Being able to move, and being constrained from moving, are powerful and important themes in women’s poetry. Walking and driving, for example, express agency, control over one’s own body and one’s own progress through the world. Stillness and stasis, which are often thought of as motion’s opposites, are really forms of motion that can be used to represent limitations, but can also indicate acceptance, peace or contemplation. These metaphors of motion, whether of agency or constraint, are important ones in all poetry, but are especially important for women writers, who all too often have found and continue to find that they are prevented from moving in both the literal and metaphorical senses.
Metaphors of motion do not mean the same thing to every poet. In fact, the same metaphor can mean different things to the same poet in different poems. What I am arguing is that the ability to move, to have agency (which includes the agency to stand still as well as go forward), is not taken for granted by women, and because of this female poets use metaphors of motion in powerful, profound ways.
In her 1982 collection A Woman Under the Surface, Alicia Ostriker uses a number of rich and interesting physical movements. Seven poems present a good introduction to, and overview of, the metaphors of motion in A Woman Under the Surface.
A Woman Under the Surface begins with a poem about stasis, stillness. “The Waiting Room” opens with a description of how the entire waiting area is designed to reassure, to keep the women who are waiting for their radiological appointments in the Atchley Pavilion (part of Columbia Presbyterian in New York) calm and still. Obviously, Ostriker echoes Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” especially in the physical constraints upon the speaker of the poem and her inward-turning gaze.
… The carpet is beige.
Beige walls, beige soundproofed ceilings, beige sofas surround us.
Geometric design of a room divider, wrought iron, to separate
The reception area from the waiting area.
To suggest, gently, that sterility means peace. (4-8)
The space of this poem is a feminine space; there are no men present where “[w]e ladies” (1) wait. While the women “[r]ange in age from the early thirties to the sixties” (3), what they have in common is class, represented by what they wear: “We are wearing our tweeds, our rings” (4). For these women, there is a double meaning to the sterility suggested by the waiting area: yes, it can mean peace, and reassurance that the hospital is a safe, clean place. But sterility could also suggest, especially to younger women with gynecological problems, the fear that they might not be able to bear children.
Outside, the day is brilliant, windy, and bittercold.
We have come through this weather, but now it does not exist.
We think of our breasts and cervixes.
We glance, shading our eyelids, at each other. (9-12)
The women’s motion, which propels them through the outside world, stops at the waiting room. Stillness allows them, even forces them, into self-contemplation (notice the focus on the female, with their worries about their breasts and cervixes). While they do look quickly at one another, there is no attempt — indeed, no desire — to make a connection.
Now the speaker of the poem moves from the collective “we” to her own thoughts, to what she is contemplating as she sits still in the beige-on-beige waiting room. “I am wondering,” she says, “what would be a fully human / Way to express our fears, these fears of the betrayal / Of our bodies” (13-15). The waiting, the turning inward imposed by stasis, helps those fears grow. Through the stillness of contemplation, the speaker has come to recognize that the very motionlessness she and the other “ladies in the Waiting Room” are experiencing (1) is an unnatural response to the fear each of them is feeling.
The phrase “mating of flesh” uses sexual imagery to illustrate the way in which the human person (soul, intellect) is wedded to the human body. Human beings depend upon their bodies’ loyalty; in other words, on its ability to move, and continue to move, both through the world (walking, running) and within itself (the heart pumping blood, the lungs moving oxygen). Each lady there — indeed, each human being — depends upon this “mating of flesh” for the continuation of life itself; the possibility this joining together may be put asunder by the body’s “betrayal” is extremely frightening:
... That without notice it [the body] may
Grow subversive seems intolerable, an uprising of house-slaves
Who have always belonged to the family and accomplished
Their tasks discreetly, ever since we were born. (17-20)
The heart has pumped, the lungs inflated and deflated, “discreetly” and unnoticed and unremarked for the speaker’s entire life. By likening the possibility of illness to a slave revolt, the speaker implies that this uprising, this illness, has festered beneath the body’s surface for years, the way cancer cells will until their replication begins to cause discernible symptoms.
The speaker — and, by implication, the other women in the waiting room — has suppressed the knowledge of the possibility of the body’s revolt, of the possibility her life could be stopped by the very vessel that contains it: “Perhaps we should dress less expensively / And not so well disguise the skeleton” (21-22). The very tweeds and rings these women wear give them a false sense of security. Clothes and jewelry hide the messiness, the truth of the body beneath (“disguise the skeleton”). Her repetition of “perhaps” shows the speaker isn’t sure what the answer is. She is struggling to find the “fully human” response: “Perhaps / We should sit more closely, ladies, to each other, / On couches arranged to form a circle, upholstered // Some vivid color. Perhaps we should sit on the floor” (22-25).
