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"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 b