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"Exploring the Depths of Relationships in Alicia Ostriker’s Poetry" by Janet Ruth Heller
The family systems and psychodynamic theories of psychologists like Nancy Chodorow, Harriet Goldhor Lerner, Luise Eichenbaum, and Susie Orbach can illuminate the poetry of contemporary writers like Alicia Suskin Ostriker. All of these writers are concerned about the tensions in intimate relationships. The psychologists’ analysis of the mother-child bond, our ambivalence about intimacy, our separation anxiety, and our tendency to overfunction or underfunction emotionally can help us to understand many of Ostriker’s poems in A Woman Under the Surface (1982), The Imaginary Lover (1986), and Green Age (1989).
It is no accident that writers in different fields are exploring the deep emotions and deep needs involved in our interactions with family members, friends, and lovers. Now is a time of change and upheaval in relationships. Our society is questioning traditions, including stereotyped sex roles and patterns of interaction. These drastic changes generate anxiety and conflict. Writers who can penetrate the mysteries of the ties that bind have universal appeal for a confused society.
Alicia Ostriker’s poetry is moving because it confronts important issues in intimate relationships without flinching from deep emotions and deep anxieties. She avoids the simple-minded categories of villain and victim, and she also avoids the blaming stances of many popular writers, who condemn a particular person or sex for all of their problems. She confesses her fear, her anger, her despair, her fantasies—in short, she admits her imperfection and her vulnerability. This emotional honesty is one reason why The Imaginary Lover won the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award. The poems in Ostriker’s books are often related to her feminist theory as expounded in her study, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America (1986). In this essay, I will focus on her poems about male-female and mother-daughter relationships because they are insightful and have psychological depth.
Like many feminist writers, Ostriker has been influenced by Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering (1978), which analyzes the impact of traditional family structure on the development of men and women. Ostriker mentions Chodorow’s book frequently in Stealing the Language, especially the psychologist’s analysis of the mother-daughter bond (see Stealing the Language 70, 166-67, 190). According to Chodorow, when one woman does most of the parenting, a child emerges from the oedipal period with a gender-polarized personality. Specifically, Chodorow argues, “Masculine personality . . . comes to be defined more in terms of denial of relation and connection (and denial of femininity), whereas feminine personality comes to include a fundamental definition of self in relationship” (169). Women’s nurturant capacities and needs are fostered, while men’s similar capacities and needs “have been systematically curtailed and repressed” (7). This polarization creates problems for marriages and other male-female relationships because women tend to idealize men and want men to help meet their emotional needs, but men “are unable either to express their own emotional needs or respond to those of women” (197). Thus, intimacy and communication suffer.
Although Ostriker does not mention the work of Harriet Goldhor Lerner, the examination of family dynamics in The Dance of Anger (1985) and The Dance of Intimacy (1989) also sheds light on Ostriker’s poetry. Lerner finds that many people both desire and fear closeness. This ambivalence creates tension in intimate relationships. Lerner defines the ideal relationship as “one in which neither party silences, sacrifices, or betrays the self and each party expresses strength and vulnerability, weakness and competence in a balanced way” (Dance of Intimacy 3). However, women have traditionally been expected by society to sacrifice some of their selfhood in order to fulfill the needs of others. As a result, women often “underfunction” in relationships.
Mutual blaming, unproductive fighting, and emotional distancing are common in relationships like the one outlined above.
A wife, for example, may become increasingly entrenched in the role of the weak, vulnerable, dependent, or otherwise dysfunctional partner. Her husband, to the same degree, may disown and deny these qualities in himself. He may begin to direct the bulk of his emotional energy toward reacting to his spouse’s problems, rather than identifying and sharing his own. . . . The more the man avoids sharing his own weaknesses, neediness, and vulnerability, the more his woman may experience and express more than her share. [In terms of emotions, the woman overfunctions.] The more the woman avoids showing her competence and strength, the more her man will have an inflated sense of his own. (Dance of Anger 21)
Ostriker frequently portrays the tension inherent in male-female bonds. She complains that fear reduces the intimacy and emotional honesty in close relationships. Many of her poems are about quarrels between a man and a woman. The prose poem “Those Who Know Do Not Speak, Those Who Speak Do Not Know” from A Woman Under the Surface implicates both men and women in relationship problems. The wife suspects her husband of infidelity and expresses her anger, not verbally, but rather by “twice hurling/ A kitchen knife at the door where he stood.” The husband feels “like beating her up”; however, he expresses his anger in what psychologists call a “passive/aggressive” fashion: “He closed his mouth, his eyes, and his pores, like curtains.” We will find images of men’s tendency to close themselves to emotions and to true intimacy in many of Ostriker’s poems. This male silence and closing off spur the wife to “overfunction” by experiencing both her own emotions and his feelings. Meanwhile, the husband can pretend that he is wise and calm and unemotional. Wearing this mask, he gives his sobbing wife a lecture the next morning: “He suggested that personal anger was / Seldom valid. She sat on the tub and agreed” (31). The marriage continues and the two people make “fantastic love,” but there is no emotional honesty in the relationship. This poem is a devastatingly precise analysis of many modern marriages in which the husband psychologically bullies the wife and she accepts the stance of passive submission. Like Lerner, Ostriker implies that both spouses are at fault for allowing the destructive game to continue.