Instead of sitting still, sitting separately, sitting alone with their fears, the women could find some comfort from being closer together, by having those potentially rebellious bodies in proximity to each other on couches instead of chairs that separate them into individuals. For what is more human than the desire to be close to another person? Instead of the calming beige of stasis, “vivid colors” would decorate those couches, colors that echo the vitality and chaos of a life lived in motion, lived fully in the world. Or they could move from the chairs and sit together on the floor, take back at least a little of their agency by rejecting the stillness and separation imposed upon them by the individual chairs and sitting together in a way that predates history: a circle.
What if they do move? If they do gather together and reject the stasis and inward-focus of each person sitting in her own, very separate, chair? “They might have music for us. A woman dancer / Might perform, in the center of the circle” (26-27). Both music and dance express human emotions, those feelings that make us, “fully human,” and just as the notes move up and down and scale, so too does the dancer’s body move through the space of the dance. Here, then, the possibility of another type of movement appears, not by the waiting woman but by a (female) dancer. But to make that movement meaningful, to avoid the beige stillness imposed upon those who wait, that dancer would have to do something shocking: “What would she do? / Would she pretend to rip the breasts from her body?” (27-28).
Just as we are presented with that jarring image, the speaker says, “From behind a wall, we hear a woman’s voice / Screaming. It simply screams” (29-30). Here, then, is the “fully human” response to the body’s betrayal, a response that is louder, more shocking than Aunt Consuelo’s cry in Bishop’s poem (“Suddenly, from inside, / came an oh! of pain” (36-37)). Where for Bishop the cry is a particular, personal one (the speaker knows who makes the sound, and says, “I wasn’t at all surprised; / even then I knew she was / a foolish, timid woman (40-42)), in Ostriker’s poem the scream is universal, wordless, sound without sense. Note that it is not “a” scream; it is screaming, indicating something continuous and uncontrollable. The “soundproofed ceilings” (5) do not prevent the screaming from being heard in the waiting room. Someone is in physical pain, or given that the women are waiting for tests, perhaps someone is in emotional pain, the pain of a dreaded diagnosis. That “fully human” pain is directly expressed in a “fully human” response, a scream that reaches the women in the waiting room.
One woman in particular, the “[o]ne person / In the waiting room” who “has turned around” (30-31) is the only woman who expresses her surprise through physical motion. The rest of the women, we assume, keep their gazes averted and their bodies still, suppressing the natural reaction to turn toward pain. The woman’s “false / Sooty eyelashes have opened wide” (31-31) at the sound of the screams; her shocked gaze is an outward manifestation of how each woman in the room must feel: startled and afraid.
A few minutes later the screaming has stopped
And the woman in false eyelashes (I see she is very
Pretty, with black long hair, white blouse with bright
Tropical design on sleeves) has lit a cigarette. (33-36)
There is nowhere the women can go. They are held in stasis in the waiting room, left to contemplate the possibility of their own most-feared diagnosis, as the screaming continues. That screaming is not short — it goes on for a “few minutes” before stopping. The pretty woman lights a cigarette, perhaps to calm her nerves; ironically, here the woman sits, waiting for tests to see if she has cancer, doing something that causes cancer.
Ostriker ends the poem with this final image of the pretty woman lighting a cigarette. All the women in the waiting room are still in stasis, still waiting. After the woman’s slight motion of turning around and widening her eyes, she too settles back into her chair, settles back into the inward contemplation that the waiting room imposes upon these women. The lack of movement by the women in this poem suggests that they are at the mercy of their (possible) diagnoses. The stasis imposed upon them by the waiting room is a milder version of the ways in which a cancer diagnosis would constrain them, would focus all their attention upon a body that is ill and that must stay still much of the time. And, of course, this lack of movement reflects the women’s fear of the ultimate motionlessness, death.
In “After the Shipwreck,” the second poem in the collection, the stasis of “The Waiting Room” shifts to an odd ‘stasis within motion’ of survivors on a life raft. The raft is floating, moving without purpose, while the survivors are held captive on it: “Lost, drifting, on the current, as the sun pours down / Like syrup, drifting into afternoon” (1-2).
With a tip of the cap to Whitman (in both the reference to his “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking” and the use of his cataloging technique), Ostriker presents another layer of movement, a kind of ‘motion within stasis,’ as the survivors stranded on the raft begin to organize their meager supplies:
The raft endlessly rocks, tips, and we say to each other:
Here is where we will store the rope, the dried meat, the knife,
The medical kit, the biscuits, and the cup
We will divide the water fairly and honestly. (3-6)
The agency they have, the little bit of movement they can make, is to organize these supplies. As they arrange the rope, the biscuits and other provisions, civilization still exists (at least for the moment) in their assertion that they will make a fair and honest distribution of water.
Civilization, in the form of hope, also exists when “[s]omebody raises a voice and says: Listen, we know there is land / Somewhere, in some direction. We must know it” (8-9). The double meaning behind raising your voice (to raise up your voice to the Lord in prayer, and a voice raised in anger or as a means of establishing authority) applies here, as the person speaking is offering a type of prayer (in the “We must know it”) while also seeking to keep up the spirits of the survivors. The raising of the voice calls (in both meanings of the word) for a response from the listeners. The survivors are being enjoined to ‘lift up’ spiritually at the same time they are being commanded to ‘bow down’ to the authority of the speaker. These two movements, one spiritual and one societal, produce a push-pull effect upon the listeners.
