SOURCE: A review of Vision and Verse in William Blake, in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. LXVI, July, 1967, pp. 461-63.
[In the following review, Nurmi assesses the success of Ostriker's metrical analysis in Vision and Verse in William Blake, revealing the limitations of her technique.]
The analyst of Blake's prosody, in dealing with almost any of his lyrics after Poetical Sketches, operates under more than the usual handicaps, because the sound of the poems can only with great difficulty be directly connected with the meaning. In a symbolic poem like “The Tyger” especially, the sound is hard to associate with anything but the surface meaning of the words, and the surface meaning is only the starting point. A subtle prosodic study of the poem could be conducted within the limits of what we are given in the text, to show us how the sound patterns help to create the powerful symbol of the ambiguously dread tiger. But Miss Ostriker in her prosodic analysis [Vision and Verse in William Blake] does not seem satisfied to do this, and we are told that in the first stanza “Almost every word is knit up through sound with every other word, and this in itself suggests the idea of the demiurge's infinitely painstaking design” (p. 86). This seems to me rather far-fetched and to claim much too much for what sound alone can tell us—even if one grants that the tiger is the creation of a demiurge.
Miss Ostriker, who writes poems herself, approaches Blake with something of the attitude of a fellow professional, interested in technique. There is perhaps nothing wrong with this in a book on his verse. But Miss Ostriker puts too much emphasis on technique. She would reduce the complexity of “The Fly,” for instance, by saying it is “an excellent example of a poem which achieves its ends through surface manipulation” (p. 70). Her reading of it doesn't bear her out. And what seems like a technical point of view of the professional craftsman who artfully manipulates his matter as materials in a construction gets developed to an extreme when she says, “As he proceeded in his Prophetic Books, Blake pushed God, his idea of ultimate unity, ever further back from the fallen world, apparently the better to enjoy the reunion of God and Man when it came, as it does on the final plate of Jerusalem” (p. 121). If I don't misread this, she comes dangerously close to denying the poet-prophet his prophecy and making him into a mere craftsman instead.
Much of Miss Ostriker's prosodic analysis is sound, though severely limited by her decision to stick almost exclusively with two degrees of accent. It points out sound effects in somewhat the way the program notes for a symphony concert descriptively direct the listeners' attention to rhythmic motifs, thematic entries, and orchestration. But occasionally we find some serious lapses. “Spring,” for instance, is said to “jingle” like “Jack and Jill.” It seems to me almost impossible to read this poem aloud without feeling that the lines form pulses of a rhythmic phrase extending through to the last line of the stanza and producing something of the musical effect of a bourée: “Sound the Flute! / Now it's mute. / Birds delight / Day and Night / Nightingale / In the dale / Lark in Sky / Merrily / Merrily Merrily to welcome in the Year.” Surely Blake, who earlier had sung his lyrics to tunes of his own composition that were good enough to be “noted down...
(This entire section contains 1048 words.)
by musical professors” (see Symons,William Blake, p. 360), would have heard the lines of this song as impulses within the larger rhythmical unit of the stanza and not as discrete rhyming jingles. And one can't help but be puzzled, at least, to be told that the following passage from The Four Zoas is an example of the “lyric” style from the prophecies used for matter that is “mild and gentle”:
In pits & dens & shades of death in shapes of torment & woe The plates the Screws and Racks & Saws & cords & fires & floods The cruel joy of Luvahs daughters lacerating with knives. …
Miss Ostriker's scheme for analysis, which is the conventional one of scanning lines and feet, works about as well as this kind of analysis can when Blake writes in conventional feet or modulates his rhythms in a way that allows noting inversions or substitutions of conventional feet. And she does a good job, especially with inversions and substitutions, in the Songs. But she becomes troubled by passages where ordinary scansion doesn't yield regular results, as in the opening of The French Revolution:
The Dead brood over Europe, the cloud and vision descends over chearful France; O cloud well appointed! Sick, sick, the Prince on his couch, wreath'd in dim And appalling mist. …
She is bothered because Blake does not at once establish the anapests which will come later. In general, she finds The French Revolution to have “many smooth sections, but it also has many instances of rhythmical confusion” (p. 156). “Smoothness” seems a strange thing to require of a poem that shows the beginnings of apocalypse in revolution.
Miss Ostriker's discussion of the later prophecies makes a noble attempt to deal with the complex style of these works without forcing them either into prose or conventional verse. But she doesn't allow herself enough space to do much more than make a few general observations. She affirms but doesn't adequately illustrate the metrical richness of The Four Zoas and fails to note the dramatic character of this work, which has a great effect on its verse techniques.
Miss Ostriker seems to feel defeated by her task at the outset, remarking in the preface, “If you write about Blake, you cannot expect to please everyone,” and “if you write about metrics, you cannot expect to please anyone.” I don't think failure to please is quite so inevitable in a metrical study of Blake or anyone else. Miss Ostriker doesn't succeed as well as she might, it seems to me, because she limited the subtlety of her analysis by choosing tools that are not precise enough, because she sets too much store by technique in itself, and because she sometimes expects things of Blake's verse that he wasn't trying to supply.
SOURCE: “One of Each—with Echoes,” in Southwest Review, Vol. 65, No. 1, Winter, 1981, pp. 110-14.
[In the following excerpt, Stout praises the syntactical clarity and emotional restraint of Ostriker's poetic vision in A Dream of Springtime.]
Words clash, streak the mind with sunbursts, ricochet and swoop into irony—ah! but Hopkins, Hopkins did it better! And Sexton, really tough, didn't lapse into cute words, or kitten's play. And Roethke, the academician, kept control, both of reader and himself: his meanings were graspable—and profound.
But that's the rub. To be different is not to be bad, or wrong, nor does it make the poems less important. One Hopkins, one Sexton, one Roethke were enough. These three contemporary poets [Francis Sullivan, Terry Kennedy, and Alicia Ostriker], put into circulation in attractive packages by The Smith in conjunction with Horizon Press, are vivaciously themselves, whatever echoes might infiltrate their lines and thoughts. …
Unlike Sullivan [in her Spy Wednesday's Kind], Alicia Ostriker is never abstruse; and unlike Kennedy [in his durango], she tempers even her most emotional passages with intellect [in A Dream of Springtime]. Yeats, Ecclesiastes, and Whitman mingle with current events to locate the poems in a university setting. Even when the poet is angry, or sarcastic, she is comfortable with classical references. “The Clock above the Kitchen Door Says One” concludes,
… I want you to love me Here in the Corner Tavern, while I tell you About Poetry.—We wipe our mouths with paper napkins, We're spitting blood, we're coughing, we're killing time, We're eating lunch. Keats was dead when he was your age, When he was my age, Mozart.
And teaching poetry becomes the subject matter for writing poems, as in “My Lecture to the Writing Students”:
… the poem Is insane, it wants
To tie tin cans to its tail To fly away with General Motors under one arm The Sacred Heart under the other, it wants
To express the fluid explosion in your mind The subjective, Transient, and not verbal
(the smell like an orange how you feel about your father)
In a form objective, permanent And verbal. …
Cezanne and Kierkegaard mingle with crepe paper and the Daily News to pull the reader into Ostriker's vision, seeing what she sees, reacting as she seems to react, ever the observer, ever aware that she is watching herself as well as others. As in the title poem, “A Dream of Springtime”:
Somebody is very thoughtfully making love. That's all I can think of. The sheets are greyed and mussed, The blankets far gone. The room is immobile and nothing Much. They have a lot of cigarette butts in the glass Ashtray. It's like walking up a street Looking in the storewindows, something always Mysteriously profound looking back. …
A Dream of Springtime is a book worth many times its price.
SOURCE: “An Aesthetic of Pain,” in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 58, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 82-84.
[In the following review, Broe highlights various thematic and formal concerns in A Woman Under the Surfacewhich, according to Broe, revise the relation between contemporary feminist artistic principles and female life.]
Like Orpheus, Alicia Ostriker makes “that journey / Down from song, down to the impulse of singing” in her fifth volume of poems, A Woman Under the Surface. But unlike Orpheus, who “could not carry, haul, rob / His bride back,” Ostriker makes us feel the unsentimental solid-iron aesthetic of pain, fear, and bitter beauty that undercuts her singing. In “For the Daughters” she announces:
Song, as you gather it, is not desire, Not some requirement you may finally fill. Song is being. For the god, trivial. But when are we? And when does he deliver
To our existence here the earth and stars?
Within the four sections, Ostriker reinvents the Eros/Psyche myth (women's curiosities are no longer punished), a host of family spirits and struggles, the political understatement of news events from National Public Radio. In deadpan narration, she exposes the gap between the bland public voice of a consumer society that tames violence and the real horror of death, maiming, and daily terror (“The Demonstration,” “This Dreamer Cometh,” and “Terrorist Trial and the Games”). In rewriting the “History of America,” she deftly sets “a prior circle: a mouth” against “a linear projection: a route.”
Most successful, perhaps, is her homage to various artists—Dante, Matisse, Van Gogh, Renoir, Rilke. Probing the relation of art to life, she finds that the source of creative power is often the source of one's crippling or destruction. We see Renoir “at the end painting with brushes strapped to his hand / Arthritic, crippled—his palette aroused ‘to crepuscular / Pinks, oranges, reds, his nudes ever more voluptuous.’” All the while, the “plump, middle-class Parisiennes” continue their languid, post-war indulgences. In “A Minor Van Gogh,” “the strokes are pulses,” an ironic counterpoint to the artist's end:
… The strokes Rush forward, waving their hats, identical, All elements alike, all particles Of Christ's material dancing, even The shadowed furrow saying I exist, I live!
It is Claude Monet's life that raises the central question. At first a bourgeois “glutton of light,” Monet lost his eyesight around 1922 and began to paint “red / Mud and whiplashes … the waterlilies bursting like painless bombs.” And the poet asks, “Is it from him? or around him? His old man's forehead / Garlanded.”
Open to the “virtue of the pure unknown,” Ostriker never bends her knee to cliché, never makes ideological genuflections before the sentimental or the unrevised. Her verse gleams with the quicksilver of a blackbelt's revenge: a verse with registered iambs and feet, yet lulled by the rule of the contemplative like a mandolin concerto. She prefers the pure elevation of September (“definite as wood”) to the celebrated lushness of April:
… being keen To race through walls, to experience all Conceivable human passion, To be broken man, while still a girl?
Ostriker's imagination breaks forth like the rough hind leg of the centaur at the very moment when neat closure or appeal to the ordinary might slow the verse. In “Anxiety About Dying,” the poet waves goodbye to her teeth: “It seems they are leaving by train for a vacation / I'll meet them in the country when I can.” She glories in contradictions, verifying Whitman's claim that “I am large, I contain multitudes.” In the midst of lovemaking, a blackbird's serrated wing passes soundlessly between lovers, then lifts to a black dot in the sky. Ironic anthropomorphism surrounds the “geriatric” San Juan waterfront, a “relation between building / And vegetation, which the big hotels, lifting their knees, trample.” In the words of pseudo-science she narrates a husband's betrayal: “When she returned home, conditions / Were such that she believed a betrayal of synchronicity / And a lapse of energy and love had occurred.” A young girl kicks her father in the stomach for faking a heart attack, but the price of her new serenity (“light as a fleet of balloons”) is imposed silence. A runner sees the “bright bone under brown landscape” and
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.
Evident in her clear ironies and luminous imagery is pure motion: the diver's body “saying a kind of prayer,” words and language useless.
“Goddesses, mortal women, pigs and homecoming”—these are the ingredients of Ostriker's redefined mythmaking, the simple story that underlies everything. In the opening poem, women gathered in a beige, soundproofed waiting room fear betrayal of their bodies. They are divided from this awareness, however—as they are from each other—by rings, tweeds, social structures. Only a woman's piercing scream unites them in silent knowledge of the body's truth. In this post-Rich world, the shipwrecked self has learned not only what tools one can do without, learned the medium where women can escape, but also how to define “the living mind you fail to describe / In your dead language.” Ostriker casts aside Adrienne Rich's androgyne and the wreck of historical consciousness for a new, utopian revenge. In “The Exchange,” a powerful new myth figure swimming below a nuclear family climbs into the boat, changes places with the speaker, and even strangles her children:
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 dying mouth incapable of speech, And I, having exchanged with her, will swim Away, in the cool water, out of reach.
