Poems from the Volcano and After: Selected and New Poems, 2002-2019

Nan@23, autobiographical collage by Nan Sanders Pokerwinski

 

 

Making Beauty Like That: On the Poetry of Alicia Ostriker

Alicia Ostriker
Alicia Ostriker’s poems and feminist criticism have accompanied me for decades, so this feature is a very personal homage. Ostriker came to prominence as both poet and feminist theorist with Second Wave feminism by the 1980s, when she began publishing such influential works as The Mother-Child Papers (poetry) and Stealing the Language (criticism). In that ground-breaking study she theorized that revisionary mythopoeias – revising the received version of a myth – gave women poets a way to transform culture by changing the stories myths tell. As a doctoral candidate in the 1980s, I drew on her thinking, which changed my own. Over the course of my teaching career, I taught her honest, unsparing poems, inviting her for readings when I could, for in addition to being a great, large-hearted poet, she is also a remarkable teacher – modest, approachable, and nimbly engaging. In so many ways, she models a poetics and an ethics, a way to be a poet in the world. In the introduction to her co-edited critical anthology on Ostriker’s works, Everywoman Her Own Theology, Martha Nell Smith observes, “Intensely personal and connected even as she is objective, rational, detached, Ostriker and her poetry, all her writings, give and regive[.]” (1) That last insight about all that Ostriker’s works give her readers is particularly apt.

 

In the last decades, Ostriker’s poignant, funny, and frank poems about aging – and the attendant emotions – shine a light on this rocky path we travel. In this feature, you will find examples of her sharp wit, such as the mythopoetic poem, “Demeter to Persephone,” and three poems from The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog. Here are also sensuous poems almost dancing off the page with Ostriker’s joy in returning to New York, the hometown she celebrates in rich detail (“West Fourth Street,” “Biking to the George Washington Bridge,” and “The Light”). There are tender poems of love and loving life (“August Morning, Upper Broadway,” “Approaching Eighty, Biking Up Prospect”). And in the trenchant “Approaching Seventy,” a speaker contemplates how memory and romance “disappear” as one ages, and then shifts in a dazzling turn to describe de Kooning – “happy,/ brush in hand no ego,” at work right into the “lucidity” of “pure painting” – as he descended into Alzheimer’s. Ostriker takes us in a flash to the heart of it all for an artist with her closing prayer: “please let me/ make beauty like that[.]”

In this tragic year, especially, I am reminded of Ostriker’s wise words written twenty years ago about the urgent necessity of remaining life-affirming in the face of horror:

To the famous declaration of Theodore Adorno that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz, a possible response is that there must be poetry after Auschwitz. Not to go on with poetry would be like not going on with life: a surrender to the powers of human destruction.(2)

 

Reading this generous selection of poems drawn from her latest collection The Volcano and After: Selected and New Poems 2002-2019, (2020), I marvel at the passion with which she refuses to let sorrow dominate the tenor of her work. Consider the breath-taking poem of outrage, “Afghanistan: The Raped Girl,” in which the speaker reads in the paper of a ten-year-old girl who, because she was raped by the mullah, must die at her brothers’ hands for the sake of the family’s honor. Although fury at the child’s fate concentrates Ostriker’s taut lines, outrage is transformed into insight. At the end, the speaker acknowledges her own mother’s invaluable lessons, “she from whom I learned/ liberty and fury, our weapons in this world.” No relativist, Ostriker ensures that her poems leave us with their courage, reminding us we aren’t defenseless.

Finally, this feature wraps up with Ostriker’s tour de force tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt who, though ridiculed for her looks and even her voice, becomes in Ostriker’s hands a Diana-the-huntress figure. Ostriker celebrates Eleanor’s “trilling feminine voice [that] enunciated the duties of privilege,” her “quivering mind packed with the arrows of liberty / free and equal,” Eleanor used her privileged position to advocate for peace, justice and equity for all. Among many other principled stands, she opposed lynching and supported racial equality. When the DAR refused to invite the great American contralto, Marion Anderson, to sing “America the Beautiful” in their hall, Eleanor “arranged the gig/ on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.” As First Lady, Eleanor had an objective, which was not the wish “to be nice,” as Ostriker quips to Joan Larkin in a recent interview,(3) but rather “To get it done. And it was done” (“The Mountain”).

Twice finalist for the National Book Award, recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, she has received the William Carlos Williams Award and the Jewish National Book Award, among many other honors. In 2015, she was elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. In 2018, she became New York State Poet Laureate. I hope this tantalizing selection from The Volcano and After will send you to the book itself. (4) Enjoy!