This effect is short-lived, however, for while “there is the landfall, cerulean mountain-range” (10) for a moment, in the next line the speaker reveals that landfall is “[o]n the horizon: there in our minds” (11), dashing the momentary hope of the survivors and removing the assumed authority of the person who raised his voice. The people on the life-raft are reminded of the direness of their situation; the reminder seems particularly cruel because of that momentary hope raised by the imagined landfall,
. . .Then nothing
But the beauty of ocean,
Numberless waves like living, hysterical heads,
The sun increasingly magnificent,
A sunset wind hitting us. (11-15)
The vision, the hope, fades quickly. The survivors are motionless, while nature (but not any visible living creatures) is in motion around them. The vista upon which they gaze, with the rolling waves, the sun moving down toward the horizon, and the wind coming at them across the water, is beautiful, yes, but all that motion makes it deadly, too.
. . . As the spray begins
To coat us with salt, we stop talking. We try to remember. (15-16)
The final image is of survivors sitting still as the ocean spray begins to cover them (they wouldn’t be coated with salt if they moved). Even talking ceases. As with the women in “The Waiting Room,” this forcible stillness causes them to look inward, attempting to find their own memories of land, of hope, and of home.
One way to read “After the Shipwreck” is as a metaphor for trying to put life back together again after a tragedy (whether personal or communal). The politeness, the attempt to be very fair with the distribution of supplies represent the ways in which, let us say, a couple who has experienced a rancorous split then attempts to piece together some sort of civil give-and-take in the sad aftermath. Yet things cannot be the same, and what was there before (the landfall, the mountain range) is only a memory, one which becomes increasingly difficult to recall. Caught in stasis, coated with salt (memories), they stop talking; all the forward motion of their life together has ended, and the best they can do is “try to remember” what they used to have.
With this reading in mind, we can see that “Storm,” which appears later in the collection, is a companion piece, in a way, to “After the Shipwreck.” Where the latter started with the stillness of those becalmed after a storm, ”Storm” gives us violent and deadly motion.
If “After the Shipwreck” is about the aftermath of tragedy, then “Storm” depicts the tragedy itself, the terrible feeling of being out of control when everything seems to be in motion around you yet you have no control whatsoever over that motion — or even the agency to control how and when you yourself move.
The sky became the color of a bruise.
We hid from it, as you would, we rose up and up
On the vomited wave. (1-3)
There were portents which they tried to ignore, until finally the violent, ugly motion of the wave took over; they could no longer control their own motion, rising “up and up” while “[t]he winds hurtled us, slammed us, constantly” (4). The “we” of the poem have lost total control, and have no choice but to try to survive the buffeting of the storm.
Where the women of “The Waiting Room” remain studiously separate from each other in their stillness, the storm’s violent motion throws the “we” of “Storm” together, again and again. “We tore each other’s clothing; fell, wrestled, / Clung and screamed. We were ready to die, / Or murder, anything, packed in like slaves” (5-7). The “fully human” closeness the speaker of “The Waiting Room” imagined has become a terrifying tumble of bodies, their motion not indicative of agency, of choice, but instead of pure animal instinct — kill or be killed — while the horror of being tossed around is compounded by how close everyone is. Despite having clung to each other, they also want to get away from each other.
Unlike the vessel in “After the Shipwreck,” this boat does not break up. It is horrible in the hold of the ship, and unlike those still alive “After the Shipwreck,” these survivors do not have to try to remember; what they went through is still clear in their mind:
We remember the furry stink, the pandemonium,
The dipping in blackness.
But the dead were outside, drowned and weltering.
Hundreds of packs of picture cards
Flung from some high window into a river,
Waterlogged, bloated, sunk. Unbreathable rottenness
Climbed the strings of rain like ivy, until we
Scraped, grated, stopped. (8-15)
With “But the dead were outside,” the speaker indicates that no matter how bad it was inside the ship, it was worse outside. The dead bodies were “weltering,” rising and falling along with the movement of the water (a horrific parody of how those in the ship were tossed “up and up” by the “vomited wave”), all agency gone, their motion dictated solely by the water, first as it tosses them about tumultuously, then as it soaks into first their clothes and then their bodies, pulling them below the waterline and sending up the smell of rotting flesh.
In the midst of all this horror, the violent motion of the ship on the waves is stopped just as violently when they run aground (“until we / Scraped, grated, stopped”) beneath “[a] shocking sky, motionless and blinding” (16). All is at a standstill.
Again, unlike the survivors in “After the Shipwreck,” those who lived through this “Storm” will keep the memory of what happened with them.