And in the final poems, tutored by such mistresses, woman yields to a new imperative: “Now you know how to sing / Now you have to make / Your own story.” Practicing the very best principle of revisionism in her poetry, Ostriker can say with confidence of her own work:
When she sings, when she dances, it is asking How to capture, how to keep, how to give back, unmasking Beauty, the seed to the sower, the gift to the giver—
Go, book, and say this time she conquers.
SOURCE: A review of Stealing the Language, in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 291-92.
[In the following review, Aldan disputes Ostriker's definitions of gynocentric poetics in Stealing the Language.]
I was among those who believed that if a woman poet's work was outstanding, it would achieve its deserved recognition in spite of man's traditional attitude toward it. In [Stealing the Language,] her survey of American women's poetry from the time of Anne Bradstreet to the present, Alicia Ostriker presents ample convincing evidence to show that I was laboring under a delusion. Despite the fact that not too many of the women poets mentioned who wrote before and during the Victorian era (with a few exceptions) equaled the achievements of the best of the male poets during that time (for whatever reasons), denigration by male critics, even until recently, exceeded justification. The author maintains that the poets she deals with are challenging and transforming the history of poetry, and she attempts to understand “the powerful collective voice in which they participate.” One of Ostriker's assumptions is that women's verse has a history, a terrain: “Many of its practitioners believe it has something like a language.”
In her evaluation of the contemporary, Ostriker focuses on a number of well-known and a few not-so-well-known women poets and attempts to define and illustrate their concerns, patterns, and questionable innovations. Since her opening arguments are lucid and enlightening, one looks forward to the revelations one hopes to meet; one comes away disappointed, however, for Ostriker beats a particular drum and chooses examples to sustain her melody, even from among fine women authors whose concerns are largely other than those she emphasizes. Urging us to accept the fact that there is a category “as distinctly women's poetry” which indicates “forms and styles particular to and appropriate to” her exploration, she outlines the following motifs inherent within it: the quest for identity, the obstacle of the divided self, the centrality of the body, the release of forbidden anger, the imperative of intimacy. The quest for identity, she says, registers marginality, images of nonexistence, invisibility, petrification, blurredness, and deformity, which indicates a divided self. Women writers, she contends, have been imprisoned in an “oppressor's language” which denies them access to authoritative expression. Thus they give vent to their aggressive, hitherto thwarted impulses. However, “Magic shimmers about the best violence poems whether vengefully phallic, self punishing ultra feminine, or most angrily and helplessly both.” Some women poets believe that “female creativity is and should be intrinsically carnal basing itself in women's unique maternal relation and in sexual sensation.”
How can we not fail to be shocked by that last statement, for have not men since the beginning of patriarchal dominance used those very terms to relegate women to an inferior social position? If what the author says were indeed the case, we would have to be moved to tears and give up hope for humanity. Fortunately, it is only one facet of a more complex picture. As publisher of a small press for the past thirty years, editor of several literary magazines, teacher of poetry workshops, and a woman poet, my experience differs widely from Ostriker's. The many manuscripts of women's poetry which come into my hands each year and which are created in my workshops lead me to the conclusion that women are indeed “writing more boldly and with a greater freedom than ever before,” but that there is a high artistry and concern as well as a deepening vision, which are the qualities that are achieving respect and recognition, rather than the examples presented in Stealing the Language. The majority of the poems I see are not filled with hysterical rage, self-pity, explicit sexual depictions that are beyond imagination, or sterile complaints. It is a disservice to such outstanding poets as May Swenson, Muriel Rukeyser, Joyce Carol Oates, and Denise Levertov to imply that what they are concerned with are death wishes, rape, sex, and pathological states. These can hardly be said to be inherent in the larger portion of their creations, and we may be grateful indeed that this is the case.
Ostriker bewails the “culturally depleted present,” but most of the works she quotes are depleting that present still further. Wit, grace, skill, eloquence, objectivity, lucidity, knowledge, the qualities which must invest all good art, are termed “male values” and are relegated to “academic modernism”; women poets must therefore evoke formlessness and vulgarity. Do we not demean women still further by such assumptions? Another assumption is that works by women poets express a “drive for power.” Shall female dominance replace male dominance then? As for the search for identity, it has been a quest of both male and female poets since the dawn of the Age of Consciousness in the fifteenth century. Also, anger, violence, obscenities, and pathological states have been explored ad nauseam since the sixties by male poets and can hardly be said to indicate innovations in language or concern. At one point she quotes Coleridge: “The highest art is that which presses most matter and spirit into least space.” However, with the exception of her discussion of the poems of that remarkable poet Hilda Doolittle (in a section toward the close of the book which seems totally divorced from the rest of the text), spirit, in the best sense of that word, is largely excluded. What readers of poetry wish to feel that they are “walking on broken glass,” as Ostriker says one does when reading a work she greatly admires by Anne Sexton, “The Jesus Papers”?
Ostriker has not convinced me, nor will she convince any reader of taste, knowledge, and experience in life and art, that she has made a case for women's poetry as being distinct from male poetry, or that the poetic results which emerge—one relative to style, one to content—contribute to “what we must finally recognize as gynocentric poetics.” Indeed, her point of view and her vision seem limited. A typical poem that she finds admirable is the following piece by June Jordan:
Today is 2 weeks after the fact of that man straddling his knees either side of my chest his hairy arm and powerful left hand flat to the pillow while he rammed what he described as his quote big dick unquote into my mouth and shouted out: “D'ya want to swallow my big dick: Well, do ya?”
He was being rhetorical. My silence was peculiar to the female.
It is not the subject matter I object to, but the absence of originality and skill in expressing it. Does placing the sentences into verse make it a poem? And how has the poet succeeded in expressing her experience better than is done in cheap pulp journalistic writing by men? Let the reader decide.
SOURCE: A review of Stealing the Language, in Phi Kappa Phi Journal, Vol. 67, No. 3, pp. 45-6.
[In the following review, Dove admires the contents and insights of Stealing the Language.]
An impeccable piece of scholarship that's as exciting as a detective novel—impossible? Not as far as Alicia Ostriker is concerned. Her book Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America is much more than a portrait of this besieged literary landscape—hers is the clear-eyed commentary of an insider who nonetheless knows her trade. In the true mission of the literary mind, Ostriker offers not only analysis, but vision.
After a concise and comprehensive survey of American women's poetry from 1650–1960 (illustrated by a brilliant exegesis of Emily Dickinson's “I'm Nobody! Who Are You?”), Ostriker investigates the schizophrenic heritage of the woman artist who, possessed of creative energy but forbidden to use it lest she be accused of being “unwomanly,” resorted to various strategies to circumvent exposure—double entendre, male personae, allegorical complaint when direct protest was unacceptable. Far too often silence was the only alternative.
Internal conflict and the consequent search for identity form the theoretical basis for discussion of work by Sylvia Plath, Denise Levertov, and Margaret Atwood in chapter two; chapter three probes attitudes toward and metaphors of the body. Chapter four discusses the anger in women's poetry (much of it internalized in revenge fantasies or images of victimization) as a reaction to a society which undervalues—even fears—emotion. Chapter five, titled “The Imperative for Intimacy,” cites poets such as Maxine Kumin, Audre Lorde, and Judy Grahn who are challenging the existing patterns of polarity (male/female, mind/body) and dominance (mother/child, husband/wife, man/nature). Finally, chapter six considers various theories on patriarchal versus “feminine” language and offers Ostriker's suggestion for expanding the existing literary structures: revisionist mythmaking. Basing her argument on three long poetic works—H. D.'s Helen in Egypt, Susan Griffin's Woman and Nature,, and Anne Sexton's Transformations, Ostriker demonstrates how each poet, revising the “official versions,” respectively, of Helen of Troy, Mother Nature, and Grimm's fairy tales, opens our eyes to the horrific imbalances championed in seemingly harmless folklore.
There are no easy solutions, and Ostriker is careful to foil those who would buy wholesale judgments. She acknowledges that Sylvia Plath's anger resulted in self-destruction … but not before she avenged herself on paper, upstaging the men in her life—Herr God, Herr Lucifer, and Daddy—in her poems. Then there's Marianne Moore, carefully self-effacing in public yet angry enough in the poem “Marriage” to write: “men have power / and sometimes one is made to feel it.” The relentlessly cerebral edge of her poems, plus the assortment of small armored creatures that populate her work, serve as acknowledgment of and protest against her powerlessness. Ostriker counters the patronizing praise accorded Elizabeth Bishop by demonstrating how two of her most famous poems—“In the Waiting Room” and “The Moose”—are characterized by a meandering thought-line and identification with the feminine (the naked breasts in the National Geographic magazine, the female moose whose appearance transforms a country bus trip).
Ostriker's language is neither condescending nor impenetrable; it is convincing without being de-emotionalized. She is equally skilled at providing a line-by-line analysis or limning the broader spectrum of events which helped shape literary consciousness. Third-world poets are richly represented; so are younger and more experimental ones.
The generous footnotes are nearly as fascinating as the book itself. I especially appreciated the bibliographical listings grouped according to themes, such as “poems on muteness” and “poems on the labors of beauty.” Two substantial lists of myth–poems—the first pre-, the second post-1960—are included in the footnotes to chapter six.
It almost goes without saying that Stealing the Language is ideal for classroom use, and not only for women's studies; creative writing, literature, and literary criticism students would benefit as well. The book is informative and challenging, scholarly and personable.
SOURCE: “Poetry and Gender,” in The Kenyon Review, Vol. 9, Summer, 1987, pp. 127-40.
[In the following essay, Voigt addresses various implications of the female poetic aesthetic outlined in Stealing the Language, suggesting that differences in women's poetry, rather than similarities, would better illuminate female experience.]
The belief that true poetry is genderless—which is a disguised form of believing that true poetry is masculine—means that we have not learned to see women poets generically, to recognize the tradition they belong to, or discuss either the limitations or the strengths of that tradition. … 1
Undoubtedly gender does play an important part in the making of any art, but art is art and to separate writings, paintings, musical compositions, etc., into two sexes is to emphasize values in them that are not art.2
As to the poetical Character itself, … it is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character—. … It is a wretched thing to confess; but is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature—how can it, when I have no nature?3
Although few poets may be left who endorse Keats's definition of “poetical Character,” surprisingly many, some of them women, believe that the individual self of the artist—sexual, ethnic, historical, political and geographical—is subverted to the uses and priorities of his or her art. Among recent and widespread efforts to replace “individual” with “collective” in defining the self, such a belief is not merely unfashionable but politically retrograde, for it is with the fervor of revolution that much is being written about “women's literature.”
The bias against women in publication history, corresponding easily to the cultural bias Mary Ellmann discusses thoroughly, and wittily, in Thinking about Women,4 is well documented. In roughly eight hundred years of English literature, only the most recent one hundred have included substantial participation by women. In the past twenty-five years, however, that participation has increased astonishingly—an example of free enterprise Ronald Reagan might cherish, so rapidly did publishers respond to the demands of women as a book-buying constituency—and contemporary writers who so wish are now able to find models of their own gender in great variety.
Clearly, anthologies and journals devoted exclusively to work by women, as well as feminist criticism and the women's political movement, were primary factors in the reversal. But the establishment of a separate-but-equal category has led to a broader claim: that this literary work belongs to a distinct, parallel tradition with its own purpose, criteria, and aesthetic priorities. This view is often made imperative by the premise that women have been excluded from the canon not only because of sexist bias among individual critics and reviewers but because sexism has inhered within the very definitions of art, deposited there by its (primarily male) practitioners. Whether intended as adversarial or merely just, the us/them division long insured by them, and only briefly seen to diminish somewhat in bookstore and periodicals, has been restored by us.
