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"'Rejoice, we have triumphed': Ostriker’s Poetics of Motion" by Wendy Galgan
Being able to move, and being constrained from moving, are powerful and important themes in women’s poetry. Walking and driving, for example, express agency, control over one’s own body and one’s own progress through the world. Stillness and stasis, which are often thought of as motion’s opposites, are really forms of motion that can be used to represent limitations, but can also indicate acceptance, peace or contemplation. These metaphors of motion, whether of agency or constraint, are important ones in all poetry, but are especially important for women writers, who all too often have found and continue to find that they are prevented from moving in both the literal and metaphorical senses.
Metaphors of motion do not mean the same thing to every poet. In fact, the same metaphor can mean different things to the same poet in different poems. What I am arguing is that the ability to move, to have agency (which includes the agency to stand still as well as go forward), is not taken for granted by women, and because of this female poets use metaphors of motion in powerful, profound ways.
In her 1982 collection A Woman Under the Surface, Alicia Ostriker uses a number of rich and interesting physical movements. Seven poems present a good introduction to, and overview of, the metaphors of motion in A Woman Under the Surface.
A Woman Under the Surface begins with a poem about stasis, stillness. “The Waiting Room” opens with a description of how the entire waiting area is designed to reassure, to keep the women who are waiting for their radiological appointments in the Atchley Pavilion (part of Columbia Presbyterian in New York) calm and still. Obviously, Ostriker echoes Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” especially in the physical constraints upon the speaker of the poem and her inward-turning gaze.
… The carpet is beige.
Beige walls, beige soundproofed ceilings, beige sofas surround us.
Geometric design of a room divider, wrought iron, to separate
The reception area from the waiting area.
To suggest, gently, that sterility means peace. (4-8)
The space of this poem is a feminine space; there are no men present where “[w]e ladies” (1) wait. While the women “[r]ange in age from the early thirties to the sixties” (3), what they have in common is class, represented by what they wear: “We are wearing our tweeds, our rings” (4). For these women, there is a double meaning to the sterility suggested by the waiting area: yes, it can mean peace, and reassurance that the hospital is a safe, clean place. But sterility could also suggest, especially to younger women with gynecological problems, the fear that they might not be able to bear children.
Outside, the day is brilliant, windy, and bittercold.
We have come through this weather, but now it does not exist.
We think of our breasts and cervixes.
We glance, shading our eyelids, at each other. (9-12)
The women’s motion, which propels them through the outside world, stops at the waiting room. Stillness allows them, even forces them, into self-contemplation (notice the focus on the female, with their worries about their breasts and cervixes). While they do look quickly at one another, there is no attempt — indeed, no desire — to make a connection.
Now the speaker of the poem moves from the collective “we” to her own thoughts, to what she is contemplating as she sits still in the beige-on-beige waiting room. “I am wondering,” she says, “what would be a fully human / Way to express our fears, these fears of the betrayal / Of our bodies” (13-15). The waiting, the turning inward imposed by stasis, helps those fears grow. Through the stillness of contemplation, the speaker has come to recognize that the very motionlessness she and the other “ladies in the Waiting Room” are experiencing (1) is an unnatural response to the fear each of them is feeling.
The phrase “mating of flesh” uses sexual imagery to illustrate the way in which the human person (soul, intellect) is wedded to the human body. Human beings depend upon their bodies’ loyalty; in other words, on its ability to move, and continue to move, both through the world (walking, running) and within itself (the heart pumping blood, the lungs moving oxygen). Each lady there — indeed, each human being — depends upon this “mating of flesh” for the continuation of life itself; the possibility this joining together may be put asunder by the body’s “betrayal” is extremely frightening:
... That without notice it [the body] may
Grow subversive seems intolerable, an uprising of house-slaves
Who have always belonged to the family and accomplished
Their tasks discreetly, ever since we were born. (17-20)
The heart has pumped, the lungs inflated and deflated, “discreetly” and unnoticed and unremarked for the speaker’s entire life. By likening the possibility of illness to a slave revolt, the speaker implies that this uprising, this illness, has festered beneath the body’s surface for years, the way cancer cells will until their replication begins to cause discernible symptoms.
The speaker — and, by implication, the other women in the waiting room — has suppressed the knowledge of the possibility of the body’s revolt, of the possibility her life could be stopped by the very vessel that contains it: “Perhaps we should dress less expensively / And not so well disguise the skeleton” (21-22). The very tweeds and rings these women wear give them a false sense of security. Clothes and jewelry hide the messiness, the truth of the body beneath (“disguise the skeleton”). Her repetition of “perhaps” shows the speaker isn’t sure what the answer is. She is struggling to find the “fully human” response: “Perhaps / We should sit more closely, ladies, to each other, / On couches arranged to form a circle, upholstered // Some vivid color. Perhaps we should sit on the floor” (22-25).
Instead of sitting still, sitting separately, sitting alone with their fears, the women could find some comfort from being closer together, by having those potentially rebellious bodies in proximity to each other on couches instead of chairs that separate them into individuals. For what is more human than the desire to be close to another person? Instead of the calming beige of stasis, “vivid colors” would decorate those couches, colors that echo the vitality and chaos of a life lived in motion, lived fully in the world. Or they could move from the chairs and sit together on the floor, take back at least a little of their agency by rejecting the stillness and separation imposed upon them by the individual chairs and sitting together in a way that predates history: a circle.
What if they do move? If they do gather together and reject the stasis and inward-focus of each person sitting in her own, very separate, chair? “They might have music for us. A woman dancer / Might perform, in the center of the circle” (26-27). Both music and dance express human emotions, those feelings that make us, “fully human,” and just as the notes move up and down and scale, so too does the dancer’s body move through the space of the dance. Here, then, the possibility of another type of movement appears, not by the waiting woman but by a (female) dancer. But to make that movement meaningful, to avoid the beige stillness imposed upon those who wait, that dancer would have to do something shocking: “What would she do? / Would she pretend to rip the breasts from her body?” (27-28).
Just as we are presented with that jarring image, the speaker says, “From behind a wall, we hear a woman’s voice / Screaming. It simply screams” (29-30). Here, then, is the “fully human” response to the body’s betrayal, a response that is louder, more shocking than Aunt Consuelo’s cry in Bishop’s poem (“Suddenly, from inside, / came an oh! of pain” (36-37)). Where for Bishop the cry is a particular, personal one (the speaker knows who makes the sound, and says, “I wasn’t at all surprised; / even then I knew she was / a foolish, timid woman (40-42)), in Ostriker’s poem the scream is universal, wordless, sound without sense. Note that it is not “a” scream; it is screaming, indicating something continuous and uncontrollable. The “soundproofed ceilings” (5) do not prevent the screaming from being heard in the waiting room. Someone is in physical pain, or given that the women are waiting for tests, perhaps someone is in emotional pain, the pain of a dreaded diagnosis. That “fully human” pain is directly expressed in a “fully human” response, a scream that reaches the women in the waiting room.
One woman in particular, the “[o]ne person / In the waiting room” who “has turned around” (30-31) is the only woman who expresses her surprise through physical motion. The rest of the women, we assume, keep their gazes averted and their bodies still, suppressing the natural reaction to turn toward pain. The woman’s “false / Sooty eyelashes have opened wide” (31-31) at the sound of the screams; her shocked gaze is an outward manifestation of how each woman in the room must feel: startled and afraid.
A few minutes later the screaming has stopped
And the woman in false eyelashes (I see she is very
Pretty, with black long hair, white blouse with bright
Tropical design on sleeves) has lit a cigarette. (33-36)
There is nowhere the women can go. They are held in stasis in the waiting room, left to contemplate the possibility of their own most-feared diagnosis, as the screaming continues. That screaming is not short — it goes on for a “few minutes” before stopping. The pretty woman lights a cigarette, perhaps to calm her nerves; ironically, here the woman sits, waiting for tests to see if she has cancer, doing something that causes cancer.
Ostriker ends the poem with this final image of the pretty woman lighting a cigarette. All the women in the waiting room are still in stasis, still waiting. After the woman’s slight motion of turning around and widening her eyes, she too settles back into her chair, settles back into the inward contemplation that the waiting room imposes upon these women. The lack of movement by the women in this poem suggests that they are at the mercy of their (possible) diagnoses. The stasis imposed upon them by the waiting room is a milder version of the ways in which a cancer diagnosis would constrain them, would focus all their attention upon a body that is ill and that must stay still much of the time. And, of course, this lack of movement reflects the women’s fear of the ultimate motionlessness, death.
In “After the Shipwreck,” the second poem in the collection, the stasis of “The Waiting Room” shifts to an odd ‘stasis within motion’ of survivors on a life raft. The raft is floating, moving without purpose, while the survivors are held captive on it: “Lost, drifting, on the current, as the sun pours down / Like syrup, drifting into afternoon” (1-2).
With a tip of the cap to Whitman (in both the reference to his “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking” and the use of his cataloging technique), Ostriker presents another layer of movement, a kind of ‘motion within stasis,’ as the survivors stranded on the raft begin to organize their meager supplies:
The raft endlessly rocks, tips, and we say to each other:
Here is where we will store the rope, the dried meat, the knife,
The medical kit, the biscuits, and the cup
We will divide the water fairly and honestly. (3-6)
The agency they have, the little bit of movement they can make, is to organize these supplies. As they arrange the rope, the biscuits and other provisions, civilization still exists (at least for the moment) in their assertion that they will make a fair and honest distribution of water.
Civilization, in the form of hope, also exists when “[s]omebody raises a voice and says: Listen, we know there is land / Somewhere, in some direction. We must know it” (8-9). The double meaning behind raising your voice (to raise up your voice to the Lord in prayer, and a voice raised in anger or as a means of establishing authority) applies here, as the person speaking is offering a type of prayer (in the “We must know it”) while also seeking to keep up the spirits of the survivors. The raising of the voice calls (in both meanings of the word) for a response from the listeners. The survivors are being enjoined to ‘lift up’ spiritually at the same time they are being commanded to ‘bow down’ to the authority of the speaker. These two movements, one spiritual and one societal, produce a push-pull effect upon the listeners.
This effect is short-lived, however, for while “there is the landfall, cerulean mountain-range” (10) for a moment, in the next line the speaker reveals that landfall is “[o]n the horizon: there in our minds” (11), dashing the momentary hope of the survivors and removing the assumed authority of the person who raised his voice. The people on the life-raft are reminded of the direness of their situation; the reminder seems particularly cruel because of that momentary hope raised by the imagined landfall,
. . .Then nothing
But the beauty of ocean,
Numberless waves like living, hysterical heads,
The sun increasingly magnificent,
A sunset wind hitting us. (11-15)
The vision, the hope, fades quickly. The survivors are motionless, while nature (but not any visible living creatures) is in motion around them. The vista upon which they gaze, with the rolling waves, the sun moving down toward the horizon, and the wind coming at them across the water, is beautiful, yes, but all that motion makes it deadly, too.
. . . As the spray begins
To coat us with salt, we stop talking. We try to remember. (15-16)
The final image is of survivors sitting still as the ocean spray begins to cover them (they wouldn’t be coated with salt if they moved). Even talking ceases. As with the women in “The Waiting Room,” this forcible stillness causes them to look inward, attempting to find their own memories of land, of hope, and of home.
One way to read “After the Shipwreck” is as a metaphor for trying to put life back together again after a tragedy (whether personal or communal). The politeness, the attempt to be very fair with the distribution of supplies represent the ways in which, let us say, a couple who has experienced a rancorous split then attempts to piece together some sort of civil give-and-take in the sad aftermath. Yet things cannot be the same, and what was there before (the landfall, the mountain range) is only a memory, one which becomes increasingly difficult to recall. Caught in stasis, coated with salt (memories), they stop talking; all the forward motion of their life together has ended, and the best they can do is “try to remember” what they used to have.
With this reading in mind, we can see that “Storm,” which appears later in the collection, is a companion piece, in a way, to “After the Shipwreck.” Where the latter started with the stillness of those becalmed after a storm, ”Storm” gives us violent and deadly motion.
If “After the Shipwreck” is about the aftermath of tragedy, then “Storm” depicts the tragedy itself, the terrible feeling of being out of control when everything seems to be in motion around you yet you have no control whatsoever over that motion — or even the agency to control how and when you yourself move.
The sky became the color of a bruise.