We will never forget this adventure,
Neither the scars not the anger,
Nor fresh air mingled with steam,
Nor airy colors. (18-21)
Whatever disaster this shipwreck is the metaphor for (either communal, or personal), the “adventure” was not wholly negative. Yes, there are scars, there was anger, but there was also fresh air, and there were airy colors. There was beauty as well as hurt, gladness as well as heartbreak. In “Storm,” those aboard ship survive by this very ability to remember (rather than having to try to remember): “It is because of this thought / And cross-thought, our capacity / For it, that we were saved” (22-23). There was a tragedy, and perhaps things have changed permanently (as in the dissolution of a marriage), but what has endured is the survivors’ ability to remember both the good and the bad of the journey they were taking together. Their forward motion may have ended violently, and they may very well end up moving forward separately, but they will take the memory of their adventure with them.
Yet, for a moment, the speaker’s “us” remain together, standing still, while “all the living beings” (24)
Fan out, away
From us, across
The lumped, cratered skin of our earth,
Faint, fainter, trails of an explosion. (25-28)
Note it is not the “us” who move, but the other living beings beginning to make their way across a ruined landscape. The disaster, the “explosion,” is over, and the living beings moving away are the fading trails of that disaster. For at least a few moments more, the speaker and whomever else constitute her “us” remain unmoving, not the motionlessness of one who is constrained, but rather the stillness of those taking a moment to contemplate, to remember, and to honor what came before. Compare this type of stillness with the constraints upon motion found in “The Waiting Room” and “After the Shipwreck,” and you see that within stillness can be found strength and agency, provided that stillness is by choice and not imposed by outside forces.
With “The Exchange,” we move from the violence of the ocean to the violence (or at least the dream of violence) that lives in the human heart. In this poem, Ostriker plays with the idea she would explore later in Stealing the Language: that dual or mirror images found in women’s poetry “register the condition of marginality: nonexistence, invisibility, muteness, blurredness, deformity” (10). In this poem, the speaker creates a dual image of herself, and yes, that image is mute, but in her speechlessness is great power.
The poem begins with the speaker as observer, a woman who is “watching a woman swim below the surface / Of the canal” (1-2). Here, the speaker is sitting still, being rowed in a boat, while the woman in the water has the agency to move through swimming.
This woman is, in some ways, the traditional Other, her description couched in familiar mermaid imagery: “Her powerful body shimmering, / Opalescent, her black hair wavering / Like weeds” (2-4). She appears to be in her natural element. “She does not need to breathe. She faces // Upward, keeping abreast of our rented canoe” (4-5). With her hair “like weeds” and with no need to breath, she is a powerful force of nature. While she looks up at the speaker, the speaker must face downward to see her. Although the reader would assume that this woman is merely a reflection of the speaker, her body is described as “shimmering,” which implies she is naked. The speaker, in a boat, in public, with her children, is clothed. Power and agency appear to belong to the woman in motion beneath the water, the woman who swims without needing to breathe.
After the disquieting image of the woman under the surface, the scene appears to be presented as an idyll:
Sweet, thick, white, the blossoms of the locust trees
Cast their fragrance. A redwing blackbird flies
Across the sluggish water. My children paddle.” (6-8)
Yet if we read carefully, we find this isn’t quite the beautiful nature scene it first appears to be. Yes, the scent of the locust blossoms is sweet, but it is also “thick,” perhaps unpleasant. This unpleasantness may extend to the river itself, for its water is sluggish (barely moving), not clear and fast flowing. The stanza ends with the image of the children paddling the boat, leaving the woman just sitting as they move through the water; not only is the woman sitting still in the boat, she does not even control the way in which the boat is moving. Thus the “children paddling the boat” becomes a metaphor for the ways in which the speaker feels her children are controlling her life, constraining her from moving in ways she might prefer to what is demanded of her as a mother (and, we learn later in the poem, as a wife).
At the start of the third stanza, however, is a turn. The speaker imagines herself reclaiming agency by changing places with the woman in the water. “If I dive down, if she climbs into the boat, / Wet, wordless, she will strangle my children / And throw their limp bodies into the stream” (9-11). Thus the way the speaker feels controlled by her children erupts into a homicidal rage, or at least the fantasy of a homicidal rage.
If, as Ostriker claims in Stealing the Language, “the secret desire encoded in women’s anger poems is a desire to imagine precisely what cannot be imagined within the poems themselves” (163), she has exploded that secret desire here with her fantasy of prolicide. Obviously, she does not wish her children murdered, but the maternal anger reflected in this image of her speaker’s Other strangling children does, indeed, “imagine precisely” what normally could not be “imagined within the poems themselves.”
That this is a fantasy is further emphasized by the “If/if” construction, which means the murder of the children is possible only if the speaker allows it. She must act first in the construct, must exercise her agency to choose to act; the water-woman then follows suit.