We can further illuminate the meaning of this poem by turning to Stealing the Language, where Ostriker discusses women’s poetry that has the theme of victimization. Women often feel that their dependency on men condemns them to remain silent when men take the offensive. Women’s passivity and self-hatred have resulted from their marginal status in society (67). Twentieth-century women poets resent “the assumption that masculinity represents the superiority of mind and reason, logical objectivity and civilization over mere female emotionality, subjectivity, and corporeality. Many victimization poems are therefore preoccupied with the demystifying of rationalism” (132-33). However, Ostriker insists that good women poets do not merely wallow in self-pity. “. . . The poetry of victimization may direct one’s horror almost equally against the hypocrite male’s inaccessibility to emotion and the female’s compliance in her victimization” (138). “Those Who Know Do Not Speak, Those Who Speak Do Not Know” illustrates Ostriker’s emphasis on the complexity of this situation.
Despite the temptation for women to imitate a man’s lack of emotional expression and his tendency to distance himself from the feelings of other people, Ostriker insists that women must retain their emotional sensitivity and refuse to play the man’s game. Yet avoiding victimization is difficult. The woman in “Two Writers: For J. D.” is leaving a tense male-female relationship. While she packs, the man “is observing/ Himself, primarily, in the hall mirror.” Unlike the wife in “Those Who Know . . .,” the sobbing woman writer here confronts the man about his narcissism and unfeeling observation of her actions. He argues that his life experiences have inured him: “Very little / Touches me now.” She vows never to become so callous. However, the poem concludes with the man’s insisting, “Nobody wants to, . . . but you will” (A Woman Under the Surface 35). He implies that life in an uncaring society will force even the most sensitive people to become hardened. By ending here, Ostriker leaves open the question of whether the woman will be overwhelmed by the callousness around her.
The title of A Woman Under the Surface comes from the poem, “The Exchange,” in which the persona, who is rowing a boat with her children, fantasizes that there is a very different kind of woman swimming in the water.
This imaginary swimming woman, who is powerful, erotic, and homicidal, is an alter ego for the more conventional persona, who imagines changing places with the swimmer. If this happens, the swimmer will emerge from the canal to “strangle” the rower’s children and to avenge the insults heaped upon the married woman by her husband. Ostriker concludes with the mother’s fantasy of ultimate freedom from family responsibilities: “And I, having exchanged with her, will swim / Away, in the cool water, out of reach” (7). The repressed self of Everywoman is the subject here.
I am watching a woman swim below the surface
Of the canal, her powerful body shimmering,
Opalescent, her black hair wavering
Like weeds. She does not need to breathe.
The meaning of this central poem becomes more clear if we examine Stealing the Language. Ostriker emphasizes in this study an important theme of modern women’s poetry: “to be a creative woman in a gender-polarized culture is to be a divided self.” Society tells women that they cannot be both a lover and an artist because true creativity and power are reserved for men. However, women write about their dual identity in order to criticize the cultural stereotypes (60, 77, 79, 83, 87). In a poem like “The Exchange,” Ostriker is protesting the insistence of patriarchal culture that a woman must live through her male lover and her children, instead of developing her own strength and talent. Ostriker argues, “For a woman, perhaps the most decisively difficult act is to think of herself as powerful, or as more powerful than a man, and capable of influencing the outward world without sacrificing femaleness” (Stealing the Language 113). “The Exchange” is one attempt to envision a mythically powerful female. However, according to Ostriker, the imaginary woman in the poem lacks wholeness because “she is ‘incapable of speech,’ and by implication of any other human relationship; all she can do is exact punishment.” Ostriker considers the angry alter ego of “The Exchange” to be no more than a “half-woman” (letter to the author). Thus, this poem illustrates the problems of the divided self and unresolved anger in marriages without imposing any easy solution. She implies that we readers need to consider the dichotomy and work out our own creative responses.
