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Poet Sharon Olds’ New Collection Mourns and Heals the End of a Marriage

October 11, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Sharon Olds shares work from her latest collection of poetry, "Stag's Leap," a book grieving and healing at the end of a marriage. Olds also talks about her partner's New Hampshire nature retreat where she spends her days, about finding her poetic voice in her 30s, and the "usefulness" of poetry.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: Sharon Olds is one of the country’s best-known and best-selling poets. She recently talked with us at her New Hampshire home about her newest book.

SHARON OLDS, Poet: This latest book, “Stag’s Leap,” is a story of loss and mourning and healing after the end of a 32-year marriage.

“The Healers”

“When they say, if there are any doctors aboard, would they make themselves known?  I remember when my then-husband would rise and I would get to be the one he rose from beside. They say now that it doesn’t work unless you are equal. And after those first 30 years, I wasn’t the one he wanted to rise from or return to, not I, but she who would also rise when such were needed.

“Now I see them lifting side by side on wide medical waiting bird wings like storks with the doctor bags of like, loves, like dangling from their beaks. Oh, well. It was the way it was. He didn’t feel happy when words were called for and I stood.”

We are at Graylag, which is a nature retreat belonging to my partner Carl Wallman. People come here for weekends in the cabins.

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Carl and I met six years ago. I would get up, and Carl makes coffee and I bring up a cup into my table, and I look.

My first book was published when I was 37. So it took me a long time to — for the poems that I was writing to feel like me, rather than feel too much like the people I admired and was learning from, not in school, but while reading their books.

We also want to make something that will be pleasing to someone else, that will have some kind of beauty, each one with a different kind of beauty, and not too beautiful, not pretty, but strong and companionly, something that — this is my favorite word for what I would want my poems to be: useful. Useful.

Well, also, if you’re late at night and you’re lonesome and there’s no one around, you can pick up a book of poems, and then poetry being the place where it’s like one person talking to one person.

“Bathing the Newborn”

“I love with an almost fearful love to remember the first baths I gave him, our second child, so I knew what to do. I laid the little torso along my left forearm, nape of the neck in the crook of my elbow, hips nearly as small as a least tern’s tail against my wrist, thigh held loosely in the loop of thumb and forefinger, the sign that means exactly right. 

“I love that time when you croon and croon to them. You can see the calm slowly entering them. You can sense it in your clasping hand, the little spine relaxing against the muscle of your forearm. You feel the fear leaving their bodies. He lay in the blue oval plastic baby tub and looked at me in wonder and began to move his silky limbs at will in the water.”