After killing the speaker’s children, the water-woman will move on. “Skin dripping, she will take my car, drive home” (12). Notice it is the woman’s skin that is dripping, not water dripping from her clothes. So, again, while we tend to read the water-woman as the speaker’s reflection, she is not a true reflection; rather, she is the speaker’s Other (where the speaker is clothed, the water-woman is naked; where the speaker would never hurt her children, the water-woman would kill them). The speaker does, however, say that the water-woman will “drive home.” Not “drive to my home” or “drive to our home,” but “drive home,” an indication that the water-woman is part of the speaker in some way, and that her agency may also be the speaker’s (in other words, what the water-woman can do, the speaker would be capable of doing, also).
The speaker reverts back to the me/her split in the next stanza, saying, “When my husband answers the door and sees / This magnificent naked woman” (13-14), so just as the water-woman would, according to the speaker, kill “my children,” she would also confront “my husband.” When she arrives at the speaker’s house, the water-woman will either knock on the door or ring the bell, tacitly requesting permission to enter, a permission that the husband would grant when he opens the door. And as that husband looks at this woman with “bits of sunlight / Glittering in her pubic fur” (14-15) he will see a being more akin to an animal (that “public fur”) than a human woman. And as she stands there, “her muscular / Arm will surround his neck, once for each insult // Endured” (15-17).
This is an odd, disturbing image. Does it mean that the water-woman will choke him a number of times, will strangle and then release, strangle and then release? Or is her arm long enough, sinuous enough (like a water-snake, perhaps) to wrap around and around his neck. Whichever is the case, as she kills him, he will see the wildness of her animal nature as she strangles him to death.
He will see the blackbird in her eye,
Her drying mouth incapable of speech,
And I, having exchanged with her, will swim
Away, in the cool water, out of reach. (17-20)
Unlike the previous four stanzas, this final one is in iambic pentameter, with an end rhyme in the second and fourth line. The effect of this shift is that the reader slows down, sensing the change if not consciously noting it, and feels the poem drawing to a close. This poetic motion mirrors the solemnity of what the speaker has imagined, an exchange that leaves her watery Other dying on land (or so one imagines from the water-woman’s “drying mouth”), while the speaker herself, having taken on the mantle of the mermaid, regains agency through her ability to swim away, motion that puts her “out of reach.”
The question does remain, out of whose reach? Her children and her husband would be dead after this exchange, so whom must she evade? Perhaps it is her Other, the dying water-woman, from whom the speaker would wish to escape. For once the water-woman switched places with the speaker, she lost all agency. The killing of the children, the strangling of the husband, are all manifestations of the speaker’s desires; the water-woman, who had complete agency when she was free to swim under the surface, would lose all control over her own life the moment she switched places with the speaker. So, in some ways, she would become as powerless, as motionless, as the speaker is at the start of the poem. The only way to regain her freedom would be to enact another exchange, which the speaker, having experienced freedom in the river, is unwilling to do.
“Fisherman” is the next poem in the collection after “The Exchange.” Here we have another river, this time with a fisherman above water and trout below. As with the speaker of “The Exchange” who fantasizes switching places with the water-woman, this poem also posits a fantasy by asking us to
Imagine a fisherman in summer deep
Enough to have drowned all other seasons — (1-2)
This is “a” fisherman, undifferentiated, about whom we learn very little. He is a (masculine) presence who, like the speaker in “The Exchange,” is in a boat on the water.
His river flows between banks of ash and hickory,
Blackberries ripen, cobwebs form in the shrubs,
Bluejays grow drowsy. (3-5)
Note it is “his” river; somehow, through the physical action of fishing, he has claimed the river as his own. Here, though, the river is flowing, not sluggish, and where the locust blossoms “cast their fragrance” (7) in “The Exchange,” here the trees are still while the river flows by them. The shrubs are so still there are cobwebs in them, and the bluejay is motionless (unlike the redwing blackbird in “The Exchange,” who is in flight).
This somnolent scene continues, with a fisherman who has “escaped his relatives” (6) now floating on the river, where “[a]ll above water is gauze, hotly in touch, dry light” (7). He is “[l]iving in his dream (5) where his ability to move allowed him to escape his relatives. His dream is coming true at the moment of the poem, unlike the speaker in “The Exchange” whose fantasy depends upon the “If/if” coming true. Yet, is the fisherman’s dream coming true, for isn’t it really a dream-within-a-dream, or, more precisely, a dream within the world the speaker asks us to imagine?
The beauty of the afternoon is like a “late Monet, a Bach / Chorale, a woman peeling oranges” (8-9). He dreams a gauzy, light-filled space in nature that is also mildly erotic (the woman peeling oranges). All around him is caught in this dream; or, rather, all but the fish, for “[o]nly the cold trout must elude the dream” (10). Like the speaker of “The Exchange” who swims in the cool water to avoid being ‘captured’ by her Other, the trout must work to evade being caught by the fisherman.
Under his boat in the brown flood, pure muscle,
They glide along as if he does not exist,
Like courteous phrases in a dead language.
Their glassy eyes look past each other, hopeless. (11-14)
First, it seems the fish have the most agency. They swim through the river, ignoring the fly he is casting. But the last line of the couplet shows them as “hopeless” (in an image reminiscent of the way the women in “The Waiting Room” look past each other).