 

 

 

 
 

 
 

Poems from “The Book of Seventy”

 

 

From Approaching Seventy

Sit and watch the memory disappear
romance disappear the probability
of new adventures disappear

well isn’t it beautiful
when the sun goes down
don’t we all want to be where we can watch it

redden
sink to a spark
disappear

*

Your friend goes to Sri Lanka and works
for a human rights organization
in the middle of a civil war

where she too might be disappeared any time
and another friend goes to retreats
sits miserably waiting for ecstasy and ecstasy

actually comes, so many others
so many serial monogamists seeking love
some open doorway some wild furious breath

*

Please, I thought, when I first saw the paintings
De Kooning did when Alzheimer’s had taken him
into its arms and he could do nothing

but paint, purely paint, transparent, please let me
make beauty like that, sometime, like an infant
that can only cry

and suckle, and shit, and sleep,
boneless, unaware, happy,
brush in hand no ego there he went

*

A field of cerise another of lime
a big curve slashes across canvas
then another and here it is the lucidity

each of us secretly longs for
as if everything belonging to the other world
that we forget at birth is finally flooding

back to the man like a cold hissing tide
combers unrolling while he waits on the shore
of the sandy canvas brush in hand it comes
 

 

 

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 tangled 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
 

 

 

Demeter to Persephone

I watched you walking up out of that hole

All day it had been raining
in that field in Southern Italy

rain beating down making puddles in the mud
hissing down on rocks from a sky enraged

I waited and was patient
finally you emerged and were immediately soaked

you stared at me without love in your large eyes
that were filled with black sex and white powder

but this is what I expected and when I embraced you
Your firm little breasts against my amplitude

Get in the car I said
and then it was spring

 

 

 

Poems from “The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog”

 

 

The Blessing of the Old Woman, the Tulip and the Dog

To be blessed
said the old woman
is to live and work
so hard
God’s love
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
implied by
your up-ended
skirt

To be blessed
said the dog
is to have a pinch
of God
inside you
and all the other dogs
can smell it
 

 

 

The Wind That Blows Through Me

I feel the hand of God inside my hand
when I write said the old woman
I am blown away like a hat
I swear God’s needy hand is inside every atom
waving at us hoping we’ll wave back

Sometimes I feel the presence
of the goddess inside me said the dark red tulip
and sometimes I see her
waltzing in the world around me
scarves flying though everything looks still

It doesn’t matter whether you call the thing
God or goddess those are only words
said the dog panting after a run through the park
and a sprint after a squirrel
theology is bunk but the springtime wind is real
 

 

 

April

The optimists among us
taking heart because it is spring
skip along
attending their meetings
signing their email petitions
marching with their satiric signs
singing their give peace a chance songs
posting their rainbow twitters and blogs
believing in a better world
for no good reason
I envy them
said the old woman

The seasons go round they
go round and around
said the tulip
dancing among her friends
in their brown bed in the sun
in the April breeze
under a maple canopy
that was also dancing
only with greater motions
casting greater shadows
and the grass
hardly stirring

What a concerto
of good stinks said the dog
trotting along Riverside Drive
in the early spring afternoon
sniffing this way and that
how gratifying the violins of the river
the tubas of the traffic
the trombones
of the leafing elms with the legato
of my rivals’ piss at their feet
and the leftover meat and grease
singing along in all the wastebaskets

 

 

Poems from “Waiting for the Light”

 

 

August Morning, Upper Broadway

As the body of the beloved is a window
through which we behold the blackness and vastness of space
pulsing with stars, and as the man

on the corner with his fruit stand is a window,
and the cherries, blackberries, raspberries
avocados and carrots are a rose window

like the one in Chartres, yes, or the one in Paris
through which light floods from the other world, the pure one
stabbing tourists with malicious abundant joy

though the man is tired in the summer heat
and reads his newspaper listlessly, without passion
and people pass his stand buying nothing

let us call this scene a window looking out
not at a paradise but as a paradise
might be, if we had eyes to see

the women in their swaying dresses, the season’s fruit
the babies in their strollers infinitely soft: clear window
after clear window
 

 

 

The Light

What is the birthplace of the light that stabs me with joy
and what is the difference between avocados sold on the street
by a young man conceived in Delhi and avocados sold

in the West Side Market by cornrow girls, I am anyhow afloat
in tides of Puerto Rican, Cuban, Mexican, West Indian Spanish, wavelets of Urdu
swelling like oceans, sweating like jackhammers, rasping like crows, calling out

in the West Side Market, the Rite Aid, and every other shop on the street
Porque no comprendes, you don’t own this city any more
the city belongs and has always belonged to its shoals of exiles

crashing ashore in foaming salty droplets, como no, gringita—
with their dances and their grandmothers, with their drinking and their violence
and their burning thirst for dignity, and smelling money, what, what is the joy

is it those lamps of light those babies in their strollers
those avocados with their dark-green pebbled rinds, shining from inside
two for four dollars in the West Side Market, and three for four dollars from the cart

joy like white light between the dollar bills, is it these volleys of light fired
by ancestors who remember tenements, the sweatshops, the war,
who supposed their children’s children would be rich and free?
 

