The editors wish to thank Alicia Ostriker and her publishers for their permission to include her fine poems in the magazine: “The Exchange” from A Woman under the Surface (1982); “Everywoman Her Own Theology” from The Imaginary Lover (1986); “Helium” from Green Age (1989); “The Bridge” from The Crack in Everything (1996); “Vocation,” “Bus Station,” and “May Rain, Princeton” from No Heaven (2005); “West Fourth Street,” “The Plateau,” “The Blessing of the Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog,” and “Born in the USA” from The Book of Seventy (2009).
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. She faces
Upward, keeping abreast of our rented canoe.
Sweet, thick, white, the blossoms of the locust trees
Cast their fragrance. A redwing blackbird flies
Across the sluggish water. My children paddle.
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.
Skin dripping, she will take my car, drive home.
When my husband answers the doorbell and sees
This magnificent naked woman, bits of sunlight
Glittering on her pubic fur, her muscular
Arm will surround his neck, once for each insult
Endured. 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.
EVERYWOMAN HER OWN THEOLOGY
I am nailing them up to the cathedral door
Like Martin Luther. Actually, no,
I don’t want to resemble that Schmutzkapf
(See Erik Erikson and N. O. Brown
On the Reformer’s anal aberrations,
Not to mention his hatred of Jews and peasants),
So I am thumbtacking these ninety-five
Theses to the bulletin board in my kitchen.
My proposals, or should I say requirements,
Include at least one image of a god,
Virile, beard optional, one of a goddess,
Nubile, breast size approximating mine,
One divine baby, one lion, one lamb,
All nude as figs, all dancing wildly,
All shining. Reproducible
In marble, metal, in fact any material.
Ethically, I am looking for
An absolute endorsement of loving-kindness.
No loopholes except maybe mosquitoes.
Virtue and sin will henceforth be discouraged,
Along with suffering and martyrdom.
There will be no concept of infidels.
Consequently the faithful must entertain
Themselves some other way than killing infidels.
And so forth and so on. I understand
This piece of paper is going to be
Spattered with wine one night at a party
And covered over with newer pieces of paper.
That is how it goes with bulletin boards.
Nevertheless it will be there.
Like an invitation, like a chalk pentangle,
It will emanate certain occult vibrations.
If something sacred wants to swoop from the universe
Through a ceiling, and materialize,
Folding its silver wings,
In a kitchen, and bump its chest against mine,
My paper will tell this being where to find me.
For some reason you got up that morning
And decided your balloon was finally
Beginning to give up the ghost
Although, silver and blue, with its friendly caption,
“Happy Birthday,” it had been hovering
Up at the ceiling for a month
Like a genial visitor from another planet.
Today you said, “Look, it’s inches below the ceiling,”
And there were puckers in it like human skin,
Like the skin of old people.
I knew you were thinking of George, my mother’s husband,
A third of a century older than us,
Forgetting to zip his fly, forgetting to wash
Or shave or wipe himself,
Saying and saying it to you: “Jerry, don’t get old,”
Man to man, in a voice like someone banging
On a hollow pipe.
You were thinking about his bristly gray cheeks,
His desperate eyes, his advanced obsession with food,
So you cut the balloon’s tether,
Pulled on a pair of pants
And we both went outside, still in bare feet,
To stand in the street and watch you release it.
It rose up slowly,
Missed the maples in our front yard, was caught
In a current of breeze and rose faster,
Was becoming distant from us,
Then darted behind a neighbor’s copper beech
On the next block and we lost it.
After waiting awhile we took the New York Times
From the driveway and went on in for breakfast.
It was still springtime, the sun already high,
And your balloon was either still ascending
Or stopped in the arms of a tree. We couldn’t know which,
And we were glad of this.
THE BRIDGE (from “The Mastectomy Poems”)
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.
Technicalities over, medical articles read,
Decisions made, the Buick’s wheels
Nose across Jersey toward the hospital
As if on monorail. Elizabeth
Exhales her poisons, Newark Airport spreads
Her wings—the planes take off over the marsh—
A husband’s hand plays with a ring.
Some snowflakes whip across the lanes of cars
Slowed for the tollbooth, and two smoky gulls
Veer by the steel parabolas.
Given a choice of tunnel or bridge
Into Manhattan, the granite crust
On its black patter of rivers, we prefer
Elevation to depth, vista to crawling.
To play among the words like one of them,
Lit from within—others can see it,
She slips like a cat through traffic,
A girl alone downtown
For the first time, subway fare in her purse,
Fear of losing it
Clamping her chest,
Wind whipping tears from her eyes,
Fried grease and gasoline in her nose, shoes and
Jewelry in shopwindows. a spike
Of freedom stitching her scalp—
Though she dreads the allergy shot at the clinic
She feels herself getting brave.
