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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 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.