to resignation. And although there is here, as earlier in the poem, a focus on aesthetic beauty, it is fitting that the final image in the poem is one of a (paper)weight, a literal and metaphorical symbol of oppression, as well as enclosure, suppression and guilt. It is as if the poem builds by collecting, line by line, a physical universe of natural beauty – blossoms, moons, garden, earth, olive, beech and so forth – that is gradually interiorised in the ‘nebula raking its heavens’ inside the small paperweight. In the final two words of the poem all beauty becomes a symbol of repressed pain (‘a pure horror’), as the universe attempts ‘a soft screaming.’ The silencing density of the glass means the screaming can only be ‘soft’, and the debilitating synaesthesia (a flawed logical move from tactile to (in)audible) silences it even further. Objects and scenes thus become the means for cognitively displacing the narrator’s emotional state, externalising the internal (emotional) world by reducing the irreducible (physical) environment.

The strength of the final line (particularly the final two words) relies on a sudden conceptual, imagistic reversal – all symbolism in the poem moves from expanse to enclosure, from nature to artifice. Throughout the poem we experience pleasurable imagery, putting our emotional experience at odds with our appraisal – we experience pleasurable affect despite knowing / judging that this is an objectively unpleasant time in the narrative arc. And when this flips in the final line, when all symbolism becomes ‘trapped’, the result is a devastating revelation of solitude and silence, just when Olds (as intradiegetic character) experiences the same. The emotional impact of the poem, its (possible) meaning, relies entirely on this dialectic between feeling and knowing; meta-emotion here means positive valence despite negative appraisal – feeling pleasure while knowing pain. This process occurs in reverse elsewhere in the collection, most notably in the title poem of the collection, to which we now turn.

  1. Olds, Stag’s Leap., 22.
  2. I borrow these terms from Rimmon-Kenan and her building on the work of Genette. See Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics / Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan., 95.
  3. Olds, Stag’s Leap., 23.
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