Sharon Olds, “The Easel”
by Charlotte Shane
When I build a fire, I feel purposeful-–
proud I can unscrew the wing nuts
from off the rusted bolts, dis-
assembling one of the things my ex
left when he left right left. And laying its
narrow, polished, maple angles
across the kindling, providing for updraft-–
good. Then by flame-light I see: I am burning
his old easel. How can that be,
after the hours and hours–all told, maybe
weeks, a month of stillness–modelling
for him, our first years together,
smell of acrylic, stretch of treated
canvas. I am burning his left-behind craft,
he who was the first to turn
our family, naked, into art.
What if someone had told me, thirty
years ago: If you give up, now,
wanting to be an artist, he might
love you all your life–what would I
have said? I didn’t even have an art,
it would come from out of our family’s life–
what could I have said: nothing will stop me.
There are two versions of this poem in the world. In the earlier, Olds leaves off the four words at the very end, those same words that give the poem all its power. For a woman, what has more primacy than a man’s love, a man’s devotion? The narrator answers decisively: herself. Ourselves.
This is a poem about unapologetic gender transgression, about a fierce commitment to one’s work that will not make bargains, act ashamed, or remain dormant. The narrator breaks down and ignites the remnants of her ex-husband’s idealism — fire-building, the most manly and prehistoric of pursuits! — because he abandoned that former joy without a thought of what would become of it, just as he left her. Who in a family is assumed to be on the path of giving up, who is pressured to make a sacrifice of participating in the public realm — this is still coded into our social mores. And while women are instructed to “lean in” instead of “opt out,” still scolded for not prioritizing their résumés as they should, there’s no question about whose career, in a heterosexual partnership, should come first.
But the narrator isn’t reflecting on a career in the (strictly) professional sense. She’s referring to work in a more profound way, as that which one is enduringly compelled to do with one’s life. Olds has too gentle a voice to summon the same fury as Syliva Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” but there’s no mistaking a hint of “I eat men like air” in the image of a jilted, vehement woman burning a man’s once-prized possession.
Her ex-husband was essential in creating the circumstances that begat her creative form (as she admits, her lifelong subject is her family) and yet she owes him nothing. He didn’t recognize that soil as fertile; he stopped making, and she began. This is the ruthlessness entailed in claiming the place of artist instead of settling for the role of muse. Nothing will stop me from starting this blaze. What others treat as trash will become pure energy and light by the time I’m through.
Previously: Lucille Clifton, “the lost baby poem”