It is the way the fisherman wishes. He casts
His line again and again in the heavy heat. (15-16)
This final couplet shows that the fisherman’s motion, casting his line, exhibits the real agency. The fish cannot look at each other for there is no hope for them; implied in that “hopeless” is the idea that some of the trout will be caught, will be dragged up from the cool river into the day’s “heavy heat.” The fisherman defies that heat (for, if this is his dream, isn’t the heat part of that dream?) and continues to cast his fly. While the river and the fish move as rivers and fish do, it is the fisherman whose motion has the most purpose and exhibits the most control over what happens in the warm, drowsy afternoon. Here, the person in the landscape has the most agency. In fact, in some ways the fisherman has more agency than the reader herself, for it is his dream that we are asked to imagine, and his dream that is ‘played out’ as he repeatedly casts his line into the water.
The use of physical motion in poetry is an assertion of agency, of control over one’s life and one’s circumstances. Walking, perhaps more than any other type of poetic metaphor of motion, represents this agency.
There is a strong and natural connection between walking and poetry, and there is a long tradition of ‘walk poems’ by both men and women (Cf. William Wordsworth, Robert Frost, Rainer Maria Rilke, Elizabeth Bishop, Marilyn Hacker, Nikki Giovanni, Jane Kenyon). The meter of the poem often echoes the rhythm of footfalls, or the poem’s structure mirrors the speaker’s walks (as, for example, the long lines of Walk Whitman mirrored the long walks he took through Brooklyn and New York).
She who walks is in charge of where she goes, how she goes there, how fast she goes there, and how long she stays there. Walking is a way of establishing oneself, of becoming part of the landscape though which one moves, even a way of defining one’s life. As Marilyn Hacker writes in her “April Interval” sequence from Going Back to the River, “Wherever I surface I reinvent / some version of the Daily Walk to Town” (1-2).
Walking may be a way of attempting to ‘move through’ sadness or grief (Cf. Jane Kenyon’s “Walking Alone in Late Winter”), a form of domestic journey where the speaker walks in familiar places while attempting to come to terms with whatever sorrow or loss she is experiencing. Ostriker’s “A Woman Walking in the Suburbs” is just such a work.
A melancholy poem, “A Woman Walking in the Suburbs” comprises four stanzas, alternating octets and couplets. The two longer stanzas describe the woman and her walk, echoing her long, slow progress through the suburban streets (like Whitman’s long lines). The two couplets are about “the man” who has left her.
Although this is a walk poem, it opens in “October stillness” with “the last leaves hang[ing] / Golden on the trees” (1-2) and for the speaker this stillness is something to be desired, to be emulated. For a month, she has “strained” (3) to change, “to become / Luminous and transparent as the leaves” (3-4) but, having “failed” she instead “grew thicker” (5). Only now, as autumn is heading into winter, only after she has “relinquished” (6) her struggle, does she find herself gaining the luminosity and transparency she had been seeking. At the end of the octet that is the first stanza, the speaker declares, “My breathing and needs decrease, / I am quite tranquil. I feel the light fly through me” (7-8). It is in ceasing to struggle, in embracing the stillness, that the speaker is finally able to find the equilibrium she sought.
Yet she is still not still; she is, instead, walking. This is because the tranquility she achieved came “too late” for her “to show the man” (9) for whom it appears she wished to enact these changes. This nameless man has left her: “He has tumbled away, an engine down its track” (10). Thus the man embodies mechanical motion, circumscribed by the path, the “track,” down which he moved away from the speaker, leaving her to wander on foot throughout the suburban streets.
Only in the third stanza do we find that she is not alone in her walk; “a slip of a child” is with her (11). This child, never gendered, is “coming along” (11) with the speaker, “holding [her] fingers” (12) rather than her hand, which is less secure, and which may indicate that the child is very small, too small to reach up and fully hold the speaker’s hand.
As they walk, the child kicks the leaves, exposing “the dark gray damp spots under them” (13). The speaker says, “We see” those spots, and she and the child see “what a peaceful / Afternoon it seems to be” (13-15). Through the motion of kicking the leaves, the child has uncovered what was hidden, and what was hidden is dank and unlovely. This idea of hidden things is repeated when the speaker says the afternoon “seems” to be peaceful; she, however, knows that what lies beneath the surface of what they are seeing is anything but. She herself, walking with the child, may appear on the outside to be peaceful, yet inside she is mourning the loss of “the man.”
The woman and child are nearly, but not completely, alone in the “October stillness.” They “see the swing set in the children’s playground” (16), but there appear to be no children on the swings, and she does not take the child to play on them; the swings, like the afternoon itself, are still. There is “another lonely woman walking a dog” (17), and here is where the speaker alludes again to what is hidden inside of her, projecting her own loneliness (“another lonely woman”) onto someone else. All we can really know about the woman is that she is walking her dog; whether she is lonely or not is hidden from us.