The complexity of this issue is compounded by the breadth of the label in general use, “women writers.” The coinage appears direct and uncomplicated, but the use of a noun as a modifier is never without some ambiguity: does the term indicate a woman who writes, or a writer who is a woman? That is, what is the relative importance of gender to an aesthetic? And although, as Jarrell pointed out, the pigs are seldom asked what they think about bacon, has there been another critical classification which conscripted so many writers a priori?
In Stealing the Language, Alicia Ostriker dismisses such concern:
… most critics and professors of literature, including modern literature, deny that “women's poetry,” as distinct from poetry by individual women, exists. Some women writers agree. Some will not permit their work to appear in women's anthologies.
… Yet we do not hesitate to use the term “American poetry” (or “French poetry” or “Russian poetry”) on the grounds that American (or French or Russian) poets are diverse. Should we call Whitman, Frost, and Stevens “poets” but not “American poets”?
At issue, of course, is the extent to which the label is meant to describe the work. Both Whitman and Frost were self-consciously “American,” which is to say they saw such an affiliation as primary and strove to make poems from a local (rather than British) idiom. Thus, we can locate in their work characteristics which correspond to what we think of as American poetry, later revised and refined by Williams and others, particularly in regard to style and diction. With Stevens, the case is far more difficult and the term runs the risk of obscuring both his intentions and his achievement. With Stevens, we use the label for convenience (somewhat like putting the duckbill platypus in with the mammals), for the illumination of contrast, and for the chance to claim him.
Even so, the influence of Emerson, say, can be traced in Stevens, while a parallel importance of Bradstreet to Bishop or to Plath is harder to track. Ostriker invites the equation:
In what follows I therefore make the assumption that “women's poetry” exists in much the same sense that “American poetry” exists. It has a history. It has a terrain. Many of its practitioners believe it has something like a language.
But she avoids the direct question of literary precursors, presenting virtually no evidence that women were heavily influenced by other women's work (as distinct from the example of their success) prior to the 1960s; instead, the “history” presented is largely the story of how literary work by women has been received—which in turn reflects the way women have been viewed in the culture.
A similar sociological focus pervades Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's much heralded but controversial Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. In the introductory material to each section the editors locate individual women within the contours of the existing tradition (acknowledging that women “were influenced by [and influenced]” male writers) but they have supplanted the usual literary periods with others that correspond to significant changes in the cultural attitudes toward, and life patterns of, women. The structure of the book, then, groups writers according to similarities of circumstance in which they wrote; similarities within the work itself are left to brief introductory comment, proximity, and the shaping influence of the editors' choices. (That influence, of course, is pronounced—like Ostriker though less insistent, the editors prefer instances of women writing directly about distinctly female, rather than universal, experience. If the anthology is faulted on which writers, or which examples of their work, were thought representative, and faulted more vigorously than usual, it is because the category is so diverse and the lens so circumscribed: which animal, indeed, can represent the mammals?)
Ostriker, on the other hand, takes the similarity of circumstance to be equivalent to a similarity of aesthetic purpose, and works this assumption both vertically (Bradstreet to Grahn) and horizontally (as in the curious pairing of Bishop and Sexton). She says in her introduction that her subject is “the extraordinary tide of poetry by American women in our own time,” an “increasing proportion” of which “is explicitly female in the sense that the writers have chosen to explore experiences central to their sex and to find forms and styles appropriate to their exploration,” and she takes 1960 as an “approximate point of departure,” listing “breakthrough and highly influential books” by poets whose publication dates coincide with the discovery of The Second Sex in this country (and incidentally the publication of Lowell's Life Studies) and the emerging women's political movement. Some of them defined their aesthetic with gender primary in the definition; some located precursors among women of earlier generations. The most influential figure among this number for Ostriker seems to be Adrienne Rich, who is listed with sixty-eight references in the Index (as compared to ten for Mona Van Duyn and eleven for Muriel Rukeyser, two other “breakthrough poets”); at least, the feminist agenda articulated by Rich in the 1970s seems to correspond to the “new thing” Ostriker applauds, which is “notoriously difficult to define precisely.”
It may have been somewhat foggy in the minds of its practitioners at the time as well, insofar as Rich, Rukeyser, Plath, Sexton, Levertov et al. were working independently in the 1960s and not collectively as the Black Mountain or Transcendental writers may be said to have been. Nevertheless, Ostriker intends to locate the foundation of this “tide” or renascence in earlier writers, and depends on the consistent difficulty of the writer's (and woman's) position to make her case (many of the women cited are introduced with a succinct career summary). In doing so, she adds to Gilbert and Gubar's notion of “anxiety of literary authority” a close attention to various women's sense of audience and where it impinged on or enabled the poetry. (In fact, this might have provided a stable thesis for the entire book; certainly it makes germane her recurring reference to mistreatment and misreading by critics—those poets who wish[ed] to articulate an aesthetic of gender are the same group, essentially, who identify their readership, or constituency, as primarily women.) In particular, in discussions of Dickinson's “duplicity” and the hard style (“exoskeletal”) of many contemporary women, both of which are viewed as responses to audience, the book comes closest to the kind of aesthetic similarities that might suggest literary affinity. But whereas with Bradstreet and Dickinson, who offer historically isolated oeuvres, Ostriker considers individual pieces as poems as well as sociopolitical documents, after that she seems impatient with such detail; her primary purpose—to describe an exclusive aesthetic through survey—leads her to a focus on theme and a reliance on paraphrase that leave transitions from the sociological to the literary largely unsupported.
One way to secure a connection among women writing in different periods and with differing aesthetic priorities would be to work deductively from a comprehensive theory of feminine psychology. Ostriker presents no such theory on which to base her arguments, and in fact resists the method (“I attempt to read by the light that poems themselves emit, rather than by the fixed beam of one or another theory”); however, many of her generalizations, in their easy exchange of “woman” and “woman poet,” imply that primary similarities exist within the psychology of all women and inexorably shape the literature women make, regardless of the conscious intentions of the makers.
Even when a rigorous and comprehensive theory of feminine psychology emerges, the literary question will, I think, continue to be muddied to the extent that poetry always confounds psychology: that is, the extent to which the disciplines of art transform or override the imperatives of the individuated ego. What continues to fascinate is what Ostriker promises to explore in her Introduction—the question of style, that is, the arrangement of aesthetic elements independent of subject matter. Ostriker chastises those reviewers and critics who condemned work because of its “feminine style” (for example, the elegance of Bogan) while supporting their basic premise—that style is identifiable as to gender—in her own practice (for example, the self-effacement of Bradstreet). Yet her stylistic examples almost always double as examples of theme or subject.
Ellmann's discussion of tone in Thinking about Women is to the point here. After analyzing prose passages which demonstrate in their diction and syntax the authoritative tone, Ellmann locates its rise (and its association with the masculine) in the nineteenth century, noting that earlier no distinction was fixed between the intellectual authority and intimate emotion in Donne's sermons:
But such a distinction is endemic to the nineteenth century. It was then, when women first began to publish not only as novelists but as (what we call) intellectuals, that a method of male utterance codified itself; and, as a result, a genuine difference seemed discernible between the ways in which men think and write, and the ways in which women think and write. … So Dickens recorded his conviction that George Eliot's Scenes from Clerical Life, published anonymously, must be written by a woman. The dichotomy was established: the dominant and masculine mode possessing the properties of reason and knowledge, the subsidiary and feminine mode possessing feelings and intuitions. If this dichotomy was unreal, it was not less dedicated on the part, particularly, of the dominant mode.
That Ellmann does find it “unreal”—though she includes instances of women and men in this century perpetuating the dichotomy—is made definite in her disagreement with Virginia Woolf. Here is the citation from Woolf:
She [Dorothy Richardson] has invented, or, if she has not invented, developed and applied to her own uses, a sentence which we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender. It is of a more elastic fibre than the old, capable of stretching to the extreme, of suspending the frailest particles, of enveloping the vaguest shapes. Other writers of the opposite sex have used sentences of this description and stretched them to the extreme. But there is a difference. Miss Richardson has fashioned her sentence consciously, in order that it may descend to the depths and investigate the crannies of Miriam Henderson's consciousness. It is a woman's sentence, but only in the sense that it is used to describe a woman's mind by a writer who is neither proud nor afraid of anything that she may discover in the psychology of her sex.
Then Ellmann's crisp reply:
But, in fact, it seems impossible to determine a sexual sentence. As Virginia Woolf herself makes clear, the only certain femininity is in Dorothy Richardson's subject. Her sentence has more in common with Henry James' or Joyce's than with, say, George Eliot's.
And a sentence of Richardson's promptly follows in support.
What Ellmann sets in contrast to the “now outmoded” tone of authority is the use of wit, defined as the “means of relinquishing authority.” Ostriker makes a similar point but claims the tactic as feminine. Ellmann, acknowledging she has “perhaps not helped at all those obsessed readers like Dickens who are bent upon identifying the sex of writers,” summarizes this way:
As both simple authority and simple sensibility have become anachronistic, writers cohabit an area of prose in which sudden alternations of the reckless and the sly, the wildly voluble and the laconic, define only a mutual and refreshing disturbance of mind.
That sentence appeared in 1968, when Ostriker's “quelque chose DE NOUVEAU” was underway, and prefigures this passage from Carol Gilligan's In a Different Language, a study of psychological theory and women's development:
The different voice I describe is characterized not by gender but theme. Its association with women is an empirical observation, and it is primarily through women's voices that I trace its development. But this association is not absolute, and the contrasts between male and female voices are presented here to highlight a distinction between two modes of thought and to focus a problem of interpretation rather than to represent a generalization about either sex. In tracing development, I point to the interplay of these voices within each sex and suggest that their convergence marks times of crisis and change.5
There is not a great deal of interplay in Stealing the Language. The book is structured chronologically with a specific look at Bradstreet and Dickinson, then an examination of later poems paired by theme, and finally a catalog of proliferating examples. While the method is inductive, however, the mind-set is deductive: that is, Ostriker leaves as assumptions—and reads by their light—the notions that gender is pronounced in poems and that a tradition of women's work exists and can be described. In addition, her preference for recent gender-specific poetry undermines her scholarship—the characteristics of individual poets' work are analyzed at the outset, when examples are few, but summarized and asserted at the very point of diversity where support for the argument is crucial. And finally, there is, overriding, the simultaneous wish, embodied in the label “women's poetry,” for the inclusive (all women) and the exclusive (no men), by which tradition rather than movement might become the legitimate designation.
Impatience is often attendant on conviction. Since Ostriker is redressing imbalance, and says she is confined to “only a fraction of the poems … [she] would have enjoyed discussing,” perhaps she assumed the established other would speak of itself/himself in the margins of her pages. Nevertheless, some comparison of Bradstreet to Edward Taylor's self-effacing, domestic imagery (“Make me, O Lord, Thy spinning wheel complete”) is necessary to establish those qualities as unmistakably female. Likewise, the discussion of Plath's “feminine” treatment of the divided self is unconvincing without any mention of the idea of the double which already existed in literature (the subject of Plath's honors essay at Smith). Elizabeth Bishop's “In the Waiting Room” is clearly a great poem, but does Ostriker mean to suggest that “the quest for identity” was one of Bishop's primary themes, or that it occurs more in Bishop than in Lowell? Did contemporary women who “reverse man's division from nature” read Hopkins or Roethke, Whitman or Wright? This is not to say that Ostriker fails entirely to make direct comparisons with male writers, but that material is too often chosen to illuminate difference at the expense of similarity. If women writers are more playful than men, it should be demonstrated in light of Berryman, Patchen or Ashbury; if Plath's view of death as perfection in Ariel differs from that in the earlier “Sailing to Byzantium,” such a case needs to be made.