The last section of A Woman Under the Surface includes more optimistic poems, which are fantasies about men and women knowing one another more completely. In “Dream: The Disclosure,” the persona imagines lifting her “unneeded skin” to allow her lover to see “The organs in their refreshing waterfalls of blood” (68). Then she imagines touching all of her lover’s insides, too. Similarly, “Don’t Be Afraid” is another fantasy about obtaining total knowledge of one’s lover, the kind of knowledge that our fears of intimacy cause us to conceal. The persona imagines opening her lover
Here again, we find imagery of openness, which is what the woman desires, contrasted with the man’s tendency to close himself off to intimacy.
Like a sweater, like a jacket
That you have kept closed,
To walk into your heart
As if it were a major avenue
In an unpolluted city . . . . (71)
Ostriker continues to explore intimate male-female relationships in The Imaginary Lover. In “Wanting All,” she praises her husband’s mind and body and celebrates their daily activities. However, the poem ends on a note of dissatisfaction:
Complete intimacy is impossible, yet the woman speaker desires it. The image of the trunk slamming closed on the woman’s hands clearly expresses her frustration and pain.
What more do I want then, why
Do I prowl the basement, why
Do I reach for your inside
Self as you shut it
Like a trunkful of treasures? Wait,
I cry, as the lid slams on my fingers. (37-38)
In the long poem “The War of Men and Women,” Ostriker tries to counsel a young male poet who has come to her for advice about his strained marriage. She argues that cracks in relationships are as inevitable as fissures in mountain ranges (86; part 8). Ostriker draws an analogy between the 200-year-old “Liberty Oak” and successful modern marriages: just as the tree was damaged by lightning but “survives,” so too can American marriages (82; part 4). Imagery of survival is important in many of the poems in The Imaginary Lover and in Green Age. Ostriker clearly admires people who survive pain, fights, and the process of aging while retaining their zest for life.
In “The War of Men and Women,” she presents both marital conflict and strife between foreign countries as manifestations of “the failure of the imagination, the failure / To join our life with the dangerous life of the other” (84; part 6). Such transcendence of the ego is rare. Ostriker gives the worried young man cookies and tea and concludes by advising him to “take one step to repair” his marriage. Giving more help than that is impossible. Although both men and women yearn for a miraculous healing of relationships by “some saint,” the truth is that
When women attempt to achieve more wholeness in their lives, the tensions interest Ostriker. The long poem “Surviving” in The Imaginary Lover explores the difficult lives of talented women artists and writers who assume the responsibility of having children and often become “broken mothers” (44; part 1). In parts 2 and 3 of this poem, Ostriker gives the example of a “strong” and “experimental” woman painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker, whose career was cut short when she died a month after childbirth. Parts 4 through 10 of “Surviving” probe Ostriker’s relationship with her own mother, Beatrice Suskin Smith, who fed Alicia “expensive beef puree, spoonful by spoonful” when the family lived in poverty. Ostriker regrets that her mother never fulfilled her own potential as a writer, recalling that Beatrice was president of a literary society and once won a poetry prize (48; part 5). However, the pressures of marriage and family discouraged her from writing.
. . . there is no saint
There is my crippled self, who wipes the crumbs
Into a garbage bag,
Hands you your jacket back, lets
You go home. (87; part 9)
Because family obligations often pull women away from other forms of self-fulfillment, all women “die in childbirth” (50; part 8). Ostriker ends the poem by focusing on the duty of daughters of such self-sacrificing mothers to transcend grief (51; part 10).
Mother, chatterer, I ask you also,
You who poured Tennyson
And Browning into my child ear, and you
Who threw a boxful of papers, your novel,
Down the incinerator
When you moved, when your new husband
Said to take only
What was necessary. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Were you ashamed? (51; part 10).
