Shocking situations can cause one to find uncommon meanings in common items. Throughout Stag’s Leap, a collection of poems written by Sharon Olds following her divorce from her husband, the reader finds just such uncommon meanings. For instance, in “While He Told Me,” a poem in one long verse paragraph and divided into three sections, the speaker laments that her marriage was not meant to last and tries to find a single image to describe her emotionally fraught situation.
In the first section (lines 1 – 10), the speaker cannot look directly at her husband after he tells her that he wants to get a divorce. It is significant that the husband “told” the speaker he wanted a divorce; he did not ask her, so she did not have any say in this decision. Looking “from small thing / to small thing,” she avoids looking directly at him (ll. 1-2). Instead of looking at her husband, the speaker looks at the common objects of their life together, a life that he is abandoning. In this opening section, the speaker tries to find an object or image on which to focus her attention. She looks from object to object, suggesting that she feels lost, that she has nothing to hold onto. At least in part, she is unable to focus fully on her husband because her eyes jump around the room while he speaks to her. Nonetheless, in the second line of the poem, her use of the first-person possessive pronoun in “our room” implies that, at this moment, she does not yet see the divorce as final. In this moment of shock, the speaker is disoriented, uncertain of where to look, where to turn.
Since the speaker cannot look at her husband’s face, she instead looks at “the face/ of the bedside clock” (2-3). Her personification of the clock by saying it has a “face,” while using a commonplace dead metaphor, emphasizes the point that she is unable to look at the face of her husband and must find another face to look at. Clocks, of course, represent the passage of time, thus indicating that the speaker is remembering the time she and her husband have spent together and, perhaps, considering the future. She may, more specifically, be remembering when they were more intimate with each other, as the speaker mentions that the clock is by their “bedside.” Another item she subsequently looks at is a “sepia postcard” (3). “Sepia” suggests the old, the fading of color and vitality, and references the earlier, and happier, times in their marriage. Moreover, postcards are generally from places that people have visited on vacation, and they have a nostalgic quality to them. Via this image of the postcard, tinged with nostalgia, the speaker reminisces about their past, the relationship they shared before her husband wanted to divorce her.
The postcard toward which the speaker turns shows “a woman bending down to a lily,” a metaphor for the speaker’s marriage (l.4). The “woman” in this image represents the speaker, and the “lily” represents her husband. The woman on the postcard “bending down to [the] lily” suggests the woman is in some way submissive to it, as the speaker is in some ways submissive to her husband. Of course, lilies traditionally signify purity, so, by equating her husband with a lily, the poem suggests that the speaker saw him as an image of purity at the start of their marriage. By contrast, she later describes his skin as looking like “lichen,” a fungus, symbolizing how their marriage is no longer pure, but decayed, as suggested by the connotations of fungi (l. 6) The transition from the image of the lily to the image of the lichen suggests with dynamic imagery the speaker’s shifting emotional perspective.
Nonetheless, in her disorientation and uncertainty, even later that day the speaker attempts to “flirt” with her husband through “the shower curtain’s terrible membrane” (ll. 8-9). The “membrane” created by the shower curtain has a cold and scientific connotation, suggesting a kind of emotional detachment has grown between them; moreover, the “membrane” of the shower curtain prohibits the speaker from seeing her husband clearly. A membrane is a boundary within an organism; in this case, the curtain serves as a boundary between her and her husband. When she attempts to “flirt” with him, she is still trying to gain his favor, even though he wants to divorce her, exhibiting the speaker’s poignant longing for unity with her husband.
In section two (lines 10 – 17), the speaker describes her internal reaction to her husband demanding a divorce, and now she tries to find an image from their past together to help her understand her predicament. In line 11, she notes that, before they went to sleep, he “touched” her face. A touch is, of course, temporary and has a light weight to it. His fingers do not linger on her; rather, he quickly removes them, as if he does not want to leave them on her longer than he has to. The touch is also cut short by his “turning away” immediately afterwards (l. 11). Significantly, when she “turn[s] out the light,” she turns inward into her solitary thoughts because she cannot see in the dark and, therefore, cannot look for objects to help explain her situation (l. 10).