Ostriker might address this criticism with numbers—might reply that more women share Plath's vision than do men, that the characteristics she enumerates occur repeatedly in the work of contemporary women but only rarely in the work of men. She suggests as much in her general method, in her reliance (in the second half of the book) on paraphrase and commentary rather than analysis of the poems, and in such considerations of style as do occur. However, to borrow a sentence from Ellmann:
Quantity here [about the topic of femininity], as elsewhere, suggests the strength of the proleptic impulse: the desire to prove is abundant even when proof is not.
Consider the quantification, for instance, behind Ostriker's statement that “whether or not they deal directly with the self, or with sexuality as such, contemporary women poets employ anatomical imagery both more frequently and far more intimately than male poets” (p. 92). This would appear to address the heart of the issue: a repeating, perhaps unconscious stylistic attribute extraneous to subject. Yet, the footnote reveals that Ostriker's samples of one thousand lines each by male and female poets, on which the statement is predicated, were taken from, on the one hand, general anthologies of 1962 and 1969 (Berg and Mezey's Naked Poetry, and Donald Hall's Contemporary Poetry), and on the other, Rising Tides, a 1973 anthology dedicated to the presentation of an alternative, distinctly female, and previously neglected poetry: that is, a collection in which reference to the female self, thereby the body, was surely one criterion for inclusion.
At the end of the footnote, Ostriker makes the following comment:
A different selection might of course have produced slightly different figures, but if the selection were made from poems published only in the 1970s, the gap between masculine reticence and feminine expressiveness about the body would appear even more pronounced.
Struck by such adamant speculation, I tried my own limited test. To avoid perpetuating the editorial preference unavoidable in anthologies, I went directly to the poets and chose the first three books on my shelf by women, then the first three by men, which were published in the 1970s, contained approximately fifty pages (of which only the first fifty were surveyed), and relied typically on a poetic line of roughly five to eight syllables (like Ostriker, I was too lazy to count words). Here are my findings, ordered by preponderance of references to the body (parts and functions—sweating, bleeding, giving birth, having sex):
204—Galway Kinnell, The Book of Nightmares (1971) 162—Phillip Levine, The Names of the Lost (1976) 118—Robert Haas, Field Guide (1973) 110—Tess Gallagher, Introduction to the Double (1976) 67—Sandra McPherson, The Year of Our Birth (1978) 40—Elizabeth Bishop, Geography III (1976)
Of course, books published in the 1970s could have collected work initially published earlier; perhaps, too, limiting review to the first fifty pages skewed the data—if anatomical reference is a bold and subversive act, one might well save it for the back of the book. So I extended my study to six more poets whose recent books were still stacked on my desk, this time disregarding line length and surveying all the pages of the book. Here are the additional findings, ranked according to average number of body references per page:
4.2—Stephen Dobyns, Black Dog, Red Dog (1984), 373 references in 89 pages 2.6—Gregory Orr, We Must Make a Kingdom of It (1986), 138 references in 54 pages 2.3—Lisel Mueller, Second Language (1986), 165 references in 72 pages 1.9—Thomas Lux, Half-Promised Land (1986), 136 references in 72 pages 1.5—Heather McHugh, A World of Difference (1981), 80 references in 52 pages 1.3—Mary Oliver, Dream Work (1986), 117 references in 89 pages.
As for qualitative difference claimed by Ostriker: Mueller (highest average among the women) used twenty-one references to eyes (including eyeholes and eyelash), sixteen to head and face, ten to arms, twenty to hands and twelve to skin; specific mention is made of fingernails, wrist and temples, but mainly there are teeth, bones, blood, heart and “body.” The list does not differ significantly from that of Lux, most anatomically reticent among the men—skin, hair, fingers, head recur—except for his single-usage nouns: synapse, cranium, breasts, calf, jaw, rib, chin, ankles, skull, groin, heartbone, elbow, liver; spine appears twice, spit twice, lungs three times; no mention of voice (six times in Mueller).
Though my study is as statistically insignificant, and inconclusive, as Ostriker's it does suggest that we have not been reading the same poets—but Ostriker claims to describe my library as well as hers. Meanwhile, her zeal for keeping men out is matched by her eagerness to bring women in under the categorical umbrellas. And though I am glad to have an expanded reading list, she breezes past the actual poems so quickly no evidence arises for replacing Mary Oliver with Sharon Barba or Yosana Akiko as representative of women's attitudes toward nature; for the first of these two poets there is only this sample of her nature imagery—“that dark watery place”—and for the second, no quotation at all. When Ostriker does refer to familiar poems, the handling of them also relies predominantly on paraphrase, and on unfamiliar readings that go unsupported. There is only this about Louise Gluck's “Portrait,” which Ostriker cites as an example of “women's invisibility poems” where “there is usually a sexual script” and “the poet is perhaps erotically dependent”:
Louise Gluck, a poet fascinated with border states between existence and nonexistence, in “Portrait” imagines herself a child drawing a figure that is only an outline, “white all through,” until a lover draws the heart. …
Now the full text of Gluck's poem (not provided by Ostriker):
A child draws the outline of a body. She draws what she can, but it is white all through, she cannot fill in what she knows is there. Within the unsupported line, she knows that life is missing; she has cut one background from another. Like a child, she turns to her mother.
And you draw the heart against the emptiness she has created.(6)
Why Ostriker ignores the immediate noun referent (mother) for the penultimate pronoun (you), in favor of the sudden appearance of a lover, is not revealed.
Hurrying to establish category and similarity, a common “terrain,” Ostriker, herself a poet, too often fails to note difference, fails to bother with tone and nuance, with complexity—and what is poetry without these? Notably absent also in her book is discrimination. Sexton's small lyric, “Housewife,” is simply not of sufficient heft to balance “at an opposite pole” from Bishop's “In the Waiting Room,” yet the two poems are given equal treatment as examples of the quest for identity. Finally, “women writing strongly as women” are not always writing strongly as poets. While Ostriker summarizes far more than she quotes, when she does quote, the lines are often so flat, so devoid of interesting syntax, imagery, word choice and rhythm as to make one wonder on what grounds, beyond thematic example, Ostriker commends them to the reader. Since the quotations are usually brief it seems unfair to repeat them here, but surely Eloise Healy would not wish to be represented only by these lines:
Your god wears a mosaic suit of hard mirrors and his clothes are too small. They pinch him like metaphysics …
He has never perspired, has no handkerchief. He is barely aware you worship him, fretting as he does about his own existence.
After the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women first appeared, a substantial amount of venom was exchanged in letters to the editor following Gail Godwin's negative but mild review in the New York Times. Part of the passion derives from the historical moment: given the long siege, the tacticians must have expected disagreements in the trenches to be set aside for a solid front against the enemy. (Perhaps this is why Ostriker treats the “strengths” of women's poetry and not the “limitations.”)
But the divergence of opinion among women about what makes good art is at least as vigorous as that of the literary population at large, and it is naturally evidenced when books such as the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women or Stealing the Language appear, books which purport to describe the field but have in mind a particular battalion. Similar outbreaks attended the Berg and Mezey anthology mentioned earlier, Naked Poetry, as they will always greet examples of the time-honored tactic—asserting a minority position as the true and unsung majority view and/or the wave of the future. As with the Beat Movement, conviction intensifies around the question of “women's literature” because it engages the nonliterary community as well: that is, the literary aspect arose in the wake of a political movement, and poems, which are also social documents, provide confirmation of the critique of culture going on elsewhere.
Another recognized tactic, which can sometimes rankle the troops, is for the oppressed to confirm the very qualities charged against them and convert condemnation into praise. It is hard to review Ostriker's list of feminine characteristics—intimacy, eroticism, anger, the divided self, nature as an extension of the female body—without recalling the stereotypes she rightly decries (“virgin or whore, angel or vixen, love-object, temptress or muse”). The relegation of women to feelings and intuition, as opposed to reason and knowledge, remains vigorous in a passage such as this:
As with women's erotic fantasies, the sensation of release rather than control is an aesthetic effect sought by women poets of all stripes. … [T]he imperative of intimacy often seems to shift the center of gravity in women's poems to a center of levity. … They joke, they play, they are silly, they are ludicrous—which is to say they are ludic: anti-Apollonian, Dionysiac, Carnavalesque. … there surfaces in women's poems a kind of giddy glee. … We may compare Fraser's dance metaphor [boogaloo of joy] with Yeats' ecstatic solemnity in the dance trope at the close of “Among School Children” or Eliot's liturgical tone describing the dance in “East Coker.”
Compare that from Ostriker to this from Addison (quoted by Ellmann):
Women in their nature are much more gay and joyous than men; whether it be that their blood is more refined, their fibres more delicate, and their animal spirits more light; vivacity is the gift of women, gravity that of men.
Whereas the one celebrates and the other patronizes, what has changed except the anatomical source of the characteristic?
Ostriker's anti-Apollonian, Dionysiac alignment for women is not made explicitly in connection with Bradstreet but appears soon thereafter. In the first chapter of Stealing the Language—which includes a review of the pressures exerted on American women to be modest and self-effacing—there is this conclusion:
These women [Reese, Guiney, Crapsey, Teasdale, Wylie, Millay, Taggard, Bogan] composed the first substantial body of lyric poetry which is worth anything in the United States … yet their collective impact is not acknowledged as a movement, nor has it had an impact on critical theory.
There are several reasons for this neglect, all perhaps subsumed in the observation that men, not women, have written most of the literary manifestos in the twentieth century. … [M]odernism took another direction, away from beauty as such, song as such. The great male moderns concern themselves with the decline of western values, the death of God, man's alienation from nature. If there is any single thing in common among Eliot, Pound, Frost, Stevens, and Williams, it is that these giant figures labor under a sense of devastating loss, which is seen as historical and social, and their work is a wrestling to erect some other saving structure. The women, however, tend to write like pagans, as if the death of God (and His civilization, and His culture, and His myths) were no loss to them. Indeed, it may have been a relief. A corollary difference is that the women write personally, whereas the reigning doctrine of modernism became impersonality: Yeats' “all that is merely personal soon rots,” or the “extinction of personality” called for by Eliot.
It is difficult to untangle the various strands of assertion here, but the identification of women with the Natural Life Force, with Beauty and Song, with a personal rather than cultural focus, and away from the central ideas of the century, is self-evident, as is the linking of “personal” writing to what Bogan (who, like H. D., was about as personal and anti-intellectual in her poems as Eliot) called “the line of feeling.” Even were her generalizations accurate, Ostriker is supporting a reductive—and limiting—equation between gender and form; if in fact she's right—if women's natural literary gift is exclusively lyric—then literary mastery is achieved only by exception, since great poetry from Donne to Dickinson has always encompassed both emotional intensity and intellectual rigor.
Again, however, Ostriker buries the literary question in political rhetoric: were it not for the winds of fashion, and the (male) modernist manifestos, one would see that Teasdale, Wylie, Reese, Crapsey et al. have produced a body of work as significant as that of (not E. A. Robinson or Robinson Jeffers, other poets swept out by the modernist broom, but) Eliot, Pound, Frost, Stevens and Williams.
At the Skidmore College Millay Conference in October, 1986—a celebration of the receipt of Millay's papers by the college—modernism was also the primary villain, diverting attention away from hard assessment. After Millay's biographer, Nancy Milford, provided an introduction to the figure; after the critics' panel recounted the sexist reviews and the reputation's decline (but quoted no actual lines by Millay); after three poets (Richard Eberhart, Katha Pollitt and myself) read from their own work and Eberhart delivered a gracious tribute, the two women on the poets' panel resurrected a question from the audience the night before: could it be that the talent was major but the work was not? that too much of it relied on a rigid and inauthentic persona, diction already archaic in the 1920s, and sentimentality? The author of Zelda had left early and could not comment, but the response of the invited feminist critics was immediate: we had been blinded to Millay's virtues by modernism. In fact, a novelist had suggested earlier, perhaps our standards were themselves suspect—what was so bad about sentimentality? Was it not the established male tradition that had decided, in recoil from the quintessentially female, it should be eschewed?