We hid from it, as you would, we rose up and up
On the vomited wave. (1-3)
There were portents which they tried to ignore, until finally the violent, ugly motion of the wave took over; they could no longer control their own motion, rising “up and up” while “[t]he winds hurtled us, slammed us, constantly” (4). The “we” of the poem have lost total control, and have no choice but to try to survive the buffeting of the storm.
Where the women of “The Waiting Room” remain studiously separate from each other in their stillness, the storm’s violent motion throws the “we” of “Storm” together, again and again. “We tore each other’s clothing; fell, wrestled, / Clung and screamed. We were ready to die, / Or murder, anything, packed in like slaves” (5-7). The “fully human” closeness the speaker of “The Waiting Room” imagined has become a terrifying tumble of bodies, their motion not indicative of agency, of choice, but instead of pure animal instinct — kill or be killed — while the horror of being tossed around is compounded by how close everyone is. Despite having clung to each other, they also want to get away from each other.
Unlike the vessel in “After the Shipwreck,” this boat does not break up. It is horrible in the hold of the ship, and unlike those still alive “After the Shipwreck,” these survivors do not have to try to remember; what they went through is still clear in their mind:
We remember the furry stink, the pandemonium,
The dipping in blackness.
But the dead were outside, drowned and weltering.
Hundreds of packs of picture cards
Flung from some high window into a river,
Waterlogged, bloated, sunk. Unbreathable rottenness
Climbed the strings of rain like ivy, until we
Scraped, grated, stopped. (8-15)
With “But the dead were outside,” the speaker indicates that no matter how bad it was inside the ship, it was worse outside. The dead bodies were “weltering,” rising and falling along with the movement of the water (a horrific parody of how those in the ship were tossed “up and up” by the “vomited wave”), all agency gone, their motion dictated solely by the water, first as it tosses them about tumultuously, then as it soaks into first their clothes and then their bodies, pulling them below the waterline and sending up the smell of rotting flesh.
In the midst of all this horror, the violent motion of the ship on the waves is stopped just as violently when they run aground (“until we / Scraped, grated, stopped”) beneath “[a] shocking sky, motionless and blinding” (16). All is at a standstill.
Again, unlike the survivors in “After the Shipwreck,” those who lived through this “Storm” will keep the memory of what happened with them.
We will never forget this adventure,
Neither the scars not the anger,
Nor fresh air mingled with steam,
Nor airy colors. (18-21)
Whatever disaster this shipwreck is the metaphor for (either communal, or personal), the “adventure” was not wholly negative. Yes, there are scars, there was anger, but there was also fresh air, and there were airy colors. There was beauty as well as hurt, gladness as well as heartbreak. In “Storm,” those aboard ship survive by this very ability to remember (rather than having to try to remember): “It is because of this thought / And cross-thought, our capacity / For it, that we were saved” (22-23). There was a tragedy, and perhaps things have changed permanently (as in the dissolution of a marriage), but what has endured is the survivors’ ability to remember both the good and the bad of the journey they were taking together. Their forward motion may have ended violently, and they may very well end up moving forward separately, but they will take the memory of their adventure with them.
Yet, for a moment, the speaker’s “us” remain together, standing still, while “all the living beings” (24)
Fan out, away
From us, across
The lumped, cratered skin of our earth,
Faint, fainter, trails of an explosion. (25-28)
Note it is not the “us” who move, but the other living beings beginning to make their way across a ruined landscape. The disaster, the “explosion,” is over, and the living beings moving away are the fading trails of that disaster. For at least a few moments more, the speaker and whomever else constitute her “us” remain unmoving, not the motionlessness of one who is constrained, but rather the stillness of those taking a moment to contemplate, to remember, and to honor what came before. Compare this type of stillness with the constraints upon motion found in “The Waiting Room” and “After the Shipwreck,” and you see that within stillness can be found strength and agency, provided that stillness is by choice and not imposed by outside forces.
With “The Exchange,” we move from the violence of the ocean to the violence (or at least the dream of violence) that lives in the human heart. In this poem, Ostriker plays with the idea she would explore later in Stealing the Language: that dual or mirror images found in women’s poetry “register the condition of marginality: nonexistence, invisibility, muteness, blurredness, deformity” (10). In this poem, the speaker creates a dual image of herself, and yes, that image is mute, but in her speechlessness is great power.
The poem begins with the speaker as observer, a woman who is “watching a woman swim below the surface / Of the canal” (1-2). Here, the speaker is sitting still, being rowed in a boat, while the woman in the water has the agency to move through swimming.
This woman is, in some ways, the traditional Other, her description couched in familiar mermaid imagery: “Her powerful body shimmering, / Opalescent, her black hair wavering / Like weeds” (2-4). She appears to be in her natural element. “She does not need to breathe. She faces // Upward, keeping abreast of our rented canoe” (4-5). With her hair “like weeds” and with no need to breath, she is a powerful force of nature. While she looks up at the speaker, the speaker must face downward to see her. Although the reader would assume that this woman is merely a reflection of the speaker, her body is described as “shimmering,” which implies she is naked. The speaker, in a boat, in public, with her children, is clothed. Power and agency appear to belong to the woman in motion beneath the water, the woman who swims without needing to breathe.
After the disquieting image of the woman under the surface, the scene appears to be presented as an idyll:
Sweet, thick, white, the blossoms of the locust trees
Cast their fragrance. A redwing blackbird flies
Across the sluggish water. My children paddle.” (6-8)
Yet if we read carefully, we find this isn’t quite the beautiful nature scene it first appears to be. Yes, the scent of the locust blossoms is sweet, but it is also “thick,” perhaps unpleasant. This unpleasantness may extend to the river itself, for its water is sluggish (barely moving), not clear and fast flowing. The stanza ends with the image of the children paddling the boat, leaving the woman just sitting as they move through the water; not only is the woman sitting still in the boat, she does not even control the way in which the boat is moving. Thus the “children paddling the boat” becomes a metaphor for the ways in which the speaker feels her children are controlling her life, constraining her from moving in ways she might prefer to what is demanded of her as a mother (and, we learn later in the poem, as a wife).
At the start of the third stanza, however, is a turn. The speaker imagines herself reclaiming agency by changing places with the woman in the water. “If I dive down, if she climbs into the boat, / Wet, wordless, she will strangle my children / And throw their limp bodies into the stream” (9-11). Thus the way the speaker feels controlled by her children erupts into a homicidal rage, or at least the fantasy of a homicidal rage.
If, as Ostriker claims in Stealing the Language, “the secret desire encoded in women’s anger poems is a desire to imagine precisely what cannot be imagined within the poems themselves” (163), she has exploded that secret desire here with her fantasy of prolicide. Obviously, she does not wish her children murdered, but the maternal anger reflected in this image of her speaker’s Other strangling children does, indeed, “imagine precisely” what normally could not be “imagined within the poems themselves.”
That this is a fantasy is further emphasized by the “If/if” construction, which means the murder of the children is possible only if the speaker allows it. She must act first in the construct, must exercise her agency to choose to act; the water-woman then follows suit.
After killing the speaker’s children, the water-woman will move on. “Skin dripping, she will take my car, drive home” (12). Notice it is the woman’s skin that is dripping, not water dripping from her clothes. So, again, while we tend to read the water-woman as the speaker’s reflection, she is not a true reflection; rather, she is the speaker’s Other (where the speaker is clothed, the water-woman is naked; where the speaker would never hurt her children, the water-woman would kill them). The speaker does, however, say that the water-woman will “drive home.” Not “drive to my home” or “drive to our home,” but “drive home,” an indication that the water-woman is part of the speaker in some way, and that her agency may also be the speaker’s (in other words, what the water-woman can do, the speaker would be capable of doing, also).
The speaker reverts back to the me/her split in the next stanza, saying, “When my husband answers the door and sees / This magnificent naked woman” (13-14), so just as the water-woman would, according to the speaker, kill “my children,” she would also confront “my husband.” When she arrives at the speaker’s house, the water-woman will either knock on the door or ring the bell, tacitly requesting permission to enter, a permission that the husband would grant when he opens the door. And as that husband looks at this woman with “bits of sunlight / Glittering in her pubic fur” (14-15) he will see a being more akin to an animal (that “public fur”) than a human woman. And as she stands there, “her muscular / Arm will surround his neck, once for each insult // Endured” (15-17).
This is an odd, disturbing image. Does it mean that the water-woman will choke him a number of times, will strangle and then release, strangle and then release? Or is her arm long enough, sinuous enough (like a water-snake, perhaps) to wrap around and around his neck. Whichever is the case, as she kills him, he will see the wildness of her animal nature as she strangles him to death.
He will see the blackbird in her eye,
Her drying mouth incapable of speech,
And I, having exchanged with her, will swim
Away, in the cool water, out of reach. (17-20)
Unlike the previous four stanzas, this final one is in iambic pentameter, with an end rhyme in the second and fourth line. The effect of this shift is that the reader slows down, sensing the change if not consciously noting it, and feels the poem drawing to a close. This poetic motion mirrors the solemnity of what the speaker has imagined, an exchange that leaves her watery Other dying on land (or so one imagines from the water-woman’s “drying mouth”), while the speaker herself, having taken on the mantle of the mermaid, regains agency through her ability to swim away, motion that puts her “out of reach.”
The question does remain, out of whose reach? Her children and her husband would be dead after this exchange, so whom must she evade? Perhaps it is her Other, the dying water-woman, from whom the speaker would wish to escape. For once the water-woman switched places with the speaker, she lost all agency. The killing of the children, the strangling of the husband, are all manifestations of the speaker’s desires; the water-woman, who had complete agency when she was free to swim under the surface, would lose all control over her own life the moment she switched places with the speaker. So, in some ways, she would become as powerless, as motionless, as the speaker is at the start of the poem. The only way to regain her freedom would be to enact another exchange, which the speaker, having experienced freedom in the river, is unwilling to do.
“Fisherman” is the next poem in the collection after “The Exchange.” Here we have another river, this time with a fisherman above water and trout below. As with the speaker of “The Exchange” who fantasizes switching places with the water-woman, this poem also posits a fantasy by asking us to
Imagine a fisherman in summer deep
Enough to have drowned all other seasons — (1-2)
This is “a” fisherman, undifferentiated, about whom we learn very little. He is a (masculine) presence who, like the speaker in “The Exchange,” is in a boat on the water.
His river flows between banks of ash and hickory,
Blackberries ripen, cobwebs form in the shrubs,
Bluejays grow drowsy. (3-5)
Note it is “his” river; somehow, through the physical action of fishing, he has claimed the river as his own. Here, though, the river is flowing, not sluggish, and where the locust blossoms “cast their fragrance” (7) in “The Exchange,” here the trees are still while the river flows by them. The shrubs are so still there are cobwebs in them, and the bluejay is motionless (unlike the redwing blackbird in “The Exchange,” who is in flight).
This somnolent scene continues, with a fisherman who has “escaped his relatives” (6) now floating on the river, where “[a]ll above water is gauze, hotly in touch, dry light” (7). He is “[l]iving in his dream (5) where his ability to move allowed him to escape his relatives. His dream is coming true at the moment of the poem, unlike the speaker in “The Exchange” whose fantasy depends upon the “If/if” coming true. Yet, is the fisherman’s dream coming true, for isn’t it really a dream-within-a-dream, or, more precisely, a dream within the world the speaker asks us to imagine?
The beauty of the afternoon is like a “late Monet, a Bach / Chorale, a woman peeling oranges” (8-9). He dreams a gauzy, light-filled space in nature that is also mildly erotic (the woman peeling oranges). All around him is caught in this dream; or, rather, all but the fish, for “[o]nly the cold trout must elude the dream” (10). Like the speaker of “The Exchange” who swims in the cool water to avoid being ‘captured’ by her Other, the trout must work to evade being caught by the fisherman.
Under his boat in the brown flood, pure muscle,
They glide along as if he does not exist,
Like courteous phrases in a dead language.
Their glassy eyes look past each other, hopeless. (11-14)
First, it seems the fish have the most agency. They swim through the river, ignoring the fly he is casting. But the last line of the couplet shows them as “hopeless” (in an image reminiscent of the way the women in “The Waiting Room” look past each other).
It is the way the fisherman wishes. He casts
His line again and again in the heavy heat. (15-16)
This final couplet shows that the fisherman’s motion, casting his line, exhibits the real agency. The fish cannot look at each other for there is no hope for them; implied in that “hopeless” is the idea that some of the trout will be caught, will be dragged up from the cool river into the day’s “heavy heat.” The fisherman defies that heat (for, if this is his dream, isn’t the heat part of that dream?) and continues to cast his fly. While the river and the fish move as rivers and fish do, it is the fisherman whose motion has the most purpose and exhibits the most control over what happens in the warm, drowsy afternoon. Here, the person in the landscape has the most agency. In fact, in some ways the fisherman has more agency than the reader herself, for it is his dream that we are asked to imagine, and his dream that is ‘played out’ as he repeatedly casts his line into the water.
