I want to try to go to the source of what I consider to be Alicia Ostriker’s genius. I have read (almost) everything she has written, much of it more than once, and in recent years a good deal in various versions on their way to publication. In preparation for this essay, I’ve been browsing, visiting old pals, and discovering, as one does, how much they’ve changed. Additionally, my thoughts about her are infused by a long friendship, one of the most precious of my life, which I believe has given my perception a certain depth. So rather than seeing the forest or the trees, I want to dig where the roots go down, down into soil, rock, and deeper where
my mind is a cervix
I can imagine anything
(“Heaven,” The Book of Seventy)
Admittedly this is a tricky enterprise, potentially reductive, perhaps impossible. If “source” discloses itself to a reader, it will do so under many guises and can be named with many names. Still, I don’t want to analyze any individual work; rather I want to see if I can divine the matrix out of which the best of her work comes.
something terrible happens
and the magma
hot beauty. . .
(“Ruthless Radiance,” the volcano sequence)
Under the garden
The world spirit panting
Along with its worms
Each an individual
Produces its tunnel
Of air and crumbs
Humbly! awaiting their hour.
(“About Time,” The Little Space)
I like this word matrix for its association with the mother, originally the genitive of the generative: matris, of the mother. We have no word like matrix for the father: no “patrix.” The masculine word that might be an equivalent for matrix is pattern, from the Latin word pater. Matrix and Pattern: how different their science.
Letting etymologies lead me further, I am reminded that “matrix” means “womb’ in Latin. Surely a source word if ever there was one.
And while I’m at it, two other words for womb need mention. One is the Greek word hysteria, from which we get our word with its clinical sense of being out of control, overly emotional, but which in a more liberal way should refer to the passions of the womb. And the third is the Hebrew word for womb, rachem.
when I was a child
I was an island
a small round bushy island
inside me were many
roots, rocks, ores,
flowings and crevasses
All three of these words associate womb with something other than the anatomical. Matrix comes to mean an environment or material in which something develops; a surrounding medium or structure. Hysteria is female eros: the dance of the maenads is hysterical, the outraged cry of mothers at the meaningless sacrifice of sons on the altars of the fathers is also hysterical—and neither in any neurotic sense.
Rachem has no English cognate, but it makes its own metaphorical leap: rachmenut in Hebrew, the abstract noun derived from rachem means compassion, the capacity to feel with those who feel. Compassion is an act of imagination for which our earliest untraceable memory is likely the face of the mother bending over—mirroring, blessing—our infant cries and laughter.
In short, metaphor permits us to understand the womb in mythopoetic terms. And so I would like to extend its sense here: specifically to suggest both the source and voluble variety of voices I hear in all Alicia’s writing, in her cries and whispers, the appeals and prayers, the arguments and confessions, the lyrical sweet talk and the moral outrage, in her insight and her wisdom.
mom, reach into
your barrel of scum-coated blessings
find me one.
(“The Red Thread,” the volcano sequence)
But wait! My wife Susan, with whom I am discussing this womb-stuff in between writing stints, warns me: “Beware male romantic balderdash,” she says. “You don’t know what you are talking about and in some ways this is offensive.”
I see myself
as an aperture, words pass through,
addressing/imagining/inventing. . .I
am pressing hard. I am pressing down
(“Aperture,” the volcano sequence)
“But. . .but. . .” I want to say.
Simply this: I am allowed my projections and distortions, my ways of seeing that may be patriarchal, to use the old shibboleth. The point is that divining Alicia has been initiatory for me. From Stealing the Language, through Nakedness of the Fathers, from The Mother/Child Papers, the “Mastectomy poems,” and on into The Book of Seventy, I have attended her. She always writes from the core of her womanhood, as wife, mother, lover, reader, seeker, Jew. She has found her archetypes from Gaia to The Goddess, from Aphrodite to the Shekinah, and I have been deeply affected as well by her responses to the natural world, to art, music, and literature. Has any woman poet found more strings to her lyre than Alicia?
A bit of history before I resume.
Alicia and I met at a national Havurah conference in 1995. We had both brought newly published books with us. Hers, slightly the senior to mine by half a year, was The Nakedness of the Fathers. Mine Our Fathers’ Wells. We exchanged books and both stayed up all night reading. The next day we went out for dinner and have not stopped talking and laughing since. Our books could not have been more different in spirit and form and yet more similar in method. We had discovered midrash in its slangy permissive American form, while being aware as well of the rabbinic tradition as well. Midrash gave us poetic license and we have been driving off road ever since.
What I found in Nakedness was a ripping feminism, both angry and playful, mocking and serious, blasphemous and respectful. Take this passage, for example:
It would be easy enough, I suppose, to avoid the word “womb” and refer to all this as the archetype of the goddess. But perhaps she too has become over the years something of an “intellectual principle.” It serves me better to think that the voices of the goddess are the voices of the womb in part because this synecdoche offers a more “sensuous perception,” and in part because it is more mysteriously alive for me. The womb is the cave, not of the winds—no flatulence here—but something more like the cave of earth herself, life-source, and also the gateway Persephone knows.