In lines 11 and 12, the speaker repeats “then” three times, emphasizing the succession of events leading to the end of their marriage. When the speaker is reflecting on her marriage, she says she is “accompanied by a death-spirit” (l. 13). She is no longer accompanied by her husband through life, but instead by an imaginary being that can kill. Her memories with him now lack nostalgic warmth because she mentions that “everything was chilled with” the presence of the “death-spirit” (ll. 13-14). However, her tone shifts to being conflicted when she mentions how she “lay in dreading / bliss to feel and hear him sigh / and snore” (15-17). “Dreading / bliss” is an oxymoron which symbolizes her conflicted feelings towards their marriage. The speaker “dread[s]” hearing the sound of his breathing because it reminds her of him and their failed marriage, yet she is “bliss[ful]” because she still loves him. Through this common image of a wife lying beside her sleeping husband, Olds subtly presents an emotional state rife with confusion and distance.
In the final section (lines 17 – 28), the speaker comes to an epiphany, realizing the failure of her marriage and finally deciding upon an image to depict her predicament. With a sense of hopefulness, “near sunrise” the speaker looks again to find an image that adequately describes her emotional turmoil (l. 17). Looking outside, she realizes that it is “overcast”: the sun is hidden, implying that there are things still unclear to her (l. 17). She is not yet able to see clearly. Indeed, when the speaker follows her husband into the living room in line 20, her following behind him recalls her trying to flirt with him earlier in the poem, as her following is a demonstration of a kind of submissiveness. Moreover, the anaphora of “as” in lines 19 and 21, and of “and” in lines 20 and 22, demonstrate the submissive character of the speaker: whatever her husband does, she follows exactly. Furthermore, the speaker demonstrates her dependence on her husband when she lies down and “snooze[s] on him” (22). Still, though her husband “laid / an arm across [her] back,” he does so more out of habit than out of any genuine love for her (ll. 22-23).
Nonetheless, it is in this position of lying upon her husband that the speaker is able to find the image that clarifies her emotional situation: the “two tulips” in the vase (24-26). The consonance of the “t” sounds with “two tulips” is short and separate, recalling how their marriage was cut short, and how they will be separated with the divorce. Having moved from the bedroom into the living room, the speaker is able to see the vase with the flowers because her perspective has changed. After she opens her eyes from “snooze[ing]” on her husband, she “saw two tulips stretched / away from each other extreme” (22; 24-25). The two tulips are a metaphor for the situation between the speaker and her husband: they are emotionally and, will soon be, physically separated from each other. Significantly, “tulips” traditionally symbolize prayer, but the tulips are “stretched / away from each other” (24-25) and do not go in the same direction, symbolically suggesting the divergent paths she and her husband wish to follow. When the speaker “opened/ [her] eyes” she literally opened her eyes, but she also figuratively opened her eyes, realizing that her marriage has failed and cannot be fixed.
Moreover, there is a “grotto carved out of a hill” on the vase the tulips are in (l. 26). “Grotto[s]” are, of course, artificially made caves, and they have a religious significance, as monks and saints would go there to pray. This religious significance connects with the image of the person “underground, / praying” (27-28). “The grotto” is deliberately carved out of the hill for protection of the speaker. However, the “grotto” is a “make-believe paradise” because, though it was supposed to protect the speaker, it ultimately does not (l. 28). The person “praying” refers to the speaker’s husband; he is also her “imagined shepherd” because, though he was supposed to be “praying” to save their marriage, he is not and instead is trying to end it, similar to how the “grotto” was supposed to be protective, but is not (ll. 26-28). Additionally, he is a “shepherd” since the speaker is dependent upon him and follows his lead, such as when she “followed him” into the living room earlier in the section. If he is described as a “shepherd,” she must be the sheep. Of course, the identification of the husband as a “shepherd” who leads the speaker astray, like the images associating the husband with the “lily” and then with “lichen,” both suggests traditional Christian symbols and undermines them.
What’s more, the passage of time throughout the poem emphasizes how the speaker’s mind constantly jumps around as she tries to process her husband’s request for a divorce. The poem starts with “while,” which is during the request for a divorce; then in section two, “while” becomes “before” when the speaker thinks about their past together; finally, in section three, “while” and “before” shift and become “near sunrise,” implying hope for the future.
Often, people may try to explain a sudden and traumatizing situation by using a common image that seems to encapsulate their emotions more clearly than they can directly articulate those emotions in the moment. This is what the speaker in “While He Told Me” does when her husband tells her he wants a divorce. In both “While He Told Me,” and more generally in Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds depicts different moments in the speaker’s divorce process: “While He Told Me” is written directly after her husband asked her for a divorce, whereas the title poem, “Stag’s Leap,” occurs somewhat later. Olds’ initial reaction to impending divorce in “While He Told Me” is generally one of feeling lost and trying to find an adequate description for how she feels at that moment. Her emotions in the later poem, “Stag’s Leap,” are more of acceptance, and, eventually, of wanting to move forward in her life.