The use of physical motion in poetry is an assertion of agency, of control over one’s life and one’s circumstances. Walking, perhaps more than any other type of poetic metaphor of motion, represents this agency.
There is a strong and natural connection between walking and poetry, and there is a long tradition of ‘walk poems’ by both men and women (Cf. William Wordsworth, Robert Frost, Rainer Maria Rilke, Elizabeth Bishop, Marilyn Hacker, Nikki Giovanni, Jane Kenyon). The meter of the poem often echoes the rhythm of footfalls, or the poem’s structure mirrors the speaker’s walks (as, for example, the long lines of Walk Whitman mirrored the long walks he took through Brooklyn and New York).
She who walks is in charge of where she goes, how she goes there, how fast she goes there, and how long she stays there. Walking is a way of establishing oneself, of becoming part of the landscape though which one moves, even a way of defining one’s life. As Marilyn Hacker writes in her “April Interval” sequence from Going Back to the River, “Wherever I surface I reinvent / some version of the Daily Walk to Town” (1-2).
Walking may be a way of attempting to ‘move through’ sadness or grief (Cf. Jane Kenyon’s “Walking Alone in Late Winter”), a form of domestic journey where the speaker walks in familiar places while attempting to come to terms with whatever sorrow or loss she is experiencing. Ostriker’s “A Woman Walking in the Suburbs” is just such a work.
A melancholy poem, “A Woman Walking in the Suburbs” comprises four stanzas, alternating octets and couplets. The two longer stanzas describe the woman and her walk, echoing her long, slow progress through the suburban streets (like Whitman’s long lines). The two couplets are about “the man” who has left her.
Although this is a walk poem, it opens in “October stillness” with “the last leaves hang[ing] / Golden on the trees” (1-2) and for the speaker this stillness is something to be desired, to be emulated. For a month, she has “strained” (3) to change, “to become / Luminous and transparent as the leaves” (3-4) but, having “failed” she instead “grew thicker” (5). Only now, as autumn is heading into winter, only after she has “relinquished” (6) her struggle, does she find herself gaining the luminosity and transparency she had been seeking. At the end of the octet that is the first stanza, the speaker declares, “My breathing and needs decrease, / I am quite tranquil. I feel the light fly through me” (7-8). It is in ceasing to struggle, in embracing the stillness, that the speaker is finally able to find the equilibrium she sought.
Yet she is still not still; she is, instead, walking. This is because the tranquility she achieved came “too late” for her “to show the man” (9) for whom it appears she wished to enact these changes. This nameless man has left her: “He has tumbled away, an engine down its track” (10). Thus the man embodies mechanical motion, circumscribed by the path, the “track,” down which he moved away from the speaker, leaving her to wander on foot throughout the suburban streets.
Only in the third stanza do we find that she is not alone in her walk; “a slip of a child” is with her (11). This child, never gendered, is “coming along” (11) with the speaker, “holding [her] fingers” (12) rather than her hand, which is less secure, and which may indicate that the child is very small, too small to reach up and fully hold the speaker’s hand.
As they walk, the child kicks the leaves, exposing “the dark gray damp spots under them” (13). The speaker says, “We see” those spots, and she and the child see “what a peaceful / Afternoon it seems to be” (13-15). Through the motion of kicking the leaves, the child has uncovered what was hidden, and what was hidden is dank and unlovely. This idea of hidden things is repeated when the speaker says the afternoon “seems” to be peaceful; she, however, knows that what lies beneath the surface of what they are seeing is anything but. She herself, walking with the child, may appear on the outside to be peaceful, yet inside she is mourning the loss of “the man.”
The woman and child are nearly, but not completely, alone in the “October stillness.” They “see the swing set in the children’s playground” (16), but there appear to be no children on the swings, and she does not take the child to play on them; the swings, like the afternoon itself, are still. There is “another lonely woman walking a dog” (17), and here is where the speaker alludes again to what is hidden inside of her, projecting her own loneliness (“another lonely woman”) onto someone else. All we can really know about the woman is that she is walking her dog; whether she is lonely or not is hidden from us.
The last line of the stanza states, “Westward, our red sun sets” (18). While little else is moving in the stillness of the afternoon, the sun is moving down toward the horizon as the day draws to a close. Note the “our” sun, which links the speaker and the child together as they move through the suburban streets and sets up the poem’s final couplet:
The man was my sun. The shining he cannot see now
Flows with all fairness. (19-20)
The man was not the sun for both her and the child; he was her sun, the light around which she revolved. She wished to shine for him, but her luminosity came too late. Now she is the one who shines, whose fair light flows through her and out of her, leaving her “tranquil” but lonely.
Could this light would be able to “fly through” her if the man were still with her? If he was her sun, and she revolved around him, then any luminosity she would produce would be a mere reflection of his light, the way the moon reflects the light of the sun. Only now that he has “rumbled away” and left her alone does her own light move through her; it “[f]lows with all fairness” because it is hers and not a reflection of the man’s light. In this way, she achieves, however transitory and however tinged with sadness, transcendence. By allowing herself to embrace stillness, yet continue to move through the world by walking, the speaker enables the light to continue to “fly through” her, to shine as it flows through her being, and this luminosity, this transcendence, continues even through the sadness she feels at the loss of “the man” for whom she wished to shine.
Transcendence does not always come from embracing stillness. In some poems, it is physical motion that can lead to enlightenment and change. Sometimes that motion is walking (as in Jean Garrigue’s “Moondial”), sometimes driving, sometimes riding a horse. Other times, this moving-through-the-world takes the form of running, as in the final Ostriker poem I will discuss, “The Runner.”
The reader moves through this poem the way the runner moves through the world; the poem enacts the run, just as the runner herself embodies movement, and we are along for the duration. Poems are not just about journeys, of course, they are journeys” (Wright 260), and here Ostriker allows her reader to experience the runner’s journey through the poem.
That journey, first and foremost, is one of physical difficulty:
Sweat glides on the forehead of the gasping runner
Who runs of necessity, who runs possibly for love,
For truth, for death, and her feet are sweltering. (1-3)
The poem starts with the word “sweat” which signifies the physical efforts of the runner as she moves through the world (as does the description of her as gasping). Yet the sweat “glides,” which introduces (however briefly) a feeling of effortlessness. It is more often a runner who is described as gliding, when her run is going easily and well, rather than sweat (which usually is described in terms such as dripping from, or standing out on, a person’s face).
Despite the difficulty of the motion, it is definite that the runner must run (“of necessity”) but the why is not clear. Three possibilities are presented, all non-concrete: love, truth, death. These three abstractions are bracketed by the down-to-earth details of the sweating, gasping runner at the start of the stanza and her sweltering feet at the end.
As with “After the Shipwreck” and “Storm,” something has happened, although the reader never learns quite what that something is. “Behind the runner lies a battlefield. / There, the dust falls” (4-5). Is the battlefield personal (an argument or some difficulty she faces) or a larger tragedy? If the dust falls there, is it the dust of an abandoned space? Or does it signify the end of the battle, the dust clearing? None of these questions is answered, for after this backward glance we are directed to turn our attention forward:
. . . Ahead the narrow road
Eats a plateau, leads into streets and buildings,
A beach, and the excavation of motherly ocean,
Everything under the arch of an innocent sky. (5-8)
The road, the path along which she moves, devours the height of the plateau; it doesn’t pass over or go around or climb, but rather eats the plateau. By extension, then, the runner herself, through her forward motion along that road, devours the plateau as well (for we do hear of runners who “eat up the miles” as they go). Once the plateau is eaten, the road enters a space of human habitation before ending up at the beach, a liminal space between the land (with the town) and the water. Here the motion of that water, the “motherly ocean,” is much calmer, and less overtly violent than the waters in “After the Shipwreck” and “Storm,” yet, if we read “the excavation of motherly ocean” to mean the way in which the water is eating away at the sand, then this gentle, reassuring tidal motion may end up just as destructive as the killing waves of the two other poems. This appears to be reinforced by the image of the “innocent sky,” which connotes either naïveté or a willing disregard for what is happening below its arch.
From the open vista of ocean and sky, in the third line of the same tercet in which that vista appears, we are immediately brought back to the physicality of the runner: “Sweat runnels between the breasts, evaporates” (9). This purely physical sensation is described as between the breasts. Why “the” and not “her” breasts? I would suggest that, rather than objectification or distancing, the use of “the” is meant to universalize the experience, to help the reader feel the physical manifestations of this runner’s labored motion. It draws the reader into the poem, and into the journey of the poem, by helping connect her directly to the runner through a shared experience.
Starting with the next tercet, the focus of the runner (and of the poem) begins to shift. Rather than the runner’s physicality, it is her mind, her internal experiences that we begin to share. The runner is granted a special insight, an ability to see “bright bone under brown landscape / Where one of us would see rocks, bushes, houses” (10-11). Does the bone represent a skeleton, something ugly that is beneath the landscape? Or is it something darker, something dead and long buried? Or — and this is the way I read the lines — is it merely that the runner is beginning to transcend everyday experience and to understand that there are things that lie beneath that experience. These things are not necessarily dark or scary; indeed, the bones beneath our skin are essential to our very being.
Now the runner’s moving-through-the-world takes on an added layer, for the physical discomfort of sweaty skin and hot feet is beginning to change into something else, something more powerful. She
Begins to feel how fire invades a body
From within, first the splinters
And crumpled paper, then the middle wood
And the great damp logs splendidly catching. (12-15)
Something is kindled within her as she runs. This burning is both painful and marvelous, the bright flare of the logs after the slow catching of the kindling and smaller pieces of wood. But it isn’t always thus:
Ah, but some moments! it is so like fireworks,
Hissing, exploding, flaring in darkness,
Or like a long kiss that she cannot stop, (16-18)
Rather than the slow kindling of the wood fire, there is a time when the pain/heat bursts within her like exploding fireworks. Or the way desire flares, burning uncontrollably during that “long kiss.”
“Ah it is heavy for her, every stride / Like pulling an iron railing / Uphill,” (19-21). The logs flaring, the fireworks exploding, are metaphors that make this blazing heat (this coming transcendence) seem too easy, too quick. There is still physical pain involved, a pain generated by continued forward motion, a pain that grows nearly unbearable and is difficult (although not quite impossible) for the runner to bear:
Uphill, ah Christ — we would have to imagine Jerusalem,
Dresden, a hurt this hard, like a screen of fire
Rising, continuous and intolerable
Until solid things melt. Then the runner is floating, (21-24)
This fire burns, as Jerusalem did in the siege, as Dresden did when it was carpet bombed (referring back to the battlefield?). The pain grows until the runner cannot stand it, until the heat is so high that “solid things” such as bones and rocks begin to melt. Then, suddenly, she is past the pain, past the burning. While the speaker in “A Woman Walking in the Suburbs” becomes luminous, with a gentle light flowing through her, the runner flares up, bursts into flame:
She becomes herself a torch, she is writing in fire
Rejoice, we have triumphed, rejoice,
We have triumphed, (25-27)
The runner now embodies radiant transcendence. She has moved beyond her own limitations, beyond the experience of her sweating, sore body, and opened herself up to the world. She has become the torch that allows her to write in fire, and what she writes is a message not only of her own transcendence, but of the transcendence of the “we.” For a moment, her message of hope, heralded by the Biblical injunction to “rejoice,” is for everyone.
Just as quickly, however, the moment of burning transcendence has passed, and “words” and “language / Must be useless / To the runner” (28-30). “Must be” can be read two ways. First, as an observation about something that is a given (as in, “that must hurt”). Second, as a universal truth: language is of no use to the person who has achieved, however briefly, a moment of transcendence because that transcendence can never be articulated. I would suggest that both readings inhere within the line, and that the runner is turning to words for the benefit of others, of the “we” who may not be aware of the possibility of their own transcendence.
Finally, the focus of the poem returns to where it began, on the runner herself. Her moment of transcendence was the point toward which the runner, the woman-in-motion, was progressing, and we were able, through the poem, to move with her. For one brief moment, one bright flare of the flame, the reader is one of the “we” who “have triumphed” along with the runner.