One's answers—that it was not modernism that happened but modern life; that sentimentality is reductive and dangerous, whatever its source—are of course inadequate against the most persuasive tactic of all: discredit the victims' ability to recognize the extent to which they have been, to use the euphemism, had.
One practical virtue of anthologies is that they sometimes provide a larger, or different, taste of poets whose hash had been previously settled. Millay is represented in the standard Norton Introduction to Literature (fourth edition, 1986) only by two sonnets from 1923, “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed” and “I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed” (also reprinted in the Norton-distributed American Tradition in Literature, Vol. 2, fourth edition, Grosset & Dunlap, 1974). There is no entry at all in the revised edition of The Norton Anthology of Poetry (1975); the third edition (1983) allots two full pages—including the ubiquitous “I, Being Born a Woman,” four entries from 1920 when Millay was twenty-eight, and three pieces from the 1930s. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women repeats the aphoristic “First Fig” and “Second Fig,” as well as the apparently irresistible “I, Being Born” and its contemporary “Oh, sleep forever in the Latmian cave,” but supplements that selection with free verse and idiomatic pieces from the 1930s and 1950s as well as the full text of “Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree,” a sequence which rivals (but postdates) Frost's “Hill Wife” and “Home Burial” in its dramatic presentation of character.
The latter were not, of course, the poems that made her famous, and while it is salient to consider the sexism that no doubt cast its probing light on the more facile and melodramatic poems, one should likewise not forget that at midcareer, less than sixty years ago, Millay was writing lines such as:
Gone in good sooth you are: not even in dream You come. As if the strictures of the light, Laid on our glances to their disesteem, Extended even to shadows and the night;(7)
Ah, drink again This river that is the taker-away of pain, And the giver-back of beauty!(8)
The failure may be as interesting as the success—one looks forward to Milford's biography to suggest why this talent needed the confirmation of compatible manifestos when Dickinson's did not, and whether feminine character is as susceptible as male to what is tediously called the “bitch goddess,” and to what extent Millay might be a more helpful model to young women writing poems than Frost, another poet trapped in a persona. Eventually, in-depth studies of individual writers may allow some insight into that group of “feminine sonneteers” (Bogan's phrase) writing early in the century; after all, the real issue is the relationship of poetry not to gender but to character, of which gender is merely one part.
The recent Pound anniversary, with its flurry of reassessment, reminds us just how complicated that relationship is. As Ellmann notes,
[I]ndividual character is finally impenetrable, and the character, say, of an entire nation so obscure that to offer its definition is considered obscurantism, or worse. … But even those who despise the mode of thought cannot help but practice it. And a hope to repress sexual characterization, the most entrenched form of the general mode, would be … futile.
“Gender-conditioning” is the term in general use in women's studies that addresses character and straddles the old “nature vs. nurture” debate. It suggests that although anatomy itself may no longer be destiny, the response to gender—expectations and strictures from the culture—is an equally determining force, imprinting the individual developing psyche. But even were this conditioning the same in every instance, surely the initial material was various, and poetry is at least as diverse as the population that produces it. When studying the poetry of a nation or a period, one must attend to the ways individual talents manifest different responses to similar circumstances. If female experience—whether deriving from inherent feminine nature or in response to cultural bias—is to be the primary given, then one will better understand the poetry it informs by examining the differences between Bogan and Millay, Bishop and Sexton, Gluck and Pastan. If truly little difference is to be found, if contemporary women's poems do sound alike, sharing the same themes and the same tone—as Ostriker's book, and many journals and anthologies devoted exclusively to women, would have us believe—then we must be writing very poorly indeed.
In a revolutionary time, every action, or action eschewed, is a political act. Some believe what's best for the Women's Movement (the ERA having been defeated in my state and others) is for women to write increasingly about themselves, write with anger and polemic, disregarding what chafes and restrains. But as Tom McGrath explains in the North Dakota Quarterly (Fall 1982):
There have been a lot of tactical poems directed to particular things, and those poems now are good in a certain sort of way, but the events they were about have moved out from under them [his italics]. Somebody asked Engels, “What happened to all the revolutionary poetry of 1848?” He replied: “It died with the political prejudices of the time.”
To believe that sexism is a doomed prejudice may take greater idealism than one can muster, but what is best for poetry, including the poetry made by women, is fidelity to the most rigorous standards possible.
Recently a young poet in Ames, Iowa, confided that the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, No More Masks, Rising Tides and other anthologies of women's work had given her, as a member of largely male writing classes, permission to write about her own life, from a feminine sensibility. The footnote I make to her expression of gratitude suggests an additional set of permissions: that she can also write about something else if she chooses, that she is free to embrace Bishop or Berryman, Donne or Dickinson as legitimate precursors, or to differ from them all as far as discipline, courage and talent will support.
Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Stealing The Language (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), p. 9.
Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Joan Keefe, reprinted from the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, eds. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1985), p. 1739.
John Keats, letter to Richard Woodhouse, Criticism: Twenty Major Statements, ed. Charles Kaplan (San Francisco: Chandler, 1985), p. 347.
Mary Ellmann, Thinking about Women (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986).
Carol Gilligan, In a Different Language (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 2.
Louise Gluck, Descending Figure (New York: Ecco, 1980), p. 21.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, Collected Poems (New York: Harper & Row, 1956), p. 650.
Ibid., p. 253.
SOURCE: A review of Stealing the Language, in American Literature, Vol. 59, No. 3, October, 1987, pp. 464-67.
[In the following review, Martin discusses the main themes of Stealing the Language, commending its personal style and the inclusiveness of poets represented.]
Beginning with Claudine Hermann's imperative that women writers must be “voleuses de langue”—thieves of language—Alicia Ostriker studies the American women poets who have claimed a poetic voice in spite of a tradition that too often ignores women's writing. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America, then, is an extended discussion of the tradition of women's artistic self-assertion that defies masculine cultural hegemony; in addition, this study provides an analysis of the challenge posed by the feminist aesthetic to the centrality of post-modernist style. Asserting that the feminist movement has served as a catalyst for innovative poetry that addresses itself to the particular concerns of women, Ostriker argues that this new poetry by women presents a radical alternative to traditional poetics: “We need to recognize that our customary literary language is systematically gendered in ways that influence what we approve and disapprove of, making it extremely difficult for us to acknowledge certain kinds of originality—of difference—in women poets” (pp. 2–3). Insisting that our aesthetic priorities are based on the valorization of the masculine, Ostriker attempts to map out a new territory of the experience and concerns shared by women. Here Ostriker is working in the tradition established by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Elaine Showalter, Cheryl Walker, myself and others who have observed that women writers often assume diminutive poses disguising their rebelliousness with a masque of pious obedience in order to escape the criticism of men. Thus, the truths of women's experience are often submerged; at the same time, these self-protective strategies are nevertheless subversive to masculine ideology.
Taking 1960 as an approximate point of departure, Ostriker makes it clear that she is not studying individual accomplishment but the collective achievement of a new generation of women poets. This generation can be characterized by a profound commitment to feminist-activist values (Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn); or, at the very least, by feminist consciousness (Louise Glück, June Jordan, Diane Wakowski). In presenting an overview of contemporary women poets, Ostriker is vulnerable to the charge of inadequate aesthetic discrimination (for example, she implies that Adrienne Rich and Judy Grahn are of equal accomplishment). Nevertheless, the study does give us a useful overview of recent women poets in their ethnic, social, and sexual diversity. As Ostriker observes, the “vitality” of this new community of poets “derives from an explosive attempt to overcome [the] mental and moral confinement” of previous generations of women writers (p. 10). In contrast to their predecessors, many contemporary women writers celebrate aesthetic and cultural freedom, especially the freedom from the traditional constraint of having to please men in art and in life.
Chapter I is a brief survey of the colonial and Victorian American women poets that demonstrates the crippling effects of genteel femininity. The need for women to dissemble frailty in order to be protected, the model of powerlessness, and the confined physical and psychological space assigned to women were almost insurmountable obstacles to artistic achievement. Not until the flapper poets of the 1920s—Genevieve Taggard, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Muriel Rukeyser—was there a concerted effort to break out of the cage of domesticity. These modern women poets often rejected false modesty and wrote candidly about female sexuality as well as about their emotional and social priorities. This boldness of the women writers of the 20s made it possible for their disciples in the 60s and 70s to write openly of socio-economic injustice and racial intolerance as well as gender bias.
In Chapter II Ostriker explores the efforts of poets like Robin Morgan, Marge Piercy, and June Jordan to shatter the silence, and to destroy the bonds of invisibility and muteness that result in women's passivity, marginality, and self-hatred. Part of this process of consciousness raising and speaking out is the effort to give birth to a new self that is not characterized by ontological dualisms. Ostriker argues that in this attempt to transcend oppressive bifurcations, women's poetry strives for an aesthetics of process, or “jouissance,” a phrase she borrows from Hélène Cixous.
Chapter III is an analysis of what Ostriker, along with many feminist critics, sees as a feminine aesthetic that is grounded in the body and in natural processes. This organic mode described by writers like Susan Griffin and Estella Lauter suggests a non-hierarchical relationship between mind and body or nature and culture. It is perhaps best exemplified in the work of Adrienne Rich, Maxine Kumin, and Audre Lorde. Chapter IV explores what happens when female anger is transmuted into liberating energy. Contrasting Rich with Plath and Sexton, Ostriker observes that through a feminist analysis of anger, Rich has managed to avoid the entropic effects of internalized rage which paralyzed and ultimately destroyed both Plath and Sexton.
Finally, in chapter V Ostriker defines and explains a “female erotics” which includes the new primacy of the experience of motherhood, the centrality of female biology, and the anarchistic implications of female sexuality. In this chapter, Ostriker also provides a summary of women poets who have not received attention from mainstream critics and readers but who nevertheless have achieved a grass-roots reputation for their candid explorations of female experience. Poets like Mona Van Duyn, Alta, Lucille Clifton, and Judy Grahn all have a large following, and Ostriker includes them in her discussion because so many readers respond to their work.
Stealing the Language is written in a lively, readable style, sometimes more personal than scholarly. The strength of this book lies in Ostriker's discussion of numerous poets who might not otherwise receive substantial recognition but whose work nevertheless forms the foundation for a female poetics. Ostriker's study would be considerably strengthened by more extensive historical analysis and by more elaborate discussion of stylistic characteristics of the poetry she cites. If this study runs the risk of being discursive and descriptive, it nevertheless breaks important new ground which others will cultivate for some time to come.
SOURCE: “Writing Like a Woman,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 29, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 305-10.
[In the following review, Costello exposes a number of pitfalls attending the theoretical orientation of Stealing the Language.]
Alicia Ostriker's Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America is the latest in a rash of studies that have attempted to define poetry by women as generically distinct from the dominant male tradition. Suzanne Juhasz's Naked and Fiery Forms, Emily Stipes Watt's The Poetry of American Women from 1632 to 1945, and Margaret Homans's Women Writers and Poetic Identity are the book's major precursors, and it appears simultaneously with Paula Bennett's My Life, a Loaded Gun, a study of anger in women's poetry. The appearance of Gilbert and Gubar's Norton Anthology of Women's Literature crowned the notion of a female tradition and helped to complete a second stage of feminist criticism. No longer would the feminist critic's task be to liberate women writers from a gender-based system of exclusion; now gender difference would be highlighted and the literary canon forced open to admit that difference on equal terms. Ostriker's book contributes significantly to this enterprise, outlining a set of stances and preoccupations that have arisen in the development of women's poetry. But her book also shares the many pitfalls of this enterprise: a theme-bound reading of poetry, an inadvertent reinforcement of female stereotypes originating in the male mythology, a retention of female identity within a binary structure of relatedness to men, and a prescriptive rather than descriptive relationship to poetry by women.