Now it begins to snow on Central Park South
And a flight of pigeons
Whim up from a small pile of junk in the gutter
Grey, violet, green, a predatory shimmer.
The marquee of the Paris Theater
Looks at the rapturous child
Through downcast lashes, condescendingly.
I watch her over a distance of fifty years.
I see how small she is in her thin coat.
I offer a necklace of tears, orgasms, words.
Those bus station bathrooms are bad,
You would have to be a desperate
Woman with broken shoe heels
A torn jacket lining
And a child whose face
Has to be washed because the tracks
Of his gritty tears make you ashamed,
To use those bathrooms
With their smell of disinfectant
Like a personal insult
Then you would come out
Not very hopeful, the kid
Unready to control himself,
You would get some candy from a machine
Prop the kid on a bench, wait for the bus
And history to repeat themselves
Outside the revolving doors
Somehow rain would probably be falling
Steadily in slow wet crystal globes
Through the inky night the wet streetlights
The taxis, the entire world.
MAY RAIN, PRINCETON
Green, green, the luminous maples preen,
Swaying like girls at a prom
Waiting to be asked to dance,
The bird feeders need daily refilling, the hot
Azaleas enhance their orange and fuchsia tints,
The rhododendrons puckered dryly inside
Their big buds have begun to force themselves out,
Apple blossoms lie in shallow pools
At the feet of their trunks. All afternoon
Relentless pouring rain soaks the ground,
Beats the roofs, rat-tat,
Races down the gutters.
I imagine it falling into the Hudson River
Around the scows and barges. I imagine it
Splashing the yellow slickers of road crews.
I pretend that I am farms and towns stretched out
The breadth of New Jersey and Pennsylvania
Flat on my back looking up at a gray sky.
The grays shift, it must be windy up there,
I feel the rain batter me, how good it is, cleansing
The air, pocking my skin—
Good, good, like sex after childbirth
When the body is keen
For pleasure again.
WEST FOURTH STREET
The sycamores are leafing out
on West Fourth Street and I am weirdly old
yet their pale iridescence pleases me
as I emerge from the subway into traffic
and trash and patchouli gusts—now that I can read
between the lines of my angled life
pleasure frequently visits me—I have less
interfering with my gaze now
what I see I see clearly
and with less grievance and anger than before
and less desire: not that I have conquered these passions
they have worn themselves out
and if I smile admiring four Brazilian men
playing handball on a sunny concrete court
shouting in Portuguese
goatskin protecting their hands from the sting of the flying ball
their backs like sinewy roots, gold flashing on their necks
if I watch them samba with their shadows
torqued like my father fifty years ago
when sons of immigrant Jews
played fierce handball in Manhattan playgrounds
—if I think these men are the essence of the city
it is because of their beauty
since I have learned to be a fool for beauty
The climb was long
and often dangerous,
there were recriminations,
stumblings, and yet
never did I desire another
for my companion on this path
so at last we have gained the plateau
the delicacy with which we attend
to one another’s liberty is remarkable
our demons sleep in their caves
like angry children who have sobbed themselves
into exhaustion, while the grownups smile
you praise my writing my cooking my kindness
I admire your jokes your politics your photographs
and now shall I make a prediction?
someday one of us
will begin to die
to lean on the other
with horrible need
and passion, passion
will flow again
THE BLESSING OF THE OLD WOMAN,
THE TULIP, AND THE DOG
To be blessed
said the old woman
is to live and work
washes right through you
like milk through a cow
To be blessed
said the dark red tulip
is to knock their eyes out
with the slug of lust
To be blessed
said the dog
is to have a pinch
and all the other dogs
can smell it
BORN IN THE USA
Born in 1937 in the USA
not yet a war year though war was coming
along with its patent leather and bowtied photographers
When I say I feel like a rusty Dodge
I reveal my age my brand in an age of brands
here I am that depression-era child
whose father took her yearly to Coney Island
where we ate Nathan’s frankfurters
whirled madly in cars of remarkable lacquers
stood with the crowd sighed at the fireworks
at the end an American flag gleamed over the ocean
telling us it was time to head for the subways
damp sand blowing across the boardwalk
linoleum stained with juices and an oilcloth table at home
where we beat time and sang
Oh you can’t scare me I’m sticking to the Union
for we believed a better world was coming
such and such my sources and my spring
for which I sink to my knees in gratitude
and dare you my fellow citizens
in the nation of money
I dare you to mock me