These poems from A Woman under the Surface use a range of metaphors of stillness and motion: walking and swimming, grief and transcendence, and provide an introduction to the ways in which Alicia Ostriker’s poetry uses physical movement to examine the experience of being a woman.
Whichever metaphor of motion a poet uses, freedom lies at the heart of her poem: the freedom to move about in the world, the freedom to act, the freedom to feel, the freedom to be. In each of these poems, Ostriker uses different forms of motion as potent metaphors for the challenges, restrictions and obstacles women face, as well as the opportunities women can make for themselves if they are able to find the courage to move.
Being able to move, being constrained from moving, and choosing when to be still are at the heart of women’s experiences, which makes them powerful metaphors when used in women’s poetry. These metaphors allow women to examine their own existence, to question the constraints that are put upon their lives (by family, society, even themselves), and to find ways in which they can regain agency within their own lives by learning to move. When women control their own motion, they grow stronger; if they grow strong enough they can then proclaim, “Rejoice, we have triumphed.”
Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems: 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983.
Garrigue, Jean. Selected Poems. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
Hacker, Marilyn. Going Back to the River. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
Ostriker, Alicia. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
– A Woman Under the Surface. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: The Death Bed Edition. Modern Library, 1993.
Wright, Charles. “The Poem as Journey.” The Southern Review 29.2 (1993): 259-73.
"Motherhood/Morality/Momentum: Alicia Ostriker and H.D." by Donna Krolik Hollenberg
Keep Lilith in a cage, curse Lilith in a Tree?
no; no barbaric hordes nor gods can yet prevail
against the law that drags the snail across the grass,
that turns the falcon from the course,
that drives the lion until he finds
the lioness within the cave;
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
but those prayers are worn threadbare;
there must be others, bright with vivid fire,
revolatilizing, luminous, life-bearing
H.D., “Vale Ave”
We keep pushing
Child, we keep dropping
And being part of mystery that is
Bigger than language
And changes the language
And bursts it apart
And grows up and
Wildly away out of it
Alicia Ostriker, “Lilith Says Where Trees Come From”
Alicia Ostriker began to write out of the experience of motherhood well before she read H.D. She was committed early to being a poet who would write about the body and completed “Once More out of Darkness,” a poem about pregnancy and birth, in 1965, a year after graduate school. In 1970 she began The Mother/Child Papers, galvanized by the experience of bearing a son during the Vietnam War. As she later wrote, considering the historical fact of recurring wars from the dual perspective of poet and mother:
Similarly, concern with motherhood in the context of war was central to H.D. During World War I, when she was establishing herself as a poet, H.D. had two traumatic pregnancies, the first ending in stillbirth, the second in the birth of her daughter, Perdita, in the setting of her own grave illness and the deaths of her brother and father. Everything she wrote later reacted to that trauma. She wanted to restore, through the power of imaginative vision, what had been lost in her own life and, indeed, in the life of Europe. In increasingly female-centered texts, she came to connect the “family romance” and female oppression with the warrior ethos in Western culture and, ultimately, to reappropriate the childbirth metaphor for women writers in the name of love and the hope of social reform (Hollenberg 1991). As Ostriker comments, claiming her as a precursor, “It is appropriate that H.D. is our first poet to imagine a female being in whom a biological life, a life of feeling, and a life of dedicated spirituality and artistic creation are not divided but one” (1983: 40).
The advantage of motherhood for a woman artist is that it puts her in immediate and inescapable contact with the sources of life, death, beauty, growth, corruption .... if she is a moralist it engages her in serious and useful work .... we can imagine what it would signify to all women and men, to live in a culture where childbirth and mothering occupied the kind of position that sex and romantic love have occupied in literature and art for the last hundred years, or the kind of position that warfare has occupied since literature began. (Ostriker 1983: 130-31)
In this essay I will explore the implications of motherhood as a moral force in the work of Alicia Ostriker within the context of her literary engagement with H.D. The experience of motherhood, which Ostriker describes as an “extraordinary sensation of transformation from being a private individual self to being a portion of something else,” informs her view of the woman poet’s role in culture and tradition in ways that parallel but diverge from H.D. (1983: 127). Ostriker’s reading of H.D., part of an immersion in women’s poetry begun during the height of the feminist movement, prepares her to write out of the (often transgressive) intellectual and emotional depth of her experience and gives her conceptual and formal means of doing so. H.D.’s religious heterodoxy and revisionist mythmaking are particularly instructive: her recovery of a repressed maternal principle in Western culture enables Ostriker’s comparable revision of androcentric Jewish myth. However, Ostriker’s poetry engages history more directly than H.D.’s. Most recently, she has written in a mode of post-Holocaust apostasy that contradicts H.D.’s commitment to a predetermined cosmic order and spiritual transcendence. Indeed, unlike H.D., for whom poetry is the expression of a sacred “inner world of defence” (Hollenberg 1997: 10) and childbearing a metaphor for salvation, the experience of motherhood is a source of Ostriker’s use of poetry as social protest, and she rejects the conversion of human life into the discourse of the sublime.
The first book that Ostriker wrote after reading H.D. was A Woman Under the Surface (1982), in which both the experience of motherhood and her engagement with H.D. are expressed subliminally. The moral imperative of the mother-child bond, that sense of the self’s transformation, is experienced at a primitive level. The book’s title is taken from the poem “The Exchange,” which records the fear of and desire for chthonic female power, which is transgressive in a world limited by stifling gender roles and male domination. The poet imagines changing places with a strong woman who swims “below the surface” of the water. If she “dives down,”: this double might climb into the boat she inhabits with her children, strangle and dispose of them, take her car, drive to her home, and confront her husband. When he answers the doorbell and sees “this magnificent naked woman, bits of sunlight / Glittering on her pubic fur,” past insults will be avenged while she swims coolly “out of reach” (Ostriker 1982: 7). In other poems, the feeling of being part of a larger whole informs the poet’s concern for the well-being of other women, particularly those on the social margins. For example, there is a poem in the voice of a “crazy lady” who insists on being embraced, another about “three women” who have been neglected or misled by men, and one that recounts a daughter’s nightmare invasion by the bedraggled specter of her mother. Particularly reminiscent of H.D., still other poems engage in revisionist mythmaking; that is, mythmaking that alters existing myths for the purposes of cultural reform. For example, there is a poem sequence, based on the myth of Eros and Psyche, that questions the inevitability of female masochism embedded in Apuleius’s version of that myth.
Further, in this book Ostriker internalized the shape of H.D.’s mature poetic stanza, the formal correlative of her radical stance as a visionary modernist in a world shattered by war: two or three nonmetrical lines that nevertheless are gracefully cadenced, suggesting traces of primal order. As H.D. put it in her early novel, Paint It Today, anticipating the limpid stanza form she would create in Trilogy: “Large, epic pictures bored her, though she struggled through them. She wanted the songs that cut like a swallow wing the high, untainted ether, not the tragic legions of set lines that fell like black armies with terrific force and mechanical set action, paralyzing, or broke like a black sea to baffle and to crush” (1992 b: 12). Like H.D., Ostriker became adept at this stanza form and at the subtle use of off-rhyme as well as of other kinds of interior sound linkages. In this book, poems about the liberation of her dream life are reminiscent of H.D. in sound as well as theme. Consider these lines from the opening and closing of Ostriker's “The Diver”:
Though grounded in experience and thus in loss, they are buoyant and fluid. Like the following lines by H.D., they invite us to trust our own inner lives, suggesting that resilience and spiritual regeneration lie there, not in outside authority:
Giving the self to water, a diver
Lifts from stone, sails through the air,
Hits, goes under.
Now, she remembers everything, this cold
Sweet privacy, the instantaneous
Loss of her name. She remembers that drowning
Is a possibility, like not drowning. (I982: 63)
let us go down to the sea,
Ostriker’s reading of H.D. is directly acknowledged in her next book of poems, The Imaginary Lover (1986), in which the epigraph, from Trilogy, expresses a desire for spiritual wholeness and autonomy that Ostriker shares:
gather dry sea-weed,
let us light a new fire
and in the fragrance
of burnt salt and sea-incense
chant new paeans to the new Sun
of regeneration. (1973: 26)
Both poets locate the impediments to that wholeness in the dualities authorized by culture and tradition. Among these is a socially constructed contradiction between creativity and procreativity, motherhood and authorship. In fact, a “quest for autonomous self-definition” is central to the women’s poetry movement that Ostriker describes in her groundbreaking book of literary criticism, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, published the same year. Not surprisingly, many of Ostriker’s observations about the work of her predecessors and contemporaries apply to her own poetry as well. In fact, the main categories she ascribes to this poetry movement—the ways in which women write about the body and nature, the meanings of anger and violence in one’s work, the “imperative of intimacy” that marks the expression of female desire, revisionist mythmaking as attempts at self and cultural reform—are exemplified in The Imaginary Lover.
Chasm, schism in consciousness
must be bridged over;
we are each householder,
each with a treasure. (H.D. 1973: 49)
This book is divided into four sections, all of which contain poems that could be placed in the categories above. What distinguishes Ostriker’s work, however, are qualities of sensuality, humor, courage, exuberance, and a range that extends from the natural into the political and metaphysical. Ostriker enters into the political realm (defined broadly to include management of the family and the self) in many poems throughout the book. There are poems about the politics of creative expression, the politics of marriage, the politics of parenthood, particularly as children grow up and away, as well as the politics of historical events. Some cover several of these subjects simultaneously. Among my favorites is “Surviving,” a ten-part sequence about a subject also central to H.D., who prays, after having survived the Blitz in London, “we pause to give / thanks that we rise again from death and live” (1973: 110). H.D.’s prayer follows her vision of a Lady whose precise and unconventional definition—culminating in a revised Nativity—signals spiritual renewal and growth. Like Trilogy, “Surviving” responds to the violence and displacement that mark our century and spotlights a revised conception of motherhood. However, unlike H.D., who wrote under the direct stress of wartime bombardment, Ostriker writes from the postwar perspective of those who feel that “to survive is to be ashamed” (1986a: 44). This survival guilt is worse for women, she claims, for it becomes fused with histories of biological vulnerability and social subordination. Continuing H.D.’s urgent opening questions, “what saved us? what for?” (1973: 4), Ostriker asks, “Who can urge us to pull ourselves onward? / How can the broken mothers teach us?” (1986a: 44).
In the body of the poem, Ostriker answers these questions and tests the assumption behind the second one. Unlike H.D., who employs techniques of trance and verbal alchemy (repetition, etymology, phonic overlap), attempting to transcend the historical moment to effect spiritual transformation, Ostriker writes a series of meditations that draw on cultural and personal history. Set in an art gallery, half of the poems are about the artist Paula Modersohn-Becker, who died after complications in childbirth, and half are about Ostriker’s own mother, whose domestic duties defeated her artistic aspirations. In the fourth section, a surrealist dreamscape, the tragedy of Modersohn-Becker’s short life and the wry comedy of her mother’s long one become fused in the mind of the poet-onlooker, enabling her to proceed beyond guilt or self-pity. Having realized that despite her premature death, Modersohn-Becker’s last paintings were “survivors / Without malice,” the poet imagines herself going up in an elevator, into which her mother steps, “carrying her shopping bags” and “talking, talking” (Ostriker 1986a: 47). What follows is a tragicomic immigrant litany: details of her mother’s heroism and self-sacrifice on behalf of her family:
Did I ever tell you
I fought the doctors and nurses
The very day you were born. They said
“You'll stick a bottle in her mouth”
But I nursed you, I showed
Them. And did I tell you
When I was hungry because your father
Didn’t have a job, I used to feed you
That expensive beef puree, spoonful by spoonful
(Ostriker 1986a: 48)
The poet’s response to this litany and to her mother’s stories about the blighted youth of her grandmother, with their further suggestion of collective guilt, is renewed resolution. After all, risk and the “promise of cruelty” and “impoverishment” are conditions of life common also to artists. But they did not prevent Keats from writing “The Eve of St. Agnes” or Hart Crane The Bridge. With this realization, the poet remembers her mother’s inspiring qualities: her playfulness in the public swimming pool, the way the other kids flocked around her, her courage, and her songs:
This memory enables her to break the hold of histories and theories of women’s weakness and tears that are “maps to nowhere” (Ostriker 1986a: 50). At the end, calling-upon “Mother my poet” to help her to understand more fully “the duty / Proper to the survivor,” she concludes, “Tell me it is not merely the duty of grief” (Ostriker 1986a: 51).