The fundamental confusions of Ostriker's book (and others like it) are embedded in its title. Does “women's poetry” name all poetry by women or a special category of poetry by women that focuses on questions of female identity? Since the major task of the book is to define a genre, this is an important question. How broadly can we identify gender as the determining factor of authenticity and power in poetry? Ostriker's claims are very broad, but her examples derive from poetry that deals explicitly with the female self. She does not examine the validity of her generic argument in poems where the “woman question” is not at issue. Few would deny that a group of women writers since the sixties have taken up women's experience under patriarchy as their subject matter and have tended to echo the range of ideas raised by feminists throughout the culture. And few would deny that gender is a powerful determinant of vision. It is quite another thing to argue that gender identity is the inevitable subject of poetic vision. If many of our best women writers eschew that label, it is less because “woman writer” has meant “inferior writer” in our culture, or because they deny the importance of their female experience, than because their humanity takes precedence over gender. Ostriker is far readier than most writers are to see gender as absolute, to deny the possibility of the universal in art, to see the goal of poetry by women as an explicit, unified female subjectivity.
If there has been a double bind for the woman poet in patriarchal society (as Juhasz, Homans, Ostriker, and others have all argued), she is now threatened by a new one, created in the name of feminism:
Insofar as women's poetry attempts timidly to adjust itself to literary standards which exclude the female, it dooms itself to insignificance. Where it speaks in its own voice, it enlarges literature. The belief that true poetry is genderless—which is a disguised form of believing that true poetry is masculine—means that we have not learned to see women poets generically, to recognize the tradition they belong to or to discuss either the limitations or the strengths of that tradition.
(Stealing the Language 9)
Ostriker herself determines when a voice is authentically female and when it has adjusted itself to male standards. Ironically, the true female self in Ostriker is predicated upon the patriarchy it seeks to upset. Ostriker's own strategies are defensive. We are told on page nine that “most critics and professors of literature, including modern literature, deny that ‘women's’ poetry, as distinct from poetry by individual women, exists.” A quick glance at curricula across the country, or at the programs for MLA in the last decade, ought to dispel this suspicion. But certainly few would argue, as Ostriker does, that women writers must be seen in a women's tradition to be best understood: “Without a sense of the multiple and complex patterns of thought, feeling, verbal resonance, and even vocabulary shared by women writers, we cannot read any woman adequately” (9). On the contrary, in many cases such a generic frame distorts rather than illuminates the achievements of women poets. Thus the rich ambiguity, indirection, restraint, reticence, irony, abstraction of Dickinson, Moore, Bishop are reduced to defensive or at best subversive strategies directed at patriarchy. “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; / not in silence, but restraint,” writes Marianne Moore.1 Ostriker never entertains this notion. The metaphysical reach of many women poets is ignored in favor of their ideological status. Dickinson's ambivalence and ambiguity Ostriker names, pejoratively, “duplicity,” apparently unaware that in doing so she participates in a traditional male stereotype of female behavior. She assumes that personal directness has more aesthetic as well as psychological integrity (“women write personally,” she asserts). Doubleness is allowed as a self-transcending strategy for men and only a defensive or repressive one for women. Cerebration is masculine; women belong to the “line of feeling.” Yeats is allowed to resolve his split ego in a very naive reading of “Sailing to Byzantium,” but self-division in women's writing remains schizophrenic. Ostriker's most promising argument concerns the release of body language in women's poetry and the special position women take toward nature. But in celebrating this release she comes close at times to reducing mind to body rather than obliterating the Cartesian dualism. Also suggestive is her claim that women poets respond to an “imperative of intimacy” that challenges the logocentric/phallocentric conception of self. But she does not sufficiently distinguish this “weak ego boundary” from the “weak ego” that limits the value of earlier women poets. Nor does her argument confront the major critique of poetic subjectivity launched by contemporary theory.
Ostriker's title also suggests a historical argument, but she does little to gauge the relation of this genre's internal history to larger movements in literary history. The female “line of feeling” might easily be identified with late Victorian and Georgian poetry, the “exoskeleton style” with modernism. The more direct assertion of female experience coincides with the confessional movement which rejected modernism's impersonality. The dominant aesthetic has provided women poets with as many opportunities and discoveries as obstacles or diversions, and they are not readily alienated from it. Indeed, women have helped to shape the dominant tradition—a credit Ostriker is unable to allow them. The hard modernism of Stein, Amy Lowell, Moore, and others might be considered original rather than male derivative. Certainly a number of male poets and critics—among them William Carlos Williams, William Gass, John Ashbery, and Brad Leithauser—have read these women as originals. More troubling than Ostriker's underestimation of the greats is her indifference to questions of quality in an argument that invites such questions. Men, she reminds us, have undervalued poetry by women. Yet she seems to judge this poetry by ideological rather than aesthetic standards. If this is a problematic distinction, it needs to be addressed as such. But to my ear much of the poetry Ostriker finds noteworthy is sentimental, crude, sensationalist, or hackneyed. She provides no defense of it as art, attending only to its attitudes toward femininity and patriarchy. And some of our best contemporary women poets—Jorie Graham, Ann Lauterbach, Pam Alexander, Heather McHugh—are not even mentioned.
This unwillingness to erect new aesthetic criteria in place of that rejected as male biased belies the title of the book. Stealing the Language really deals very little with language except as a byproduct of semantics. Ostriker's title is itself stolen from Claudine Herrmann's Les Voleuses de langue and thus invites comparison with work in French feminist theory and the concept of écriture féminine. Whatever one thinks of the conclusions drawn by this movement (which includes Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, and others), its ambition is to define within male-dominated discourse a distinctly female discourse with its own structure and diction, not necessarily about the female body and female experience as such, but about a consciousness emerging from these. Ostriker has not really met the challenge of écriture féminine, let alone addressed its critics (among them, French feminists such as Monique Wittig). Even her chapter “Thieves of Language,” which mentions Herrmann, deals with mythology rather than language itself, thus remaining in the realm of images. This may be because the highly metaphoric tendency in écriture féminine is alien to Ostriker's empirical mind. Indeed, in this third phase of feminist criticism, the specificity of gender determination becomes suspect. In her essay “Mallarmé as Mother,” for instance, Barbara Johnson, an unusually astute critic on most occasions, makes an oddly circular move in which she first identifies Mallarmé's linguistic structures as maternal and then argues that men have appropriated female power.2 But such arguments at least acknowledge that a discourse originating in female experience can be shared. The closest Ostriker comes to a consideration of linguistic structures and lyric stances is in her discussion of the fluid ego membrane in women's writing. But she restricts this to the subject of maternal and sexual intimacy and does not extend it to consciousness generally. If she had, the polyphonous self in John Ashbery, the self of interpenetration in Gary Snyder, though not always thematized in terms of gender, might meet her criteria. Perhaps these structures are more prominent among women. By confining the forms of consciousness to their experiential sources she severely limits women's power to change the dominant tradition, to influence men.
Ostriker's book cannot fully accommodate those poems that present the experiential world as partial, poems of intellectual and metaphysical ambition, or poems that present any serious difficulty through their conceptual or figurative reach. Indeed, almost all of the poems Ostriker quotes take gendered experience as their subject and offer an uncomplicated view of it. But what about the many poems on other subjects? Do these belong to the “genre” of women's poetry? Jorie Graham's poetry is conspicuously absent from Ostriker's discussion, though the female body and female occupations and concerns often provide her image base. The question haunting all Graham's poems is the ancient, unresolved one, “in what manner the body is united with the soule.” The female vantage point is for her the concrete from which the universal is projected. Of course that universal is altered by the perspective, but it is not bound by it. Because to Graham the soul is not defined by the body, or even by history, the question can be shared. Themes of sex, love, privacy in her poems appeal to a plural audience; indeed, a nongendered “we” or “us” often speaks in the presence of the female body, not to achieve a sexless objectivity but to unite readers before the shared mystery of embodiment. Graham's universal is not a disguised adherence to male or female bias. She deliberately mingles these points of view. Conventional roles and symbols are reversed and meshed. Thus in “San Sepolcro” she allows herself no special female privilege before the painted body of Mary in labor. She is one of “the living,” Mary a symbol of the mind's power to conceive eternity—thus partaking of both male and female mythology. Male and female stereotypes are transcended in this poem. The self of the poet is a transparent vessel (“snow having made me / a world of bone / seen through to”) but also active (“I can take you there”).3 This structure is repeated in the presentation of Mary, whose figure unites male mind and female body—or rather erases these gender associations without at all sterilizing the image. This body is laboring yet at the same time is penetrable, like the poet. One can argue that only a woman poet could so reconstruct Mariology, yet the aim of the poem is inclusive. This is not a personal poem, though it is certainly intimate, nor does Mary represent “woman.” Yet to me it is more exquisite, and more expressive of my consciousness, than anything Ostriker quotes, except perhaps from Dickinson, Bishop, or Glück, Graham's major female precursors.
Of course female experience shapes the consciousness of women, though in what ways or how absolutely we still don't know with any precision. And of course women have increasingly allowed these shaping principles to inform their artistic vision. But many have resisted labeling this vision as female precisely because they wish to make it available to all readers, because female identity is their means (one among many), not their end, and because the urge to write is generated from very private and very universal longings. The “emergence” Ostriker writes of privileges polemical and theme-bound feminist poetry. This is a very narrow program for women poets.
Marianne Moore, “Silence,” The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (New York: Viking, 1981) 91.
Barbara Johnson, “Mallarmé as Mother: A Preliminary Sketch,” Denver Quarterly 18.4 (1984): 77-83.
Jorie Graham, “San Sepolcro,” Erosion (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983) 2-3.
SOURCE: “Response to Alicia Ostriker,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 30, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 465-69.
[In the following essay, Costello defends her opinion of Stealing the Language, reiterating that Ostriker's reasoning is flawed.]
Alicia Ostriker and I disagree about the meaning and value of the category “women's poetry.” I welcome this opportunity to further articulate my view on a widely debated topic. Ostriker protests that I have broadened her use of the phrase, but her own introduction [to Stealing the Language] makes far-reaching claims. “My subject is the extraordinary tide of poetry by American women in our own time” (7). “The belief that true poetry is genderless—which is a disguised form of believing that true poetry is masculine—means that we have not learned to see women poets generically, to recognize the tradition they belong to. … Without a sense of the multiple and complex patterns of thought, feeling, verbal resonance, and even vocabulary shared by women writers, we cannot read any woman adequately” (9; italics mine). Such general statements in an introduction promise more than a book about a particular group since the sixties who take explicitly female experience as their subject. At the very least such statements create a context for the study of this “movement” which privileges its achievements over other poetic achievements by women. The language of this privileging is ambiguous: “Insofar as it [poetry by women] attempts timidly to adjust itself to literary standards which exclude the female, it dooms itself to insignificance” (9). But those “literary standards” are barely sketched and no timid adjustments are examined. Thus one might infer that any poetry which does not include the female as its orientation and focus is insignificant. This is a Catch-22 for women poets who, while they may still encounter some prejudice from men uncomfortable with women as writers, now meet rejection from feminists for not explicitly addressing their writing to the matter of womankind. Poets of a philosophical bent have particularly suffered under such standards.
Nowhere in my review do I argue that, in Ostriker's words, “whatever is explicitly identified in any way as female cannot exemplify ‘humanity’” and so forth. Nor would I support such an argument; my example of Jorie Graham plainly contradicts it. Gender is an important component of experience. But it is one among many and does not distinguish poetry from other forms of cultural behavior. My concern, rather, is that the category “woman” has become all too indeterminate. “Woman” now usurps other pressing claims of identity, narrowing the range of consciousness or associating all forms of consciousness with gender. None of the “motifs” or styles Ostriker lists originate in or are peculiar to contemporary women's poetry. The sense of marginality is central to romanticism. A great deal of literature is subversive in one way or another, but especially modern literature. Images of the body and a reunion of earth and spirit are characteristic of poetry from the sixties and seventies. Revisionist mythmaking is the fuel of literary history. If certain poets have approached these “motifs” through a feminist lens this does not give them claim to discovery. Many lenses have been applied. Gender in itself cannot be proven a determinant of style. When questions of “female identity” take on “wider ramifications for poetry,” the gender specificity of those ramifications becomes highly metaphoric.