The last line of the stanza states, “Westward, our red sun sets” (18). While little else is moving in the stillness of the afternoon, the sun is moving down toward the horizon as the day draws to a close. Note the “our” sun, which links the speaker and the child together as they move through the suburban streets and sets up the poem’s final couplet:
The man was my sun. The shining he cannot see now
Flows with all fairness. (19-20)
The man was not the sun for both her and the child; he was her sun, the light around which she revolved. She wished to shine for him, but her luminosity came too late. Now she is the one who shines, whose fair light flows through her and out of her, leaving her “tranquil” but lonely.
Could this light would be able to “fly through” her if the man were still with her? If he was her sun, and she revolved around him, then any luminosity she would produce would be a mere reflection of his light, the way the moon reflects the light of the sun. Only now that he has “rumbled away” and left her alone does her own light move through her; it “[f]lows with all fairness” because it is hers and not a reflection of the man’s light. In this way, she achieves, however transitory and however tinged with sadness, transcendence. By allowing herself to embrace stillness, yet continue to move through the world by walking, the speaker enables the light to continue to “fly through” her, to shine as it flows through her being, and this luminosity, this transcendence, continues even through the sadness she feels at the loss of “the man” for whom she wished to shine.
Transcendence does not always come from embracing stillness. In some poems, it is physical motion that can lead to enlightenment and change. Sometimes that motion is walking (as in Jean Garrigue’s “Moondial”), sometimes driving, sometimes riding a horse. Other times, this moving-through-the-world takes the form of running, as in the final Ostriker poem I will discuss, “The Runner.”
The reader moves through this poem the way the runner moves through the world; the poem enacts the run, just as the runner herself embodies movement, and we are along for the duration. Poems are not just about journeys, of course, they are journeys” (Wright 260), and here Ostriker allows her reader to experience the runner’s journey through the poem.
That journey, first and foremost, is one of physical difficulty:
Sweat glides on the forehead of the gasping runner
Who runs of necessity, who runs possibly for love,
For truth, for death, and her feet are sweltering. (1-3)
The poem starts with the word “sweat” which signifies the physical efforts of the runner as she moves through the world (as does the description of her as gasping). Yet the sweat “glides,” which introduces (however briefly) a feeling of effortlessness. It is more often a runner who is described as gliding, when her run is going easily and well, rather than sweat (which usually is described in terms such as dripping from, or standing out on, a person’s face).
Despite the difficulty of the motion, it is definite that the runner must run (“of necessity”) but the why is not clear. Three possibilities are presented, all non-concrete: love, truth, death. These three abstractions are bracketed by the down-to-earth details of the sweating, gasping runner at the start of the stanza and her sweltering feet at the end.
As with “After the Shipwreck” and “Storm,” something has happened, although the reader never learns quite what that something is. “Behind the runner lies a battlefield. / There, the dust falls” (4-5). Is the battlefield personal (an argument or some difficulty she faces) or a larger tragedy? If the dust falls there, is it the dust of an abandoned space? Or does it signify the end of the battle, the dust clearing? None of these questions is answered, for after this backward glance we are directed to turn our attention forward:
. . . Ahead the narrow road
Eats a plateau, leads into streets and buildings,
A beach, and the excavation of motherly ocean,
Everything under the arch of an innocent sky. (5-8)
The road, the path along which she moves, devours the height of the plateau; it doesn’t pass over or go around or climb, but rather eats the plateau. By extension, then, the runner herself, through her forward motion along that road, devours the plateau as well (for we do hear of runners who “eat up the miles” as they go). Once the plateau is eaten, the road enters a space of human habitation before ending up at the beach, a liminal space between the land (with the town) and the water. Here the motion of that water, the “motherly ocean,” is much calmer, and less overtly violent than the waters in “After the Shipwreck” and “Storm,” yet, if we read “the excavation of motherly ocean” to mean the way in which the water is eating away at the sand, then this gentle, reassuring tidal motion may end up just as destructive as the killing waves of the two other poems. This appears to be reinforced by the image of the “innocent sky,” which connotes either naïveté or a willing disregard for what is happening below its arch.
From the open vista of ocean and sky, in the third line of the same tercet in which that vista appears, we are immediately brought back to the physicality of the runner: “Sweat runnels between the breasts, evaporates” (9). This purely physical sensation is described as between the breasts. Why “the” and not “her” breasts? I would suggest that, rather than objectification or distancing, the use of “the” is meant to universalize the experience, to help the reader feel the physical manifestations of this runner’s labored motion. It draws the reader into the poem, and into the journey of the poem, by helping connect her directly to the runner through a shared experience.
Starting with the next tercet, the focus of the runner (and of the poem) begins to shift. Rather than the runner’s physicality, it is her mind, her internal experiences that we begin to share. The runner is granted a special insight, an ability to see “bright bone under brown landscape / Where one of us would see rocks, bushes, houses” (10-11). Does the bone represent a skeleton, something ugly that is beneath the landscape? Or is it something darker, something dead and long buried? Or — and this is the way I read the lines — is it merely that the runner is beginning to transcend everyday experience and to understand that there are things that lie beneath that experience. These things are not necessarily dark or scary; indeed, the bones beneath our skin are essential to our very being.