You get even the smallest ones to duck
Heads under water, bubbling and giggling
Don't be afraid! Breathe out like this! Then we all sing.
(Ostriker 1986a: 50)
Several poems in this book are inspired by the words of past writers to whom Ostriker feels connected. “An Army of Lovers” opens with an epigraph from H.D. on the secret kinship of pacifist artists during wartime censorship. They pass each other on the pavement, “remote, speechless,” but they are “nameless initiates, / born of one mother” (H.D. 1973: 21). She compares their shared concern with that of contemporary women poets who write prayers for peace, hoping to counter the ongoing linked realities of war and sexual violence. Other poems begin with epigraphs or lines by Ezra Pound, June Jordan, Fitzgerald/ Hemingway, Franz Kafka, and Emily Dickinson. The poem inspired by Dickinson, which begins with Dickinson’s “After great pain a formal feeling comes,” takes off from that proposition to explore its opposite. The result is a poetics of exuberance and hope that depends upon the achievement of community and is founded in the responsibility of motherhood:
The poet’s associations fly from the intense happiness of Catullus and Lesbia, engrossed in each other, to her own pleasure after teaching a successful seminar on Blake’s Four Zoas, in which her students make new discoveries and come “closer together.” “Scrubbing perception’s doors,” she calls this, and then she imagines, as a final triumph, having patiently charmed her young son out of a temper tantrum.
If that is the case, then after great happiness
Should a feeling come that is somehow informal?
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. (Ostriker 1986a: 57)
Ostriker’s sense of art as personal liberation, as well as a powerful socially constitutive force, also informs “Everywoman Her Own Theology,” a poem that foreshadows her most recent work on feminist revisions of the Bible. Here she critiques the inhumanity of abstract, dualistic belief systems in which believers construct themselves in violent opposition to “infidels.” Instead she imagines “something sacred” that wants to “materialize, / Folding its silver wings, / In a kitchen, and bump its chest against mine” (Ostriker 1986a: 65). This domestication of the sacred is continued in her next volume, Green Age (1989), in which the personal-as-political-as-sacred marks key sequences in each of the book’s three parts. In “A Birthday Suite,” dedicated to her daughter Eve, Ostriker dramatizes the intense yearnings for relationships defined by mutuality and interpenetration that, she says, characterize the poetry of many women writing today (Cook 1992). Stemming from the intensity of the mother-child bond, this blurring of boundaries between self and other is not without conflict and pain during the phase of separation, but it is also mutually empowering. As Ostriker’s “Happy Birthday” wish to her daughter concludes: “On your mark, get set, / / We give birth to each other. Welcome. Welcome” (Ostriker 1989: 21). In her sequence “A Meditation in Seven Days” (in Green Age) Ostriker extends this desire for mutuality and equality to the traditional Jewish concept of a male God, imagining instead “the meanings of femaleness in Jewish tradition” (see the previous chapter in this volume). This poem’s assumption, “that we may find in the text of the Bible and throughout Jewish tradition faint traces of a Canaanite goddess or goddesses whose worship was forbidden with the advent of monotheism,” is based in the scholarship of feminist theologians who have likewise challenged the androcentrism of mainstream religious ideas (Ostriker 1989: 73). It is also based in her reading of H.D. As she points out in her essay in this volume, “in what poetry, save H.D.’s, could I have found the Lady whose potential power is our own?” In the last step of this poem, the poet’s recognition of this (suppressed) female presence in Jewish lore and life foreshadows the feminist revision of biblical myth in her later work.
As this sequence in Green Age promises, Ostriker engages her Jewish heritage more fully in the two books that follow: Feminist Revision and the Bible (1993) and The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions (1994). In both of these books, her allusions to H.D. strengthen a revisionary impulse rooted in the experience of the mother-child bond. In the first, a series of three “lectures” (the last in the form of a poem sequence), Ostriker directly cites H.D. as a major influence on religious poets in our time because she is “the most seriously engaged in spiritual quest” and “the most radically transgressive.” As Ostriker explains, H.D.’s “explicit goal is to recover, in a moment of apocalyptic revelation, as the blasting open of cities in war becomes the blasting open of intellectual and spiritual paradigms, at the heart of the worship of the Father and Son, an older worship of the Mother” (1993: 79). Following this example, Ostriker points out several types of biblical revisionism in contemporary poetry by women since the sixties. These include many poems that angrily indict God the Father, that regard the “religion of patriarchy” as “a projection of masculine ego, masculine will to power, masculine death-worship,” as well as “a tremendous outpouring of comedy, shameless sexuality, an insistence on sensual immediacy and the details belonging to the flesh as holy” (Ostriker 1993: 81). There is also much poetry connected with the women’s spirituality movement that “avoids and evades biblical texts,” drawing instead on pagan, Native American, African, and Hindu traditions. Common to all these types are the following “motifs and motivations”: “the return of immanence and nature, the reconnection of body and spirit, the rejection of dogma and the embrace of syncretism, and an insistence on the unmediated personal experience of the divine” (Ostriker 1993: 83). Ostriker concludes this discussion by citing the poetry of Lucille Clifton, an African-American poet whose religious syncretism is like H.D.’s but whose vernacular style is bolder. In one of her earliest poems, Ostriker points out, Clifton “defines an outrageous female holiness” in a tone that “fuses celebration, defiance, and humorous sympathy” (1993: 83)
In “The Lilith Poems,” the poem sequence that follows this discussion, Ostriker employs this mode and tone herself. These six poems imagine the legendary Jewish outcast, Adam’s first wife who refused to lie beneath him, as a black woman who composes a vigorous, syncretic “New Song” (Ostriker 1993: 98). Stronger, bolder, sexier than Eve, Lilith is the latter’s cleaning lady by day, but at night she steps out in “high heels,” “jumps the fence” of Paradise, and dares to defy Adam. As she says, “Nobody gives me orders / Now or ever” (Ostriker 1993: 94). Moreover, she “deconstructs scripture,” finds a “mother / Tongue” within this “curse, discourse,” and inspires her conventional sister with courage (Ostriker 1993: 95). In fact, the last is her most important function. Sympathetic to the concern for her children that keeps Eve obedient, Lilith brings forward her own “ancient angers”—the hundred babies she bears every day that are condemned to “die by nightfall” (Ostriker 1993: 96). In their memory she teaches Eve a lesson about “changing the language” (Ostriker 1993: 97). In “Lilith Says Where Trees Come From,” from which I quote more fully in the second epigraph above, she cites the weeds “pushing / Busting with lust” as an example of the resiliency and potential of the life force outside the dubious protection of the garden enclosure. Ostriker’s use of black vernacular as well as open form in these poems is doubly appropriate. Not only does it fit the sense of otherness she feels as a woman within Judaism (“I am and am not a Jew,” she writes in The Nakedness of the Fathers), it also deliberately breaks down barriers between self and other, a central tenet of her poetics and moral stance.
For H.D. as well, as exemplified in the above epigraph from her poem “Vale Ave,” the powerful, subversive law of Eros is associated with Lilith (and Lucifer) and not Eve (and Adam). That is, a felt connection with a marginalized woman opens a path to the redemptive power of communal memory. Significantly, in her case, the paradigmatic “other” woman is a Semite. Think, first, of the psychological connection between Raymonde Ransome, the neurasthenic heroine of the central story in Palimpsest who has repressed her husband’s betrayal during the war, and Ermentrude Solomon, “the Hampstead Jewess ... in a world of conscious pain” (H.D. 1968: 111). In the course of this story, Raymonde acclaims her Jewish guest as follows:
Twenty-five years later, after another, more terrible war, H.D. would write a major poetic lamentation primarily in the voice of another deserted woman: Helen in Egypt. In this masterpiece of palimpsestic thinking, she staged Helen’s response to Achilles’ anger as a hysterical “racial conversion” within the context of maternity (Edmunds 1994: 120). After Achilles blames Helen for the death of his legions, his “children,” she becomes “what his accusations made me, / Isis, forever with that Child, / the Hawk Horus” (H.D. 1961: 23).
For Ermy was beautiful (there was no getting round it) with the beauty of some unearthed Queen Nefertiti. She was beautiful with a glamour that belongs only to antiquity and racially Ermy was a direct blood inheritor of all the things that she, Raymonde, was attuned to. Egypt, the Syrian desert. Raymonde sensed around the brow of the tall Jewess (almost visibly) a band of dark exquisite wine-purple hyacinths. She was shocked by a sudden transference of all her values. Ermy was not of today, not even of yesterday, but of always and forever. (H.D. 1968: 126)
Although Helen’s is the dominant consciousness in Helen in Egypt, several other characters also speak: her three lovers, Achilles, Paris, and Theseus, as well as the eidolon of Thetis. Indeed, many critics, including Ostriker, have read the poem as a psychic journey, within a psychotherapeutic context, in which Helen recovers and works through traumatic communal memories engendered in time of war. As Eileen Gregory has written, claiming Euripidean tragedy as a subtext and stressing its communal aspect: “Helen in Egypt may be understood as an extended and greatly amplified choros sequence, in H.D.’s distinct invention of that form” (1997: 222). Helen is presented to us as the paradigmatic surviving woman. Moreover, as Adalaide Morris has pointed our, H.D.’s extraordinary use of sound in this poem is itself a style of thought. In Morris’s words, sound here is “a mode of primary attention, an orientation, a concentration” connected “more to the Mother / Daughter dyad than to Father ... a preoedipal ghostland or dreamland, at once sensuous and dematerialized, erotic and disembodied” (1997: 45,47). These readings remind us that mourning as a communal enterprise has garnered extensive attention as a female discourse, perhaps because of the intensity of maternal loss. As Maeera Shreiber has written, “Throughout antiquity, in both Greek and Middle Eastern culture, the lament as a standard feature of ritual life belonged largely to the women who gathered to lead the community in the rites of grief” (quoted in Prins and Shreiber 1997: 303).
In the aftermath of war, the linked journeys of Helen and Achilles take place within the context of profound philosophical questioning about the relation of illusion to reality, of dream to waking, of memory to desire, of man and woman to God. Such questions also pervade Ostriker’s book-length poem, The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions (1994). As innovative as H.D.’s in its mixture of genres (prose narrative, lyric poetry, autobiography, quotation from scripture and other writers), it, too, is the culmination of a lifetime study of ancient texts. Although I cannot do justice to its full scope here, I want to point out some of its confluences with H.D. around the themes of motherhood and morality and to suggest some differences. These differences enable Ostriker to move from lamentation encoded in myth, H.D.’s sense of art as covert resistance to the atrocities of history, to a sense of art as overt protest, in and of history.