The nature of female aesthetics has been hotly debated among French feminists. The work of Hélène Cixous is particularly relevant, but her positions are neither sufficiently understood nor tested. Cixous's écriture féminine sees feminine texts as those that “work on difference,” challenge logocentric structures, and rejoice in the pleasures of open textuality. But this description fits many modern writers. Since Cixous rejects thematic and empiricist emphases (such as predominate in Ostriker and other American feminists), indeed any essentializing of the female, it is unclear on what basis this deconstructive view of textuality can be called “feminine” at all.
Ostriker presumes a great deal about my taste, converting my incidental list of a few first-rate female writers to a closed canon. I made no statement, positive or negative, about Plath, Rich, H. D., and others, about their particular qualities of joy, jive, and so forth, or about my taste in male poets. Yet I do believe in discriminations of aesthetic value, culturally and historically contingent as they may be. The terms which define what is poetry of a high order must and do constantly change. Judgments tend to be unconscious; overt principles of value are often too rigid to accommodate the rich possibilities of language. But evaluation is a necessary part of literary criticism and judgments must be defended, if only on an ad hoc basis. Ostriker's judgments, along with those of many feminist critics, are driven by thematically conceived questions of gender. They accommodate very little complexity, thematic or otherwise. Form becomes a mere device of statement. But in my opinion many of the poems Ostriker quotes lack both formal and thematic rigor. Susan Griffin's “I Like to Think of Harriet Tubman” is a bad poem, as the excerpt Ostriker quotes (185) suggests:
The legal answer to the problem of feeding children is ten free lunches every month, being equal, in the child's real life, to eating lunch every other day. Monday but not Tuesday. .....And when I think of the President and the law, and the problem of feeding children, I like to think of Harriet Tubman and her revolver.
The poem, writes Ostriker, illustrates “the intersection of the domestic sphere assigned to mothers and the wider world” and protests against “the president and other men who make and revere the law at the expense of starving children” (185). This pseudocausality she takes for granted. But the very terms in which this so-called “maternal thinking” are couched are crudely propagandistic (and a discredit to mothers). Surely it is one task of poetry to defend us against such crimes of language, not to perpetrate them. Harriet Tubman is a banner imported without reasoned or even deeply imagined connection to the issue at hand. The loaded opposition of “children” and “the President / and the law” is a similar abuse of language which allows the author an unearned righteousness. Many male writers have examined the intersection of the domestic and wider worlds more acutely. The poem lacks any interesting rhythm, any surprise or challenge, mental or emotional. Simple truths, the compression of broad considerations, the restraint against formulaic ideas are not the same as easy assertions, whether they be discursive, descriptive, or otherwise. I might almost agree with Ntozake Shange's message (quoted in Ostriker 207):
quite simply a poem shd fill you up with something / cd make you swoon, stop in yr tracks, change yr mind, or make it up, a poem shd happen to you like cold water or a kiss.
But who can trust this voice which betrays its own imperative with clichés? It is not from “moral intensity,” “spirituality,” “cruel satire” that I shrink, but from flaccid, manipulative, muddled, or passive uses of the medium of language (rampant among the quotations in Ostriker's book).
Ostriker recognizes diversity among women poets primarily in social terms (“heterosexual and lesbian writers, women of color and white women …”). Such classifications may sometimes describe differences of subject, imagery, and even diction, but they should never be essentialized. Rita Dove (never mentioned in Stealing the Language) received the Pulitzer Prize recently because she is one of our best poets, not because she happens to be a black woman. Among her many virtues are a richly historical yet strongly lyric imagination, a stunning versatility and control of diction, syntax, rhetoric, and rhythm, a remarkable facility for metaphor, a capacity for visualizing through many perspectives and time frames, an intellectual depth and complexity. In these ways she has much in common with Keats and little with June Jordan. Has she timidly adjusted herself to male standards? Read “Dusting,” the first poem in Museum, which describes the daydreams of a black maid. Dove’s poetic strength derives not from resisting white male discourse but from resisting all forms of complacency inherent in the medium and culture. The avant-garde Language poet Leslie Scalapino (another left unmentioned) explores questions of selfhood through radical permutations of pronominal phrases. Her talent far surpasses that of Alta, who is avant-garde in little more than the arbitrary breaking of compositional rules.
The issues raised in this debate certainly cannot be resolved here. They have to do with the influence of gender (or for that matter of any single social, historical, or biological aspect of identity) on the production of writing; with the question of universalism (can there be a “universal” value or quality which is not really an essentialized cultural bias?); with the nature of poetry itself and its role in culture. It is a flaw of Ostriker's book that it does not engage these questions more vigorously, more fully informed by the broad contemporary debate. And it is at least surprising that a poet-critic should be so indifferent to the unique characteristics of poetry, should be so ready to convert poetry to an index of feminist consciousness. To risk in poetry is to cast off quick-fix labels and social cant, not just of declared oppressors but of apparent defenders as well, and to face what Marianne Moore called “the warfare of imagination and medium.”1
Marianne Moore, “Comment,” The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore, ed. Patricia C. Willis (New York: Viking, 1986) 177.
SOURCE: “Poets of Our Time,” in Belle Lettres, Summer, 1990, pp. 30-1.
[In the following excerpt, Finch examines the “attitude” expressed in Green Age.]
These three books of poetry [Baptism of Desire by Louise Erdrich, Green Age by Alicia Ostriker, and Toluca Street by Maxine Scates], written by three women coming from very different places as poets at the beginning of the end of our century, make a revealing cross-section. Louise Erdrich, a successful novelist who has written only one other book of poems, presumably uses poetry to write in ways not possible with the novel form. Alicia Suskin Ostriker, well-established as a poet, uses this volume to continue ideas developed in six other books of poems and three books of poetry criticism. Maxine Scates is new to the poetry scene; this first book of poems is published as the winner of an annual national poetry competition. …
If Erdrich arrives at ordinariness with relief after her book's wild journey, neither Ostriker nor Scates ever left it far behind to begin with. In spite of repeated small epiphanies and flights, both of their books rest firmly in the physically obvious world. Perhaps the maple tree in Green Age's second poem “A Young Woman, A Tree,” is the best figure for the kind of movement that Ostriker explores:
The secret leafless system That digs in dark Its thick intelligent arms And stubborn hands Under the shops, the streets, The subways, the granite, The sewage pipes' Cold slime, As deep as that
The world Ostriker presents is a sobering one, as real as that “cold slime”; her habitual act is one of disenchantment. Her poems derive much of their tension (and, hence, rhetorical power) from this often shocking act of disillusioning. In the suite of daughter poems, for instance, a family cat seems to be thinking of “German prison camps [and] South American torturers,” while the daughter herself is compared to “an apple nobody wanted / or was ever going to want” (“Bitterness”). In poems with more public themes, such as “A Meditation in Seven Days,” the harshness is often not even the result of metaphor, but instead appears as unqualified fact:
In filth, three timid children prod him While screwing their faces up from the stink That emanates from his mouth— He has beaten them black and blue …
Ostriker's process of disenchantment works best in this book when the graveness of her vision is lightened and complicated by a riveting, wry black humor. Frustrated with a depressed friend who says she hates the world, the speaker concludes:
Do you know, to hate the world Makes you my enemy? I love the world, I reply Sticking the knife in. I'm trying to help, I mutter Twisting it.
In passages like this, the daring candor illuminates the world more brightly because the speaker has turned it first on herself. In “Windshield,” one of the most successful poems in the book, the speaker responds with an awesome and furious humor to the murder of a friend by urban would-be windshield cleaners:
Up at the red light now, they are doing their crisp dance With their rags and squeegees Around a helpless Subaru. Watch it, mister— A warrior strut …
… Ostriker communicates an attitude. …
SOURCE: “Profile: Alicia Suskin Ostriker,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 8, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 26-9.
[In the following essay, Rosenberg sketches Ostriker's life and career, incorporating the writer's own comments on her work as both poet and mother.]
Alicia Suskin Ostriker, 55, was one of the first women in America to publish poems about her experience as a mother. She began composing the title poem of the chapbook, Once More Out of Darkness, during her second pregnancy in 1964-5. “I started writing about motherhood almost as soon as I was a mother. My first long poem about pregnancy and birth was put together from jottings I'd made during my first two pregnancies, which were 18 months apart. At that time, I was writing because writing was what I did. It didn't occur to me that I hadn't seen any poetry about pregnancy and childbirth until I was well along in shaping that poem [“Once More Out of Darkness”]. That was a radicalizing moment for me as a writer. So I started writing from a maternal perspective before getting to the point of feeling imprisoned by motherhood—that came much later.”
Ostriker's first child was due in August 1963, in the same week she handed in her Ph.D. dissertation. Six months after her second daughter, Eve, was born in February 1965, Ostriker began teaching at Rutgers University, where she is a professor of English. Her son, Gabriel, was born in 1970. Three factors influenced Ostriker's decision to combine career and children in an era when few women did: ambition, a desire to organize her life differently from her mother's, and a husband who said he would divorce her if she ever turned into a housewife. Her husband of 34 years, Jeremiah P. Ostriker, is a professor of astrophysics at Princeton University; the couple lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
Ostriker is the author of seven books of poetry: Songs (1969), Once More Out of Darkness and Other Poems (1974), A Dream of Springtime (1979), The Mother/Child Papers (1980), A Woman under the Surface: Poems and Prose Poems (1982), The Imaginary Lover (1986), and Green Age (1989). She edited William Blake: The Complete Poems (1977) and has also written critical works on women's poetry such as Writing Like a Woman (1983) and Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America (1986). Her most recent book is Feminist Revision and the Bible, part of the Bucknell Series in Literary Theory, published in 1993.
When her children were small, she recalls, “It was pillar to post. I constantly felt guilty for not doing enough for my students, not doing enough for my children, not having time to write, and so on. This is a very familiar story: there were never enough minutes in the day, I was always exhausted. But I was keenly aware and proud that this was my choice. I didn't know anybody else who was trying to have babies and a career simultaneously. I did have the support of my husband, so the exhaustion and the craziness and the guilt were balanced by my strong sense of intentionality. This was a life I was choosing, and I didn't want to give up any piece of it.”
Ostriker, who has a B.A. from Brandeis and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, says, “Being a college teacher was something I'd wanted to do for years—that's why I went to graduate school. Writing my dissertation, on the other hand, was complete hell. I swore I would never write another critical book after that one. Later, I changed my mind on that score.”
Ostriker's dissertation, Vision and Verse in William Blake, initiated her career as a Blake scholar. “One reason I worked on Blake, who was my guru and my main man for many years, is that his writing is so revolutionary. He was a proto-feminist; he explores the meaning of maternity and paternity in our culture more deeply than any previous poet; and he writes about the experience and the significance of sexuality more interestingly and more powerfully than any poet before D. H. Lawrence.”
In the midst of her busy life as professor, wife, and mother, Ostriker continued to write poetry, as she had since childhood. She had neither a specific time nor a particular place set aside for that writing. “Poetry was always in the interstices of everything else, the nooks and crannies. It was always time stolen from other responsibilities. Everything else in my life was being done for someone or something else: someone needed me to do it or I was being paid to do it. Poetry was the one thing that I did for myself alone, with the sense that no one on earth except myself gave a damn whether I did it or not. In my early years, I didn't make other things move over very much for it; it was always on the run.
“Where did I write? Oh, I wrote everywhere. I wrote while I was driving. I wrote sitting on buses. I wrote on the living room sofa. I wrote in bed. I even used to share a desk in my husband's office at Princeton and work there. I never did much writing at Rutgers because if you kept a typewriter in an office there it would be stolen.