Ostriker’s poems often focus on the difficult mother-daughter relationship and friendships that sometimes substitute for the mother-daughter bond. A Woman Under the Surface emphasizes the daughter’s perspective and the daughter’s attempts to understand and communicate with her mother. The poet compares her own unfulfilled mother to “an orphan, perpetually insecure and exiled from the soul.” However, after the children have grown up and the husband has died, the mother is able to grow, develop her selfhood, and dance in celebration (“Like an Orphan” 65). In “Dreaming of Her,” the speaker has a recurring nightmare of an old woman who keeps breaking into the house on a stormy night. The old woman represents the mother and the chance to re-establish the mother-daughter relationship. Ostriker’s imagery emphasizes the intensity of this bond, which she terms “the black / Hunger of daughterlove” (70). The poet also presents the theme of mother-daughter estrangement in “Moon and Earth.”
Note the use of a stanza break in the middle of the last sentence to represent the separation. Although the mother/Earth and the daughter/Moon try to merge again, it is impossible. Thus, not only are women divided within themselves, but they are also estranged from other women, even from their own mothers.
Of one substance, of one
Matter, they have cruelly
Broken apart. They never will touch
Each other again. (16)
The writings of contemporary psychologists clarify some of the underlying issues in these poems. Chodorow argues that mothers and daughters tend to merge psychologically.
The daughter also feels merged with her mother and carries some of this merged attachment into adulthood. As a girl matures, she struggles to gain independence from her mother. However, both mothers and daughters feel ambivalent about the daughter’s growing separateness. According to Chodorow, mothers “desire both to keep daughters close and to push them into adulthood. This ambivalence in turn creates more anxiety in their daughters and provokes attempts by these daughters to break away.” Both mothers and daughters worry “that any separation between them will bring disaster to both” (135).
Because they are the same gender as their daughters and have been girls, mothers of daughters tend not to experience these infant daughters as separate from them in the same way as do mothers of infant sons. In both cases, a mother is likely to experience a sense of oneness and continuity with her infant. However, this sense is stronger, and lasts longer, vis-à-vis daughters. Primary identification and symbiosis with daughters tend to be stronger . . . [and are] based on experiencing a daughter as an extension or double of a mother herself. (109)
Luise Eichenbaum and Susie Orbach develop Chodorow’s ideas in Between Women (1987).
This psychological merger makes confrontations in intimate relationships difficult.
The mother is not separate from her daughter and as her daughter expresses her needs, the mother experiences them with her, almost as though they were her own. She feels them too.
The daughter has an equivalent experience as she grows into womanhood. Not only does she retain her mother’s presence inside her, not only does she feel acutely aware of her mother’s neediness, not only does she feel responsible for maintaining the attachment she feels her mother needs, but, unconsciously, she will bring this responsibility with her into her future relationships with both lovers and friends. (62)
Like Chodorow, Lerner argues that adult women feel “profound ambivalence” toward their mothers and often face conflict with them, especially if the individuals have not attained enough “separateness.” Lerner uses this word to refer to one’s confidence in herself as an independent person who can respect and maintain close relationships with people who have values and lifestyles different from her own (Dance of Intimacy 183-84, 187, 190-91). The keys to achieving “separateness” are self-knowledge and sympathy for other people’s predicaments.
Ostriker returns to the mother-daughter bond in The Imaginary Lover. These poems also emphasize the painful separations of mothers and daughters and celebrate the underlying love. However, now Ostriker speaks from the perspective of a mother with grown children. Poems of The Imaginary Lover take subjective stances that reveal more vulnerability and raw emotion than the poems in A Woman Under the Surface, where Ostriker tries to be more distant and objective. In “Listen,” the speaker feels that she has “lost” her daughter, that the child has “deserted her” (30). The mother finds temporary solace in nurturing her students. She decides that despite the daughter’s attempts to “pull / Back, and try to hide,” the mother cannot sever the bond because it would “cut off my life” (31). The mother/child bond is thus one essence of living for Ostriker. The tone of “A Question of Time” is more humorous, and Ostriker uses much hyperbole. Here, the mother confesses that she plans to do what the daughter considers misbehaving, namely
The mother recalls the daughter’s promise not to “slip away” and the embrace that sealed this covenant (32-33). The humor here is made possible by Ostriker’s self-knowledge and her understanding of the daughter’s point of view in this intimate relationship.
To pelt you with letters, gifts, advice,
Descriptions of my feelings.
I plan to ask friendly maternal questions.
I plan to beam a steady
Stream of anxiety
Rays which would stun a mule,
Derail a train,
Take out a satellite,
At you in California, where you hack
Coldly away at this iron umbilicus,
Having sensibly put three thousand miles between us.