First, more overtly than H.D. in Helen in Egypt, Ostriker begins with a mother’s perspective. Citing H.D. as a model, she says her biblical (re)visions began when she asked some questions about the Book of Job. Specifically, how would Job’s wife feel “about having the ten children who had been casually slain in order to test her husband’s devotion to God, replaced by ten new children?” (Ostriker 1994: xi). This question leads her to engage in a feminist version of the Jewish tradition of midrash (probing, searching); that is, “the eliciting from biblical verses meanings beyond the literal ... according to their contemporary relevance” (Seltzer 1980: 267). She organizes her book around this feminist agenda, interleaving biblical interpretation with autobiography and poetry. After an introductory section, “Entering the Tents,” Ostriker proceeds through sections titled “As in Myth: The Garden,” “Myth into Legend: The Fathers I,” “Legend into History: The Fathers II,” and finally, “Though She Delay: The Return of the Mothers.” Like H.D. in Tribute to Freud, Ostriker engages in a daring revision of “the family romance,” a revision centered on the development of female identity (instead of male) and the insight that the “power of the dream is the power of the biological family” (1994: 117). Like H.D., in “The Fathers I” she demystifies the biblical patriarchs, connecting them with her own ancestors: “Father Abraham is neither king, general, prophet, or priest, but an obscure shepherd whose newly circumcised loins produce in old age a particular seed, representing a particular idea” (Ostriker 1994: 50). Like H.D., this connection makes possible a recognition that the patriarchal religious impulse, God-the-Father, covers up the Goddess, suppresses the mother. However, at the end of this section, Ostriker’s plot differs from H.D.’s when “The Sisters,” Leah and Rachel, refuse to compete for men’s approval by bearing more children whose deaths they then obediently lament. Instead, Rachel alone steals her father’s “household idols,” and the poet employs the story of Joseph to write an “Interpretation of Dreams” that will result in a more radical symbolization of the divine:
At the end of the book this more radical symbolization culminates in a daring, “absurd” vision of the male deity. He is in “Intensive Care,” laboring to give birth to the memory of the goddess he has earlier swallowed, and this vision of him is followed by a prayer for the presence in the world of the Shekhinah (God’s female aspect) in which everyone participates:
Nonetheless the coat of many colors materializes at the moment of loss. A symbol of something else. A symbol of symbolism. The material object evoking the maternal subject: matter for pride and arrogance on the part of the naively exhibitionist child, matter for mutter on the part of his jealous brothers, patchwork of Israel’s sensuous love for Rachel-Joseph, fabric for another kind of story, a new velvet moment. (Ostriker 1994: 114)
He is trying to remember something, to remember something weighty but shapeless, something he swallowed, back there, as he calls it. Back there. He almost has it. Like a sort of fish. Like a minnow thrashing its tail in the midst of a whale. But presently the agony comes on him, seizes him, an iridescent foam roaring up the beach. (Ostriker 1994: 250)
Shekhinah shine your face on us
Shekhinah turn your countenance
To us and give us peace. (Ostriker 1994: 254)
Of course, in addressing the end of Ostriker’s book, I have omitted its longest section, which holds more examples of her differences from H.D. In “Legend into History,” Ostriker begins with a meditation on Moses’ childhood within ancient Egyptian culture. Feminized but over-refined in its embodiment of timelessness, this culture is built upon slavery, the crudest form of social injustice. Legend becomes Judeo-Christian history when Moses nurses his people through a project of liberation from this static worldview. Midrashim upon many biblical characters and events follow: Miriam, Aaron, Joshua, Ruth, Hannah, David, the covenant at Sinai, the Sabbath. The section concludes with “The Wisdom of Solomon” dramatized as a comic “summit” between Solomon and Sheba, who talk while making love. Solomon is wise, suggests Ostriker, because he is ready to take Sheba’s advice and permit women “to worship the goddesses of their choice upon the high places” (Ostriker 1994: 214). In fact, Solomon’s preference for vitality over the rule of preordained law is central to Ostriker’s midrashic method here, which is open and ongoing in substance as well as style. For midrash, according to Hartman and Budick, is “a life in literature or in scripture that is experienced in the shuttle space between the interpreter and the text” (1986: xi). That life, expressed in the moving autobiographical passages that recall specifics of family history, leads us to Ostriker’s main difference from H.D.
In her midrash on Job, subtitled “A Meditation on Justice,” Ostriker reminds us of that pivotal question she asked in the preface: “How would Job’s wife feel about having the ten children who had been casually slain in order to test her husband’s devotion to God, replaced by ten new children?” (Ostriker 1994: xi). Her answer, an extrapolation from the one line Job’s wife speaks in the traditional story (“Curse God and die”), is a rejection of the folktale frame of that story, “where Job gets everything back and is richer than before” (Ostriker 1994: 234). It is an angry rejection from the viewpoint of a woman “whose killed children remain under the ground where she cannot touch them again” of any formulaic assumption of God’s justice (Ostriker 1994: 235). Indeed, thought about the plight of Job’s wife leads Ostriker to a series of autobiographical memories that conclude with the realization that “without rage, love is helpless” (1994: 238). She concludes that women aren’t yet angry enough, that maybe when we demand justice of God, he will respond: “After all, he is merely the laws of physics, the magnificent laws of physics, and then the adorable laws of biology. And finally, circuit by ticking circuit through the neural nets, the exquisite laws of conscience” (Ostriker 1994: 239).
Inconsolable grief and rage at the loss of specific human children; in this midrash Ostriker is far from the sublime world of H.D.’s “Winter Love.” In H.D.’s late poem, an elderly Helen, engaged in anamnesis, acknowledges her loss: “l’ile blanche is l’ile noir” (1972: 112). But this acknowledgment is the prelude to the birth of a mysterious poem-child “Euphorion,” “Esperance,” who “lives in the hope of something that will be, / / the past made perfect” (H.D. 1972: 112). Similarly, in “Hermetic Definition,” H.D. employs the childbirth metaphor to dramatize a poetic triumph over death: “the writing was the un-born, I the conception” (1972: 54). It is not that H.D. does not understand the laws of physics, or of biology, or of conscience. Rather, her persistent hermeticism has to do partly with temperament and education, that is, with her roots in the romantic heritage of literary modernism. Partly it reflects the indelible effect upon her of the two world wars through which she lived. The exaltation she expresses here, as in other examples of sublime discourse, “arises from terror, terror beheld and resisted” (Terence Des Pres, quoted in Wilson 1991: 39). It is an expression of fictive self-empowerment that camouflages deeper feelings of social powerlessness (Wilson 1991: 211). Innovative in its use of female experience, specifically motherhood, H.D.’s late work nevertheless reflects a belief in a predetermined cosmic order for which she yearns. In her words, “unaware, Spirit announces the Presence; / shivering overtakes us, / as of old, Samuel” (H.D. 1973: 3). Like apocalyptic prophets before her, H.D. transfers the concept of a cyclical pattern inaccessible to human understanding to “God’s providential plan for history” (Seltzer 1980: 161). Even in “Hermetic Definition,” where direct references to personal and contemporary history indicate a philosophical change, at the end she dresses herself in “nun-grey” to proclaim: “Night brings the Day” (H.D. 1972: 55). Were it not for the terseness of this final assertion, her recourse to the sublime would suggest complacency.
In contrast, Ostriker’s midrash about Job is prefaced with two epigraphs, the first from the biblical character himself, who prays to God from his ash heap, the second from Paul Celan, who speaks bitterly, ironically, angrily. Considering the ashes of the Holocaust, Celan decries God’s absence:
In fact, there are many references to the deaths of Jews in the Holocaust in The Nakedness of the Fathers and throughout Ostriker’s work. However, perhaps her most powerful poem on this subject, “The Eighth and the Thirteenth,” is from The Crack in Everything (1996). The numbers in the poem’s title refer to two symphonies by Dmitri Shostakovich about the atrocities of World War II. “Music about the worst / Horror history offers,” Ostriker writes (1996: 29). Part of the composer’s “War Triptych,” Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony reflects “the Russian ethos of 1943 ... a numb sorrow mixed with anger ... life revolved around the ever-present threat of death and destruction” (Blokker 1979: 95). His Thirteenth Symphony, composed in 1962, contains a setting for Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar” about the thousands of Jews massacred outside of Kiev in 1941 whose traces were later covered up by Soviet authorities. Both Yevtushenko’s poem and the symphony, scored for voices and orchestra, have a dual function of memorial and protest. As the composer explained in 1968, “Soviet music is a weapon in the ideological battle [against government repression]. Artists cannot stand as indifferent observers in this struggle” (Blokker 1979: 133). In her poem’s tribute to these symphonies, Ostriker shares this view of the dual social functions of art. She also shares the composer’s intensity, directness, and method of incorporating other voices. In one long verse column, uninterrupted until near the end, she blends her voice with the sound of these symphonies, with two substantial quotations from the composer’s memoir, and with a line quoted from a sister poet, Marina Tsvetaeva. Together with these others, she makes a claim for art that transforms pathos into ethos. She substitutes an ethics of human relationship within history for one that mystifies the divine.
Blessed art thou, No-one.
For thy sake we
thee. (1986: 231)
This aspect of Ostriker’s work, which extends the moral imperative of motherhood, acquires specificity when it is read in the context of Emmanuel Levinas’s account of “‘responsibility for the Other’ as ‘the primal and fundamental structure of subjectivity’” (quoted in Prins and Shreiber 1997: 313). In Ethics and Infinity, Levinas explains: “‘I understand responsibility as responsibility for the Other, thus as responsibility for what is not my deed, or for what does not even matter to me; or which precisely does matter to me, is met by me as face—the “face” meaning the fully vulnerable presence of the Other’” (quoted in Prins and Shreiber 1997: 313). Certainly Shostakovich exemplified this view in his life as a composer. A Christian, he faced ignominy and risked death in his opposition to the tyranny of Stalin. Moreover, in the Thirteenth Symphony, as well as in other works, he dearly identified himself with the Jewish dead against Soviet authority and world indifference, as did Tsvetaeva, who ultimately committed suicide. In the course of her poem, Ostriker gathers strength from the words of both of them.
Art destroys silence. I know that many will not agree with me
and will point out other, more noble aims of art. They’ll
talk about beauty, grace, and other high qualities. But you
won’t catch me with that bait . ...
Most of my symphonies are tombstones, said Shostakovich.
All poets are Jews, said Tsvetaeva. (1996: 31)
At the beginning, however, Ostriker is in a grimmer mood. Listening to public radio “in solitude” at night while sipping a glass of wine, she drinks the “somber” Eighth Symphony “to the vile lees” (1996: 29). As the composer draws out the “minor thirds, the brass tumbles overhead,” mixing in her mind with pictures of human indifference to destruction.
The specific historical context yields a powerful, ugly image of “divine” childbirth that contrasts sharply with H.D.’s euphoric images of hope:
Who know when meat is in the offing,
Oboes form a ring. An avalanche
Of iron violins. (Ostriker 1996: 29)
In this image, a marvel of compression, Ostriker performs a kind of reverse Adam/Messiah typology. Here Christ does not fulfill God’s promise of salvation after the fall. Instead, he is mapped onto Adam, out of whose side comes not Eve but dead babies. Thus she fuses the mystification of childbirth in Judea-Christian religious tradition with its suppression of women, and she invests both with the pain of human history. Indeed, for Ostriker, as for Shostakovich, the assault on theodicy presented in genocide and other imposed misery is best reflected in paradoxical, discordant music:
During the years of siege
Between bombardment, hunger,
And three subfreezing winters,
Three million dead were born
Out of Christ’s bloody side. Like icy
Fetuses. (Ostriker 1996: 29)
The words never again
Clashing against the words
Again and again
—That music. (Ostriker 1996: 31)
How would H. D. have regarded Ostriker’s more disillusioned poetic impetus? At the end of her life, H.D. was moving in this direction too. In End to Torment, her memoir of Ezra Pound, she also addresses, in retrospect, the compulsion and grandiosity of her own romantic quest in Helen in Egypt, which she often referred to as her “Cantos,” echoing Pound. Considering the imprisonment at Pisa of her old colleague and the motives of Eliot’s poetry as well, she wrote: “The prison actually of the Self was dramatized or materialized for our generation by Ezra’s incarceration” (H.D. 1979: 56). After that she reduced the scope of her poetry. There is a noticeable austerity in her late music, a greater resistance in her poetic line.
How would H.D. have greeted Alicia Ostriker’s accomplishment?
With appreciation and applause.
Donna Krolik Hollenberg is Professor Emeritus at the University of Connecticut. Her areas of specialities include Twentieth-Century British Literature, Twentieth-Century American Literature, Women’s Writing and Feminist Literary Theory, and Poetry. Her most recent work is published in Denise Levertov in Company: Essays by Her Students, Colleagues, and Fellow Writers (2018).
“The Crack in Everything: Metaphor and Love in the Poetry of Alicia Ostriker” by Terry Lucas
Alicia Ostriker champions metaphor, not only as one of many poetic tropes, but also as the mother nexus to which her figurative language adheres. She weighs in with Aristotle, for whom metaphor is “the intuitive perception of similarity in dissimilars” and “the one thing that cannot be learned from others” (1479). But, for Ostriker, metaphor is more: “It is a sign of love, it is what language uses to show that the world is full of connections” (“Eros and Metaphor”). These ideas are never more enacted in her work than in The Crack in Everything, and never more epitomized than in the poem “The Figure of Metaphor,” which serves as a primer for the entire collection (55).
The poem’s opening stanzas are replete with rhizomes of metaphor—linguistic connectors to other images and ideas that may bypass a cursory inspection. These lateral roots quietly, yet persistently, spread underground as tentacles of new growth, which erupt later in the poem and throughout the work.
The “trip,” the “vans,” “Athens,” the “olives,” and the “octopus” are all buds on “the world’s uncanny oneness.” Ostriker continues to construct her conceit.
"The Figure of Metaphor"
What a trip, the morning I first saw it
Printed on sides of vans in downtown Athens,
METAPHOROS. Invented here, a local product
Like olives and octopus, what cannot
Be taught, says Aristotle, what genius
Has to discover, the world’s uncanny oneness.