The women say that the triumph of the Word presupposes and produces the repression of the Mother. Again and further. Sensuous perception is subordinated to intellectual principle. The invisibility of God implies the paternity of God. For the Father is that-which-must-be-deduced, while the Mother remains evident to the senses. And so it seems the goddess is finally deposed. . .” (138)
“Let me be. . . .” This is a plea for fertility, with its ancient and feminine allusion to the mouth of the cave. At the same time the visual image—cave, mouth, womb—is copious, one might even say cornucopious. The word comes to me as another way of describing the quality of voluble and erotic plenitude that pulses in all she writes. This quality binds her to Whitman as “Whitman’s daughter,” to Blake and Ginsberg, to Rukeyser, Clifton, and to the poet of the Song of Songs. This plenitude expresses itself as a fierce attention to immediate experience, catching
Let me be your vehicle. Let me be the mouth of your tunnel. Or the split in the earth.
(“Descent,” the volcano sequence)
And this attention is interfused with an immense caring about everything that lives
The zinnias, in the act—I need
To pay attention—tusking rich golden
Petals in layers, rings. . .
(“Still Life: A Glassful of Zinnias on My Daughter’s Kitchen Table”)
Ethically, I am looking for
An absolute endorsement of loving-kindness
(“Every Woman Her Own Theology,” The Imaginary Lover)
This is her rachmanut, the passion to care about all life. Rachmanut is the maternal voice when “mother” is understood not as a member of a particular family, but as an archetypal figure in the human world. The voice of The Mother, which no doubt draws its tonalities from the family, addresses the family of man. When that voice has its fullest power it refers me to a place of deep moral interiority, an ethos more primal than the Ten Commandments, one that comes from nine months of growing life, hours of labor, years of nurture. Passion connected to the other is compassion.
This passion in Alicia celebrates aliveness and abhors whatever dulls or dampens it. Anything that deprives the human being of full life, anything that wastes life, demeans or diminishes it, incites her rage which men may call hysteria. And anything that flashes forth with the fullness of life evokes her admiration and joy.
But this credo of life—no simple Lawrentian vitalism—must contend with all those forces that can break the spirit. Alicia has not been spared—read the mastectomy poems; read her poems of lost loves, friends, dreams; read the poems of political outrage. Read her biblical, often polemical investigations. She has fought. As a result, the energy of affirmation in her work is all the more credible for the constant stock it takes of her own limitations, her complicities, her aging, her disillusionments, her adversaries. Alicia’s power to affirm rises out of what Yeats called “the rag and bone shop of the heart," a man’s way of putting it. For Alicia that source-place is what I am calling the womb and for which the image of a “shop” seems too mercantile or common. Another way she speaks of it is as “a thing contained and container of mystery. . .” (“Globule,” The Crack in Everything). And she has persisted in remaining connected to this place. This long persisting, a labor of love and consciousness, brings us to the present moment and to a new book of poetry on the verge of publication.
The Germans have a term for what can unfold for an artist if she lives long and keeps working: they call it elderstil, an elder style. It was this very quality that Alicia admired in the late de Kooning, about whom she wrote in The Book of Seventy:
This elder style is a kind of beginner’s mind but now achieved after years of persistence. It is perhaps what Blake meant when he wrote of a late “innocence” that that absorbs and transcends what has come before. Elderstil is marked by a sense of easy mastery.
Please, I thought, when I first saw the paintings
de Kooning did when Alzheimer’s had taken him
into its arms and he could do nothing
but paint, purely paint, transparent, please let me
make beauty like that, sometime, like an infant
that can only cry
and suckle, and shit, and sleep,
boneless, unaware, happy,
brush in hand no ego there he went
The poems which come together in this forthcoming book made a first appearance in The Book of Seventy with “The Blessing of The Old Woman The Tulip and The Dog.”
This poem, a matrix of sorts, begat a generation, and they have formed their own volume, The Old Woman The Tulip and The Dog Poems (2013). I can do no better than end here with one more sample of this marvel of improvisation, this art that conceals art, which is Alicia’s elderstil and which seems to have come effortlessly from the source of abundance.
To be blessed
said the old woman
is to live and work
washes right through you
like milk through a cow
To be blessed
said the dark red tulip
is to knock their eyes out
with the slug of lust
To be blessed
said the dog
is to have a pinch
and all the other dogs
can smell it.
Some claim the origin of song
was a war cry
some say it was a rhyme
telling the farmers when to plant and reap
don’t they know the first song was a lullaby
pulled from a mother’s sleep
said the old woman
factor generating my delight in being
alive this springtime
is the birdsong
that like a sweeping mesh has captured me
like diamond rain I can’t
hear it enough said the tulip
lifetime after lifetime
we surged up the hill
I and my dear brothers
thirsty for blood
our beautiful songs
said the dog
Peter Pitzele is the author of Our Father’s Wells: A Personal Encounter With the Myth of Genesis (1995) and Scripture Windows: Towards a Practice of Bibliodrama (1998), and his works concern bibliodrama, an interpretive, role-playing approach to close textual study of the Bible. Pitzele has also worked as a clinical psychodramatist and has taught at Harvard, Union Theological Seminary, the Institute for Contemporary Midrash, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Brooklyn College, CUNY.