Now the runner’s moving-through-the-world takes on an added layer, for the physical discomfort of sweaty skin and hot feet is beginning to change into something else, something more powerful. She
Begins to feel how fire invades a body
From within, first the splinters
And crumpled paper, then the middle wood
And the great damp logs splendidly catching. (12-15)
Something is kindled within her as she runs. This burning is both painful and marvelous, the bright flare of the logs after the slow catching of the kindling and smaller pieces of wood. But it isn’t always thus:
Ah, but some moments! it is so like fireworks,
Hissing, exploding, flaring in darkness,
Or like a long kiss that she cannot stop, (16-18)
Rather than the slow kindling of the wood fire, there is a time when the pain/heat bursts within her like exploding fireworks. Or the way desire flares, burning uncontrollably during that “long kiss.”
“Ah it is heavy for her, every stride / Like pulling an iron railing / Uphill,” (19-21). The logs flaring, the fireworks exploding, are metaphors that make this blazing heat (this coming transcendence) seem too easy, too quick. There is still physical pain involved, a pain generated by continued forward motion, a pain that grows nearly unbearable and is difficult (although not quite impossible) for the runner to bear:
Uphill, ah Christ — we would have to imagine Jerusalem,
Dresden, a hurt this hard, like a screen of fire
Rising, continuous and intolerable
Until solid things melt. Then the runner is floating, (21-24)
This fire burns, as Jerusalem did in the siege, as Dresden did when it was carpet bombed (referring back to the battlefield?). The pain grows until the runner cannot stand it, until the heat is so high that “solid things” such as bones and rocks begin to melt. Then, suddenly, she is past the pain, past the burning. While the speaker in “A Woman Walking in the Suburbs” becomes luminous, with a gentle light flowing through her, the runner flares up, bursts into flame:
She becomes herself a torch, she is writing in fire
Rejoice, we have triumphed, rejoice,
We have triumphed, (25-27)
The runner now embodies radiant transcendence. She has moved beyond her own limitations, beyond the experience of her sweating, sore body, and opened herself up to the world. She has become the torch that allows her to write in fire, and what she writes is a message not only of her own transcendence, but of the transcendence of the “we.” For a moment, her message of hope, heralded by the Biblical injunction to “rejoice,” is for everyone.
Just as quickly, however, the moment of burning transcendence has passed, and “words” and “language / Must be useless / To the runner” (28-30). “Must be” can be read two ways. First, as an observation about something that is a given (as in, “that must hurt”). Second, as a universal truth: language is of no use to the person who has achieved, however briefly, a moment of transcendence because that transcendence can never be articulated. I would suggest that both readings inhere within the line, and that the runner is turning to words for the benefit of others, of the “we” who may not be aware of the possibility of their own transcendence.
Finally, the focus of the poem returns to where it began, on the runner herself. Her moment of transcendence was the point toward which the runner, the woman-in-motion, was progressing, and we were able, through the poem, to move with her. For one brief moment, one bright flare of the flame, the reader is one of the “we” who “have triumphed” along with the runner.
These poems from A Woman under the Surface use a range of metaphors of stillness and motion: walking and swimming, grief and transcendence, and provide an introduction to the ways in which Alicia Ostriker’s poetry uses physical movement to examine the experience of being a woman.
Whichever metaphor of motion a poet uses, freedom lies at the heart of her poem: the freedom to move about in the world, the freedom to act, the freedom to feel, the freedom to be. In each of these poems, Ostriker uses different forms of motion as potent metaphors for the challenges, restrictions and obstacles women face, as well as the opportunities women can make for themselves if they are able to find the courage to move.
Being able to move, being constrained from moving, and choosing when to be still are at the heart of women’s experiences, which makes them powerful metaphors when used in women’s poetry. These metaphors allow women to examine their own existence, to question the constraints that are put upon their lives (by family, society, even themselves), and to find ways in which they can regain agency within their own lives by learning to move. When women control their own motion, they grow stronger; if they grow strong enough they can then proclaim, “Rejoice, we have triumphed.”
Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems: 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983.
Garrigue, Jean. Selected Poems. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
Hacker, Marilyn. Going Back to the River. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
Ostriker, Alicia. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
– A Woman Under the Surface. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: The Death Bed Edition. Modern Library, 1993.
Wright, Charles. “The Poem as Journey.” The Southern Review 29.2 (1993): 259-73.
Wendy is a published poet and editor of Assisi: An Online Journal of Arts & Letters, and a reviewer of audiobooks for Library Journal. Currently, she is Associate Professor of English at Saint Joseph’s College, Maine, after having served as associate professor, department chair, and lecturer at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY. Her areas of interest include women’s poetry, war literature, gender studies, pop culture, and genre literature.