In unlike lands it patches parts together,
Bears its own future fruit, a pregnant mother,
And there it is, the first fruit of the spadework done thus far: the figure of metaphor itself rising within the poem as a metaphor—a metaphor for metaphor itself. The gods are to Greek civilization what metaphor is to poetry. You no more have poetry without metaphor than Ancient Greece without the pantheon. But Ostriker is not content to merely state her case and support it with worthy examples (although she does that quite well in the ensuing stanzas, imploring Persephone, Poseidon, Odysseus, Eros, Zeus, and Pan, to name a few). She relentlessly broadens her connections not only by using metaphor, but also by writing with what Peter Campion calls a metaphorical sense.
Demonstrates when we mount Acropolis
Up footsore steps, jostled and shoved by more
Hasty sightseers, its deep antiquity—
Pericles built these piles to Athens’ glory,
Her gleam, so that her democratic harbor
Might welcome tourists from all Asia Minor
Afloat with awe and obols. The idea
Flew; the town boomed as a cultural center,
Meaning a place where one robs foreigners;
Where, conquered by force of arms, one may
Instruct the vulgar victor to surrender
His brutish manners, and by arts and letters
Perceive the gods as motive’s metaphors…
One such larger shape of being is embedded in stanzas 7-8.
By “metaphorical sense” I mean a type of inventiveness that can appear even when metaphor seems absent. It’s not merely a knack for crafting comparisons without “like” or “as,” but the ability to establish far-reaching connections, as well as disjunctions, in consciousness . . . to examine and re-examine motifs [that] begin to constellate a whole climate of thought and feeling as amplitudinous as any symbol system. Metaphorical sense always implies the vision of a larger shape of being. (228-229)
Poseidon greets the viewer with an arm
Unimpeachably awesome, a mature
Male torso, an unconquerable gaze
Designed to make Odysseus look both ways
Before a crossing—Ocean as a man
I study carefully all afternoon
From every gorgeous storm-reflecting angle
Until ejected by museum guards…
Wedged in between the objective limestone realities of the statues of Poseidon and Odysseus, the poet has grown stalks of subjective history nurtured from the canon. In “an arm / Unimpeachably awesome, a mature / Male torso…I study carefully all afternoon / From every gorgeous storm-reflecting angle,” we hear echos of Whitman’s “that lot of me and all so luscious” (49) and “no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones” (43)—the same lines, among others, that a thirteen-year-old Alicia Ostriker devoured and later would metabolize into her own poetry (Dancing 26-27).
With a masterful hand (and eye and ear), Ostriker nurtures images toward nuanced vistas that, although wide, do not exhaust possibilities, but rather are true samples of a landscape whose elements can be utilized for good or ill. Thus, Poseidon’s “unimpeachably awesome arm,” morphs into repressive government in “The Eighth & Thirteenth” (The Crack 29), his “unconquerable gaze” into imperialism in “The Russian Army Goes Into Baku” (27), and his look[ing] both ways reminds one of Whitman’s elusive play (with “I” and “the other I” and “you”) in “I believe in you, my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you, / And you must not be abased to the other” (Dancing 27). As blossoms forth from the best poets, all of this (and more) rises from the ground of Ostriker’s metaphorical sense.
Although most of the time Ostriker does not “tell us,” but prefers to “show us,” she ends the poem by singing out the very word that, for her, is metaphor’s goal.
What sweetness and light? Now moth wings dive
For streetlamps as we make for our hotel,
As up the boulevard a vehicle
Stamped METAPHOROS beeps at us; we wave;
As from each jukebox tenors croon of love.
If love, for Ostriker, is the destination of metaphor, the journey must take its traveler through everything—all experiences and endeavors of all forms of existence—with the purpose of discovering inherent connections, language offering itself as a catalyst for the reader to become one with “the other” and, standing apart, to be defined by it as well. In The Crack In Everything, Ostriker works through a plethora of material, shining her searchlights of elucidation, and aiming her stage lights of entertainment onto characters as disparate as a campus security guard unlocking a professor’s office door, dogs chasing sticks on a beach, a child in a high chair rejecting a spoonful of spinach, a transparent, boneless jellyfish, and a glassful of zinnias on a kitchen table—all with a therapeutic dose of humor, often walking stately up to the poem’s podium, and then dancing offstage in the final lines. She focuses in on details as small as subatomic neutrinos, and pans out to views as capacious as “our cerulean globe spin[ning] through its void” (74). She reaches as far back as ancient Rome and Greece, even back before them to isolated, wandering tribes that preceded the Old Testament nation of Israel, while still vividly recalling last “Saturday night” where “every adolescent body hot / Enough to sweat it out on the dancefloor // Is a laboratory” (34). And, as Whitman celebrated all that was America, Ostriker celebrates all that is human, non-human, sacred, profane, full of flaws, warts and all—the cracked existence that belongs to everyone—not in spite of its imperfections, but precisely because of them. Like the rivers of lava that lap the planet at the borders of its tectonic plates, these cracks connect us, and give us life. Ostriker’s celebration and lament are wound inseparably together in “Marie at Tea” (5).
You remember the extremes
There is no such thing as ordinary
My heart aches, literally, and a drowsy
So I wonder if I will die soon
Sometimes I am so tired
I want to
You remember the extremes
The poem proceeds with dark narratives wrapped around unbearable feelings. The first tells of the death of her spouse’s father—how she and her husband rode a train to London, where they listened to a Joan Baez record of “The Great Silkie,” how “he threw / His head in [her] lap and sobbed, [she] / Never saw him weep again although / [She had] sobbed and yowled countless times / On his chest his lap his shoulder” (lines 19-23). The scene abruptly switches to the poet giving birth for the first time, her husband in the labor room helping her breathe, reading a childbirth textbook that frightened him so much with the five hundred pages of possible complications that he wanted to tell the doctor “if he had a choice / To let the baby go and save his wife.” “I have always felt,” she writes, “This to be touching” (lines 39-42). Finally she recalls a conversation over lunch, begging him to quit “fooling around” with a young girl, only to have him refuse (lines 43-47). She concludes:
The extreme things
Not the normal
A day at the races
A night at the opera
Everything slightly cracked
Then afterward you say:
We’re married this long
Because we are both too stubborn
To admit we made a mistake,
Which is a good line
And a workable disguise
The truth is that you do not know the truth
The kernel of death
Life wraps itself around
Like chamois cloth
Around a diamond
Cold at the center
Precious no doubt because
Inhumanly old, that
Is my idea of
Love, of marriage, the
The narratives of impermanence in Marie at Tea arc from Section I into multiple vignettes of death and dying in The Book of Life (39) (the title of both Section II and its only poem), with “This is the year your mother finally / Went blind, stamping and screaming I can see / Perfectly well and This is your fault,” (lines 19-21), “It is the year your favorite uncle died, / He who taught you your first Jewish jokes / And called America hopeless, politicians / In bed with profiteers,” (lines 24-26), “The year your daughter left for Oregon / To escape you, while you cramp over with dread / Of crowded arteries that could / Any time worsen—” (lines 29-31), “We know the myth of the artist dying young / Consumptive, crazy, / The lyric poet melting back / Like a jack-in-the-pulpit in April woods,” (lines 44-47), and “We know too the myth of our self-destructiveness / The slide into a needle, the cave of fur, / The singer burned alive like his smashed guitar,” (lines 51-53).
The problem, says Ostriker, is not knowing which story is ours, “which script applies to us,” (line 65). And then, of course, it is not death itself that is dreaded, but what leads to it: “When we think, not of death / But of the decay before it—before us— / I ask you at high noon, who doesn’t flinch?” (v, lines 1-3). This last passage proleptically envisions the aftermath of life-threatening disease in Section III in the poem “After Illness” (50). Listen in on the poet’s wrestling conversation with herself over the dilemma of how to spend time in bed recovering, and listen to how her inner dialogue blurs the distinctions between disease and love and writing, as she attempts to answer the question: “What does my inner mind have on its mind?”
If I say, I’ll use this solitude
To discover my true feeling about my mastectomy,
To do the mourning I’ve been postponing,
Or if I think, I’ll surrender myself
To the adoration I feel for X,
Which I prudently control when he’s nearby,
Then that’s not it!
Whatever I can consciously intend
By definition isn’t it!
Hush. Quiet the mind. Leap motionless.
The Tao that can be spoken
Is not the true Tao.
Perhaps I must surrender
The need to write, to metabolize experience
Into poems. Come on, my guides,
Presences, do you think that’s impossible?
Do you think it is desirable?
I’m not going to decide this by myself.
Look, I’m just going to turn
over on my back, on the blanket, nothing
between here and the sky,
What I want
Is to listen, what I want
Is to follow instructions.
Again, Ostriker moves beyond the simple use of metaphor to a vision created from her metaphorical sense. This is supported by the use of craft, exemplified in the following enjambments where, in both instances, the second lines serve to take the first ones in new directions, and to subvert our expectations about what will appear in the third: “I’ll use this solitude…to do the mourning I’ve been postponing // Or if I think I’ll surrender myself / To the adoration I feel for X,” (lines 1,3, 4-5), and “Perhaps I must surrender / The need to write, to metabolize experience / Into poems” (lines 13-15a). The result is that mourning (over physical disease) is tied to the attraction of another person, and both are tied to the act of writing.
But craft alone cannot achieve, in the mind of Ostriker, that which connects “the blanket, nothing / Between here and the sky,” the ineffable “wordless hush” seemingly for which her poems are striving. “That which can be consciously intended” (the poet’s desire to mourn for her mastectomy, her desire for an inappropriate lover, and—am I too presumptuous to assert?—the indirect comparison of simile), does not adequately express the “inner mind.” Like the lover who seeks completion, satisfaction is impossible “by one[self].” What is needed is the voice of the beloved (“I’m not going to decide this by myself”): “What I want / Is to listen, what I want / Is to follow instructions.” And those instructions in Ostriker’s vision are from language itself—a language that arises not from her own thinking—those “eighteen-wheelers / On the brain’s interstate highways,” those “eels / In the neural nets,” but from a place even she cannot quite articulate, a place of unnamed “guides” and “presences.” This language, created inside her own body, almost of its own accord by the consumption of the language of other poets, is what will tie together the experience of the imminent loss of one’s own flesh and the loss of a love affair that might never happen—and both of these with all loss and all gain.
“After Illness” is an ideational, as well as a prosodic, precursor to the climax of The Crack in Everything: “The Mastectomy Poems” (85). The series is a master class in metaphor, the substance of its language being at once gorgeous, erotic, ambiguous, tragic and comedic, and the substance of its ideas being as significant as any dealt with by any poet of any era: death and its attendant physical and emotional pain. The poem around which the others adhere is “Mastectomy” (88).
for Alison Estabrook
I shook your hand before I went.
Your nod was brief, your manner confident,
A ship’s captain, and there I lay, a chart
Of the bay, no reefs, no shoals.
While I admired your boyish freckles,
Your soft green gown with the oval neck,
The drug sent me away, like the unemployed.
I swam and supped with the fish, while you
Cut carefully in, I mean
I assume you were careful,
They say it took you an hour or so.
The metaphors in this passage, as well as in others, serve both to unite the things compared and to provide a distance, a separation between them. This process is not a neat or tidy one—just as in the case of lovers, the goal is to lose identity and to further define it.
Comparing the surgeon to a ship’s captain, and the body of her patient to “a chart / Of the bay, no reefs, no shoals,” sheds light on both “the thing[s] to be described,” the metaphrands—in this instance, the surgeon, the patient—and “the thing[s] used to elucidate it [them],” the metaphiers —the captain, the chart (Jaynes 48). This surgeon (like a ship’s captain who has navigated numerous bodies of water) is as experienced in performing surgery on the patient as the captain is charting her course through the bay. But notice how the unspoken images of the surgeon and the waiting body of the patient lend meaning to the work of the ship captain, who surgically navigates through the open body of water lying before her. This unspoken gesture, this holding back, is what adds to the eroticism of the passage that would be spoiled with simile. The further details of “no reef, no shoals” provides more interest as we approach the images: this body, this procedure, is uncomplicated, straightforward—an additional reason for the “manner confident.” In addition, the choice of “bay” as the body of water rather than ocean or river or lake (each of which would give a different slant to the roles of captain, chart, physician, patient), connotes a place one returns to: home, hearth, safe-haven—the consummate locus of nurture.