 

 

Biking to the George Washington Bridge

It sweeps away depression and today
you can’t tell the heaped pin-white
cherry blossoms abloom along
Riverside Drive from the clouds above
it is all kerfluffle, all moisture and light and so
into the wind I go
past Riverside Church and the Fairway
Market, past the water treatment plant
and in the dusky triangle below
a hulk of rusted railroad bed
a single hooded boy is shooting hoops

It’s ten minutes from here to the giant bridge
men’s engineering astride the sky heroic
an animal roar of motors on it
the little red lighthouse at its foot
big brother befriending little brother
in the famous children’s story
eight minutes back with the wind behind me
passing the boy there alone shooting
his hoops in the gloom

A neighborhood committee
must have said that space
should be used for something recreational
a mayor’s aide must have said okay
so they put up basketball and handball courts
and if it were a painting or a photo
you would call it American loneliness
 

 

 

Afghanistan: The Raped Girl

Because the mullah raped her, she cannot be allowed to live
her brothers will kill her, it is a question of honor
she is ten years of age and does not yet menstruate
but bleeds like a stream in the hospital

The doctor finds the girl’s mother holding her hand
both weeping, the mother saying
my daughter, may dust and soil protect you now
we will make you a bed of dust and soil
we will send you to the cemetery where you will be safe
 

The brothers have spoken to the police who command
the women’s shelter where she now is staying
to release her to them
they have promised not to harm her
but everyone understands
lying is not a sin when one’s honor is at stake

Even the mother understands this
even the child understands
only Dr. Sarwari, director of the shelter, is furious
she shouts at the police like a grey old crow
and the journalist who is doing his job
getting the story
may climb inside the bottle tonight

And I who read the story
will summon my mother, wherever she is
in the next world, perhaps in the paradise
she didn’t believe
existed, she for whom honor
was not a concept, she from whom I learned
liberty and fury, our weapons in this world

New York Times.  July 19, 2014. The italicized lines are from the NYT story published in Heart online, Oct 2014

 

 

 

Poems from “Approaching Eighty: New Poems, 2010-2019”

 

 

My Mother Refused to Weed

She had lived through
depression and war
she had been glad to leave the city
she wanted nothing to die
she wanted everything to flourish and thrive
when she planted she crumbled clods by hand
her garden was a thriving mess
some years a hall of sunflowers
a tornado of candy colored cosmos some years
“dependable beauty” said the catalog
we have photos of her
in a peasant blouse in that garden laughing
wearing her mortality on her face that was never veiled
the flowers shoulder high she was so small
ultimately raspberries took over
thorny canes arched across her cement walk
a sign of pride and a problem for the mailman but he forgave her
I wanted her to cut them but she refused
the berries were so delicious she explained
she wanted to feed me
and feed me

 

 

 

Approaching Eighty, Biking up Prospect

One of those blithe summer afternoons that used to last forever
biking up Prospect Street for dinner and a movie

trees along the street like affectionate cousins
willing to discuss family secrets

I say: the air is so tender it seduces you into believing
that a kelson of the creation is love

he says: we’ve evolved to feel good at moderate temperatures
such as this and uncomfortable when it is hotter or colder

I say: it appears we are actually coexistent with the universe
like salt in water and smoke in atmosphere

he says: maybe so
being a scientist he hedges his bets

being a scientist he pursues the reality beneath the surface
being a poet so do I

when we brake our bikes at a light and I quietly look at him
the light changes and we cross

these summer afternoons go by so much
more quickly now
 

 

Eleanor, 1884-1962: Five Poems

 

When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act
to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?

— Eleanor Roosevelt

 

 

1. The Mountain

Difficult to say what the supreme
moment is in the life of a mountain,
but in your sixties when they made you a delegate

to the United Nations you pushed through
a finished draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
You insisted the phrase all men are born free and equal

be changed to say all human beings,
you graciously forced the other delegates to compromise
with one another on wording. To get it done. And it was done.
 