Green Age includes “A Birthday Suite,” a long poem that takes the reader from the birth of Ostriker’s daughter, Eve, to the state of their current relationship when Eve is away at college. Parent and child establish intimacy when Ostriker nurses her daughter for the first time (15; part 1). But conflict arises when the child bitterly rebels against her mother’s expectations and shows “resistance / To love, the creamy family food / I tried to dish out” (16; part 2). Ostriker’s separation anxiety here is palpable and universal. A similar pattern emerges in part 5 of the poem. The poet recalls brushing and braiding Eve’s hair for years and then the painful moment when the daughter decides to comb and style by herself: “you brushed me off,” Ostriker puns. The humor here does not attempt to conceal the mother’s nostalgia. Finally, the daughter decides to have the hairdresser cut off her long tresses. Ostriker compares her daughter’s new face to “A moon rising to survey the planet / By its own lucidity.” Note that this image recalls “Moon and Earth” from A Woman Under the Surface. Despite the daughter’s “revolution” in part 5 of “A Birthday Suite,” the mother never forgets the intimacy of Eve’s “ripe scalp-smell” and the feel of her long hair, “velvet ropes at the opera” (19). Part 6 of “A Birthday Suite” recalls the mother’s ability to share her daughter’s pain when Eve loses her first boyfriend. This illustrates Orbach and Eichenbaum’s analysis of such “merged attachments” (see above). While an experienced adult knows that suffering is an inevitable aspect of life, the mother still imagines “Rinsing all grief from the child’s tender face / The way a sculptor might peel the damp dropcloths / Off the clay figure she’s been working on” (20). Of course, parents do not have such power.
Although not part of “A Birthday Suite,” the poem “The Secret Sharer” also focuses on the merged attachment of mothers and daughters. Ostriker remembers Eve’s childhood injuries and humiliations, which were accompanied by the “mother’s grief.” The poet asks, “Wasn’t there always a pair of eyes / Quite calmly looking at things through your eyes / Like a tourist admiring the panorama?” However, Ostriker views the mother as not only sharing her daughter’s pain but also secretly attempting to expand the daughter’s horizons by helping her to be calm, “To pay attention,” and to discover “a room that was somehow larger” (23). Chodorow also emphasizes the mother’s responsibility to guide her daughter during the long separation process (83).
The final section of “A Birthday Suite” moves beyond merged attachment to achieve a separation that maintains intimacy. Talking to Eve over the telephone on her twenty-first birthday, Ostriker re-experiences the sensations of giving birth to her daughter. However, a new intimacy has replaced the infant/mother bond: “We give birth to each other. Welcome. Welcome” (21). The poet welcomes her daughter into full adulthood and an era of mutual respect.
Thus, we can trace in these three books of poetry Ostriker’s exploration of intimate male-female and mother-daughter bonds. The poems’ imagery, stanza breaks, and dialogue dramatize the universal ambivalence and tension of these relationships. Eventually, the persona finds a balance of empathy and autonomy.
At the end of A Woman Under the Surface, Ostriker urges the reader to undertake a similar exploration. The persona of “The Singing School” must “step through the many rooms” of her childhood and imagine a “journey through a tunnel.” Ostriker also compares psychological probing to removing “layers of heavy clothing” until we stand naked. This poem concludes with a metaphor of singing based on W. B. Yeats’s poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.”
Ostriker is urging us readers to take the risk of journeying through our own lives and to explore the meaning of our experiences. Only after psychological probing can we learn to sing our own songs and tell our own stories.
Now you know how to sing.
Now you have to make
Your own story. (76)
Note: This essay was originally published in Literature and Psychology. Heller, Janet Ruth. “Exploring the Depths of Relationships in Alicia Ostriker’s Poetry.” Literature and Psychology 38.1 and 2 (1992): 71-83.
Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.
Eichenbaum, Luise, and Susie Orbach. Between Women: Love, Envy, and Competition in Women’s Friendships. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.
Lerner, Harriet Goldhor. The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
---. The Dance of Intimacy: A Woman’s Guide to Courageous Acts of Change in Key Relationships. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
Ostriker, Alicia Suskin. Green Age. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989.
---. The Imaginary Lover. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986.
---. Letter to the author. 23 February 1991.
---. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
---. A Woman Under the Surface: Poems and Prose Poems. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.
Janet Ruth Heller is a poet, literary critic, college professor, essayist, playwright, and fiction writer. She is a past president of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature, and a current president of the Michigan College English Association. She has published three books of poetry: Exodus (2014), Folk Concert: Changing Times (2012), and Traffic Stop (2011).