Ostriker continues this “hustling of metaphor” to explore the elements of erotic fusion and separation (“Eros and Metaphor”). Line 7 (“The drug sent me away, like the unemployed.”), ostensibly provides distance, while lines 8-9a (“I swam and supped with the fish, while you / Cut carefully in…”), bring a return of intimacy. A closer look reveals that, like a fractal, which exhibits the same design properties regardless of size, when smaller units of these lines are examined, poles both of repulsion and attraction are present. While the drug sends the narrator away to another location, it is not a place devoid of interaction with other life forms. And while there is opportunity for, and actual participation in, swimming and supping, the speaker is still separate from them, evidenced by a language falling short of the complete metaphor of “I was a fish,” falling back, rather, to an implied simile of “I [was] with the fish.”
In the final stanza, by incorporating direct address in the context of dream, the poet realizes a complete blurring of being one with, yet separate from, the beloved.
Was I succulent? Was I juicy?
Flesh is grass, yet I dreamed you displayed me
In pleated paper like a candied fruit.
I thought you sliced me like green honeydew,
Or like a pomegranate full of seeds,
Tart as Persephone’s, those electric dots
That kept that girl in hell,
Those jelly pips that made her queen of death.
Doctor, you knifed, chopped and divided it
Like a watermelon’s ruby flesh
Flushed a little, serious
About your line of work
Scooped up the risk in the ducts
Scooped up the ducts
Dug out the blubber,
Spooned it off and away, nipple and all.
Eliminated the odds, nipped out
Those almost insignificant grains that might
Or might not have lain dormant forever.
The address is at once as if to a lover (“Was I succulent? Was I juicy?”) and to a professional performing her art (“Doctor, you knifed, chopped and divided it . . . serious / about your line of work”). Again, each of these lines (as well as others), connotes the effect opposite to its denotation. The imploring lover’s request for validation is in itself an admission of separation. And the knife that chops and divides also connects, cleaving the doctor to the patient forever, even as it separates flesh from flesh.
In the opening line to the next stanza, as well as in the lines that follow, we can once again hear Whitman.
The “you” of the doctor, the epigraphed Alison Estabrook, and the “you” of the reader—even the “you” of Whitman and the “candied fruit” of the body—are blurred in the same way that Whitman played with the relationship of parts to whole. And that is the point, metaphorically: language is enacting the inquiry into the questions of what a person is in relation to her body and its parts—even the diseased or missing ones.
Flesh is grass, yet I dreamed you displayed me
In pleated paper like a candied fruit,
This is poetry at its highest function: to express love of language and life by shining the light of metaphor on both, discovering their connections—the chief ones in this volume residing in the ubiquitous flaws of existence. The poems in Section IV widen these cracks exposed in the other sections of the book. Here, Ostriker reopens the seams, the hidden zippers in fabrics that cover us and, artfully (even with humor), undresses one reality in order to reveal another—and to be revealed by both. A brief look at the most significant satellite poems in this section is in order, beginning with “The Bridge” (85).
You never think it will happen to you,
What happens every day to other women.
Then as you sit paging a magazine,
Its beauties lying idly in your lap,
Waiting to be routinely waved good-bye
Until next year, the mammogram technician
Says Sorry, we need to do this again,
And you have already become a statistic,
Citizen of a country where the air,
Water, your estrogen, have just saluted
Their target cells, planted their Judas kiss
Inside the Jerusalem of the breast.
Here on the film what looks like specks of dust
Is calcium deposits.
Go put your clothes on in a shabby booth
Whose curtain reaches halfway to the floor.
Try saying fear. Now feel
Your tongue as it cleaves to the roof of your mouth.
What a horrifically splendid image is this “country where the air, / Water, your estrogen, have just saluted / Their target cells, planted their Judas kiss / Inside the Jerusalem of the breast.” Contrast it with the following, two stanzas later, after having read medical articles and made decisions, the narrator, riding toward the hospital with her husband, is presented with a choice of routes:
Given a choice of tunnel or bridge
Into Manhattan, the granite crust
On its black platter of rivers, we prefer
Elevation to depth, vista to crawling
The title of this poem works on many levels. Not only is the poet stating metaphorically that the preference is to openly connect this experience with others rather than to bury it, she is also obliquely referring to figurative language, behind which she does not hide pain, but openly shows it, along with other attendant emotions. The language spans in the open sky; the cancer tunnels beneath the skin in secret. The language points beyond itself to connect life with life; the cancer points only to itself, cutting off life. The language rises on “wings” like the “planes taking off over the marsh,” while the cancer “exhales her poisons.” Ostriker calls out this language directly in “Healing,” a later poem in The Mastectomy Poems (96):
A day that is less than zero
Icicles fat as legs of deer
Hang in a row from the porch roof
A hand without a mitten
Grabs and breaks one off—
A brandished javelin
Made of sheer
To which the palm sticks
As the shock of cold
Instantly shoots through the arm
To the heart—
I need a language like that,
A recognizable enemy, a clarity—
I do my exercises faithfully,
My other arm lifts,
I apply vitamin E,
White udder cream
To the howl
I make vow after vow.
The theme of intertwinement between disease and the search for a language to express it (“I need a language like that, / A recognizable enemy, a clarity” [lines 14-15]), is also pursued in “Wintering” (93).
i had expected more than this.
i had not expected to be
an ordinary woman.
It snows and stops, now it is January,
The houseplants need feeding,
The guests have gone. Today I’m half a boy,
Flat as something innocent, a clean
Plate, just needing a story.
A woman should be able to say
I’ve become an Amazon,
Warrior woman minus a breast,
The better to shoot arrow
After fierce arrow,
Or else I am that dancing Shiva
Carved in the living rock at Elephanta,
One-breasted male deity, but I don’t feel
Holy enough or mythic enough.
Taking courage, I told a man I’ve resolved
To be as sexy with one breast
As other people are with two
And he looked away.
But it is not in Ostriker’s longing for the language to express disease as her personal “crack” in the nature of things that makes “The Mastectomy Poems” the quintessence of this collection. It is the language that she creates with the writing of these poems that seduces us into a deeper relationship with our own flawed existence, and that can lead us to discover our own language as connection to it—enacting the very process that she is writing about—that makes this collection not only memorable, but emblematic of what each poet should be striving for in her own writing. While this is most realized in “Mastectomy,” it is well supported in other poems in this section.
In “Riddle: Post-Op” (87) Ostriker sets the tone for a riddle with these opening lines: “A-tisket a-tasket / I’m out of my casket / Into my hospital room” (87). She continues to describe a festive post-op experience with her family gathered around her, “children plump as chestnuts by the fire,” and “friends bob[ing] in/And out like apples.” But in lines 16-35, beneath this façade of heightened normality, and underneath her bandage, the patient is hiding something:
I’ve a secret, I’ve a riddle
That’s not a chestful of medals
Or a jeweled lapel pin
And not the trimly sewn
Breast pocket of a tailored business suit
It doesn’t need a hanky
It’s not the friendly slit of a zipper
Or a dolphin grin
Or a kind word from the heart
Not a twig from a dogwood tree
Not really a worm
Though you could have fooled me
It was not drawn with crayon
Brushed on with watercolor
Or red ink,
It makes a skinny stripe
That won’t come off with soap
A scarlet letter lacking a meaning
Guess what it is
In one two-word line, with perfect pitch, Ostriker sounds a bell that both celebrates (“a chestful of medals,” “a jeweled lapel pin,” “the friendly slip of a zipper,” “a dolphin grin,” “a kind word from the heart”), and denies (“not,” “doesn’t,” “won’t,” “lacking”), culminating in the word “nothing.” Nothing—yet everything. A crack in the bell that defines and refines the tone of life’s celebration—enhancing it, shading its meaning within a context of entropy that dissolves into mourning, and finally into nonexistence. The riddle is more than finding the solution to the question posed in the poem, finding out what’s hiding “underneath [those] squares of gauze.” The riddle is discovering meaning in connecting that scar with one’s children, one’s mate, one’s friends, in connecting the pain of mortality with dolphins, a dogwood tree, and, finally, with oneself, wearing “a feathery shawl” made of “snow,” that temporary (albeit beautiful) protection that nature provides, melting away in the heat of the grave. And the genius of the poem in not that each image metaphorically “stands” for something else, but that the entire poem is a metaphor for all beings who are only temporarily “out of [their] casket” until in the end “it’s [all] nothing.” Metaphorical sensibility once again underpins the text.
In “What Was Lost” the poet does utilize a more common use of metaphor in the final line to underscore the origin and purpose of flesh, and its ultimate destiny (90). The opening lines reflect what all children and adolescents believe: that they are indestructible.
After several lines of a litany of praise to her breast, the poet returns to her childhood assumption, now shattered, and concludes: “How funny I thought goodness would protect it. / Jug of star fluid, breakable cup—” (lines 31-32). And in these two metaphors, Ostriker recreates in gorgeous language the crack in everything, for every element that we—and all that we know—are made from was forged in a star that exploded billions of years ago. And no matter how long lasting, each element in our collective bodies will eventually be reduced to one and the same element when our star swells and destroys all that it has made. Perhaps Ostriker was envisioning this bitter/sweet apocalyptic rebirth whenever she wrote these final lines:
What fed my daughters, my son
Trickles of bliss,
My right guess, my true information,
What my husband sucked on
For decades, so that I thought
Myself safe, I thought love
Protected the breast.
Each tree standing afire with solid citrus
Lanterns against the gleaming green,
Ready to be harvested and eaten.
Ostriker progresses through additional stages of mourning—denial and acceptance—in “Normal” (95) and “December 31” (92), which opens with these lines,
and closes with these:
I say this year no different
From any other, so we party, the poets
And physicists arrive bearing
Cheese, chile, sesame noodles,
Meats, mints, whatever—
No different, no
Different, and by 3 A.M. if
The son of my blood
And the wild student of my affection
Should choose to carry on…
…may they hear me
Mutter in sleep, sleep
Well and happy
In “Normal,” the poet draws upon imagery from the Genesis account of creation and the subsequent fall of mankind to rewrite the myth of how suffering and dying comes to us all:
And here the roots of metaphor, gathered from the ground of Biblical narratives, the literary canon, and intuitive sensibilities, those tubers that traveled through the digestive tract of Ostriker’s own work, come full circle to a snaking “silky scar” that the poet invites her readers to finger, to caress—to experience its antinomies first-hand before it fastens itself to their own chests.
Meanwhile a short piece of cosmic string
Uncoiled from the tenth dimension
Has fastened itself to my chest.
Ominous asp, it burns and stings,
Grimaces to show it has no idea
How it arrived here.
Would prefer to creep off.
Yet it is pink and smooth as gelatin.
It will not bite and can perhaps be tamed.
Want to pet it? It cannot hurt you.
Care to fingertip my silky scar?
This passage and this collection exemplify the reasons one must read in order to write well. And I have found no one better to read than Alicia Ostriker in order to discover what I didn’t know that I already knew. I can think of no better place to start reading her than in The Crack in Everything, and I have found no better poems to illustrate her metaphorical sense, her love, than in “The Mastectomy Poems.” In them, you will find both metaphor and love shining in and on all of the cracks—even yours—and you just might find your own healing metaphors, as well.
“Epilogue: Nevertheless” (99)
The bookbag on my back, I’m out the door.
Winter turns to spring
The way it does, and I buy dresses.
A year later, it gets to where
When they say How are you feeling,
With that anxious look on their faces,
And I start to tell them the latest
About my love life or my kids’ love lives,
Or my vacation or my writer’s block—
It actually takes me a while
To realize what they have in mind—
I’m fine, I say, I’m great, I’m clean.
The bookbag on my back, I have to run.
Echoing Whitman with a twist, Alicia Suskin Ostriker challenges us to catch her if we can—not in the metaphors she loves, but in our own, gleaned from our own reading and our own living. In The Crack in Everything, she has surely shown us how to find them.
Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Random House, 1966.
Campion, Peter. “Strangers.” Poetry. 195.3 (2009): 225-232.
Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
Ostriker, Alicia. “Eros and Metaphor.” The Healing Art of Writing: A Conference and Writing Workshop. Dominican University, San Rafael, Ca. 9 July 2012.
Ostriker, Alicia. Dancing at the Devil’s Party. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2003.
Ostriker, Alicia. The Crack in Everything. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: The Viking Press, 1959.
Terry Lucas’s two full-length poetry collections are Dharma Rain (Saint Julian Press, 2017) and In This Room (CW Books, 2016). His chapbook, If They Have Ears to Hear, was the 2012 winner of the Copperdome Chapbook Contest (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2013). He has recent or forthcoming work in Alaska Quarterly Review and Naugatuck River Review. Terry is a regular guest speaker in the Dominican University of California’s Low-Residency MFA Program, and a free-lance poetry coach.