 

 

2. The Streams

You had that form Helen Hokinson cartooned
in The New Yorker for decades, the stout pouter-pigeon
shape of the society lady,

you had your mother’s neglect, your drunken father’s
splashy promises, his death, your mother-in-law’s rules,
you had Franklin’s lifelong infidelity,

you had a brilliant Frenchwoman teacher and some friends who loved
your intelligence and goodness, you had at least
one woman lover,

everything somehow converging, like the streams to the Hudson River
over near Val-Kill, for the point of suffering
is to make one compassionate

to make one act on behalf of the defeated
to make one breathe the soiled breath of the poor
to make the demand that the rules change.
 

 

 

3. The Ribbon

While Woody Guthrie walked that ribbon of highway
looking at that endless skyway, and while John
Steinbeck followed the dust storms west,

you feared being the Governor’s wife, the President’s wife,
the irritating visits, the awful balls
where Franklin flirted with everyone

but when you discovered you could charm and organize,
could drive the Cadillac of politics throughout this mighty land
where banks were made of marble and people were growing hungrier,

your trilling feminine voice enunciated the duties of privilege:
opposition to lynching, support for a World Court
and for slum dwellers, miners, dirt farmers, negroes, Jews, women—

You bucktoothed horse-faced woman
at the golden end of the ladder of class—
a man like Guthrie and his guitar at the dustbowl end

twanging this land is your land, this land is my land,
the ribbon connecting you, you with the FBI file of 3,000 pages
and a Klan bounty of twenty-five thousand on your head—

They called your husband “that man in the White House,”
they said Roosevelt was really Rosenberg,
they said you were Commie Jews,

they laughed at your homeliness,
they laughed at your quivering voice,
they laughed at you over cigars and whiskey

(that is what pigs do, they laugh
with a nasty snorting sound
in their sty, that they take for the world)
 

 

 

4. The Brink, 1939

A war, and then the fantasy of peace like a canoe headed smoothly,
unstoppably toward Niagara, you think no, please, but there’s the roar
ahead, the mist. Still, on the brink, My country ‘tis of thee,

Sweet land of liberty sounds utterly real in Marion Anderson’s big
black contralto, when you quit the whites-only Daughters
of the American Revolution that refuses to invite her

to sing in their hall, when instead you arrange the gig
on the Lincoln Memorial steps, and the crowd fills the Mall
with tears. As if we the people believed in justice for all.
 

 

 

5. Diana the Huntress in Camouflage

Before someone invented pills for depression, you wrote:
If anyone looks at me, I want to weep.
My mind goes round and round like a squirrel in a cage,

I want to run and I can’t and I despise myself,
and proceeded to compose your syndicated column
“My Day” daily for twenty-two years, offering advice and opinions,
your prose domestic as a peony centerpiece
on a polished cherrywood table,

the way you might say to the man, Now, Franklin, you should—
or remark, when some weary delegates wished to quit for the day,
I drive hard, and when I get home I will be tired,
and so will the gentlemen on this committee,

in which fashion you obtained much of what you wanted
oh woman of pragmatic subtle strategy—
your quivering mind packed with the arrows of liberty
free and equal, the joy of the hunt, the lay of the land

under your feet as you ran together with your band of friends.

 

 

Notes
 
 
1. Martha Nell Smith, “Introduction: Alicia Ostriker Thumbtacking Her Theses to the Bulletin Board,” Everywoman Her Own Theology: On the Poetry of Alicia Suskin Ostriker, ed. Martha Nell Smith and Julie R. Enszer (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018), 1.
 
2. Alicia Ostriker, “Beyond Confession: The Poetics of Postmodern Witness,” APR 30.2 (March/April 2001): 35 [35-39].
 
3. Joan Larkin, “Dancing with the Torah: Joan Larkin Interviews Alicia Ostriker,” Everywoman Her Own Theology, 13.
 
4. To read more of Alicia Ostriker’s poetry, books may be ordered directly from University of Pittsburgh Press at: https://upittpress.org/books/9780822946403/

 

 

2 thoughts on “Poems from the Volcano and After: Selected and New Poems, 2002-2019

  1. I read Ostriker’s “Stealing the Language” in the 70’s while in a college feminism course. I am now 77, my husband died last year; we were both poets. I am searching for my words, meaning, once again. Ostriker’s poems, all of them, Eleanor Roosevelt truth-telling, every day, many lives accessible is how I’ve strived to write. I want to find my way there again. Here is a step I find in your column. Thank you.

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