“For many years it was difficult for me to do any concentrated writing at home—not counting jots and scribbles. Scribbling something down in the first place can be done anywhere because it's done spontaneously—it just happens. But the work of revising needs peace and quiet. Concentration was difficult for me at home, because home was the place where I was responsible, where I was the mom, even when someone else was ostensibly taking care of the children. I just necessarily always had an ear to everything that was going on. We had au pair girls for 10 years, through the time my son was three and we started sending him to daycare. Having an au pair helped, but home was still the domestic space rather than the writing space.”
When the family moved to its current residence in 1975, Ostriker gained a study, which doubles as a guest room; in the years since her youngest child entered high school, she has been able to do more concentrated writing at home. But even then, with more time and a room of her own, Ostriker's method of writing poetry has not changed. “For me, the initial writing of poetry is never place-dependent because it always interrupts something else that I'm doing. I never sit down and decide to write a poem.”
Ostriker illustrated the covers of two of her early books of poetry with her own woodcuts. Although she was able to write poetry “on the run,” she was not able to continue doing graphic art.
“That was the real trade-off,” she says. “When I had children, I stopped putting time into art. I had taken courses in graphics and did etchings and woodcuts. That turned into annual Christmas card-making with the kids, which was the only kind of sustained visual project I ever did after they were born. I carry sketchbooks, and still enjoy drawing, but graphic art requires time and space.” She has not gone back to graphic arts, “because the writing meanwhile expanded exponentially.”
Her children have been a major theme in all of Ostriker's books after the first. The Mother/Child Papers places family life in the context of history. It was begun in 1970 when her son Gabriel was born, a few days after the United States invaded Cambodia and four student protesters were shot by members of the National Guard at Kent State University. The first section of the book includes poems that juxtapose the joy of giving birth with a mother's horror at the violence of war and her fears for her son's future. Ostriker writes,
… she has thrown a newspaper to the floor, her television is dark, her intention is to possess this baby, this piece of earth, not to surrender a boy to the ring of killers. They bring him, crying. Her throat leaps.
Among her more recent works with a maternal theme are the sequence of poems to her older daughter in The Imaginary Lover and a suite of birthday poems to her younger daughter in Green Age.
Ostriker speaks in the measured tones of a professor; she is clearly accustomed to having her words copied down in the notebooks of her students. Asked to what extent motherhood influenced her imagery in general, she answers, “My guess is that the experience of maternity saturates every single thing I do. Maternity augments one's vision, one's sense of reality, one's sense of self. I believe that I'm maternally motivated toward the world and not just toward my children. Certainly I'm maternally motivated toward my students, who are a big part of my life. But in addition, my views of art, history, politics, all sorts of issues are in part determined by that double experience that motherhood brings of idealism and practicality. Children represent at once infinite hope and stony intractability—and the world is like that, too.
“I have found that the writing I've done about family, about my children, is often the work that audiences are most engaged with and most responsive to. When I read the mother-daughter poems from The Imaginary Lover, people will always come up from the audience and request copies for mothers or daughters. These are themes that speak universally to audiences and to readers. Although, when I and others first began writing about motherhood, the literary and critical response was, of course, this doesn't belong in poetry, this is trivial, it's not universal enough. One change in the literary scene since I started writing is that it has become quite normal rather than exceptional for women to write from the position of motherhood. It was almost unheard of when I started writing but it doesn't surprise anyone now.”
Does that also mean that poems on a maternal theme are accepted now within the academic world and taught in university courses? “That, of course, moves more slowly, just as any avant-garde work exists before it's accepted. Canonization obviously takes longer than production. I would say the two most important poets getting into the classroom now who write as mothers are Anne Sexton and Sharon Olds. Maxine Kumin, too. Maxine is certainly accepted, canonized, was poetry consultant at the Library of Congress and is a Chancellor of the Academy of Poets. A great piece of her work is what she calls ‘the tribal poems.’”
Another change Ostriker has seen is in the attitude her women students have toward motherhood. One class in the 1970s had such a negative reaction to the pregnancy/birth theme of her early poem, “Once More Out of Darkness,” that in response Ostriker wrote “Propaganda Poem: Maybe for Some Young Mamas.” Her students today see maternity differently. “There is no longer a feminist party line opposing motherhood. That has fortunately faded away. Young women today, I believe, see motherhood as a personal rather than an ideological choice. What has not changed very much, although it has changed to a certain degree, is the extent to which fathers are prepared to invest their time and souls deeply in the nurturing and raising of their children. I know some couples in which the fathers take equal care, but they are exceptional.” In her own case, although her husband has always been very supportive of her work, in terms of helping out with the children, Ostriker describes him as “more supportive theoretically than practically.”
Asked what advice she would give to young women on combining creative work with child rearing, Ostriker notes, “The most important thing for a young mother to remember is that children and the experiences of maternity—ranging from ecstasy to hellish depression—are valid material for art. We require artists to explore and define the significance of all human experience, and the vision of motherhood that mothers will propose is obviously going to differ from the views of ‘experts’ such as male doctors, psychologists, and novelists. Mothers can use their lives as raw material for art just the same as Monet used landscape or Dante used Florentine politics. They can record everything.
“One of my great regrets is that I didn't write down more. You think you'll remember everything, and then you forget.” The poet urges women to keep journals and use tape recorders, cameras, and video to capture those fleeting moments. “And don't be afraid to be honest,” she adds. “Don't sanitize your feelings, don't be sentimental. The culture has plenty of sentimentalized versions of motherhood. What we need is reality—the whole array of realities that have never before gotten into books,” including the realities of those who are not white and middle class.
In retrospect, Ostriker says of her own experience in combining writing and mothering, “I'm sure that many people will tell you this: taking care of children is a tremendous drain on your time, your spirit, your feelings, your self-image, and there's no way around that. The positive side is that having children keeps you real, keeps you open and on your toes, and is a continuing learning experience. It gives your mind and your passions a constant workout—which, if you want to keep them alive, is not a bad thing to have happen.”
Now that her children are all in their twenties and living away from home, is she still able to give her passions a constant workout? “I worry about that a lot. I worry about cooling down and I try to find other ways of keeping hot. The question of what to replace motherhood with is a real question when you've defined yourself as a writer for many years through motherhood as I have. When that consuming and absorbing interest subsides, what can you find to replace it? I think I'm still in the process of discovering that.”
SOURCE: A review of The Crack in Everything, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter, 1997, pp. 156.
[In the following review, Earnshaw applauds Ostriker's achievement in The Crack in Everything.]
In her eighth volume of poems [The Crack in Everything], Alicia Suskin Ostriker puts no barriers of arcane language between herself and her reader. Her style combines acute observation in plain speech with halting rhythms of run-on lines as though she is thinking it out as she goes. Most poems begin with a setting: the beach, a bar, dance floor, classroom, hospital. The characters and story unwind, holding us charmed until the poem ends with a question, an ambiguity, an enlightenment. A mature American woman's voice speaks deliberately of her many concerns: her marriage, family relations, war horrors abroad, needy students, and, surprisingly, in a final series of poems, her mastectomy.
The forty-plus poems, most of them previously published, are in four sections. Units 1 and 3 divide the whole, and 2 and 4 are each a single long poem. Part 1 begins with character studies (people and animals) evoking the poet's empathy. A dog on the beach leaps for joy, a baby in Somalia starves to death, Shostakovich writes music that defies the tyrant. I especially like “Globule,” dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop, which describes a jellyfish and ends, “Both a thing contained and container of mystery, / Smoothness inside of smoothness, cold in cold. // Wishing only to be as I am, transparent.”
Section 2, “The Book of Life,” is dedicated to Sheila Solomon, Ostriker's close friend in the years of being Jewish mothers of young children. Their frustration of no time to practice their arts as they care for babies and husband (the experience Adrienne Rich called “the trial by fire”) makes them grapple for a toehold: “Certain women survive / Their erotic petals and pollen, grasp dirt, bite stone / Muttering I can't go on, I'll go on.” Even more disheartening is their realization that their place as women in the Jewish orthodoxy cannot be accepted, although they are among the faithful.
Part 3 becomes more personal and interior. Philosophical meditation in “The Nature of Beauty” and “The Glassblower's Breath” and other poems is still tied to narrative experience, but the tone is softer, deeper. Dropping a former lover when he reappears in her life, however strong the attraction, might have been treated comically; instead, the poet recognizes “time's arrow … the least relenting thing / in the known universe.” This section has two beautiful poems on marriage.
“The Mastectomy Poems” of part 4, a series of twelve poems, take us through the experience of breast cancer from the shock of announcement, to decision-making, through the hospital stay, to a return to “normal life” with adjustments to inner feelings and friends' responses. The series concludes with an ode to the absent breast and emotional recovery. The tone is sober and honest and will surely bring a varied response. After my initial surprise, I applaud the poem, thinking of the body violence in the literature of wars and of the millions of American women who need this experience to be voiced.
Although Ostriker writes in an accessible style, at times even prosy, her choices are backed up by a career as a prominent scholar and critic. She began publishing with studies of William Blake and English metrics. She has written a valuable history of American women poets, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America (1986), and two books of Bible criticism: Feminist Revision and the Bible (1993) and The Nakedness of the Fathers (1994). Reading her whole work, we understand the poetry's place in her remarkably rich range of voice: delicious comedy in The Nakedness of the Fathers (the dialogue of King David and the Queen of Sheba should be on Broadway), argumentative brilliance in Feminist Revision, and, in the poetry, warmth of heart.
SOURCE: “No Pain, No Gain,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XIV, No. 6, March, 1997, pp. 12-13.
[In the following excerpt, Townsend highlights thematic concerns of The Crack in Everything.]
In “The Class,” in Alicia Suskin Ostriker's eighth collection, The Crack in Everything, the speaker/teacher says her job is to give her students “permission / to gather pain into language,” to make an art that is not “divisible from dirt, / from rotten life,” because, she believes, “Against evidence … / Poetry heals or redeems suffering,” even if it is “not the poet who is healed, / But someone else, years later.” Ostriker examines subjects as diverse as “weightless / unstoppable neutrinos / leaving their silvery trace / in vacuum chambers,” a Times Square bag lady in her “cape of rusty razor blades,” three million dead “stacked … like sticks” in winter, or the “nectar / in the bottom of a cup / This blissfulness in which I strip and dive.” This world is seen against the undercurrent of mortality that pulses beneath even the most optimistic poems.
Ostriker writes from a level of awareness that is both heartbreaking and healing, precisely because it encompasses so much loss. She searches for what, in the title of one poem, she calls “The Vocabulary of Joy,” noting how very difficult indeed it is to “define … happiness, / Though surely you know what I mean / In the late twentieth century // when I say this.”
The book moves from examinations of contemporary events to meditations on art and artists, to musings about the meaning of existence, to the closing, more immediately personal poems on age, illness and healing. Part of Ostriker's search is the search for self in mid-life. “Don't I know you from somewhere?” the speaker asks in “Neoplatonic Riff.”“Didn't I use to be you?” “Looking like a grownup, but still / Crayoning in the outlines, a good child, / A good committee member,” she finds herself in her fifties, still trying to figure out who she is.
One of Ostriker's greatest strengths as poet has always been the lack of separation between self and world in her work. Immediate, passionate and direct, even the more public poems in this collection possess an intimacy that startles the reader. Capable of personifying subjects as diverse as a California surfer, a migrant, even a “globule” of transparent life, Ostriker also testifies to the horrors of our time. In poems like “The Russian Army Goes Into Baku” and “The Eighth and the Thirteenth” she looks at cruelty and violence with a fierce and unblinking eye.
In the splendid extended sequence “The Book of Life,” she reflects on the strength of spirituality and the friendships of female creators. “To whom shall we say / Inscribe me in the book of life,” she asks—
To whom if not each other To whom if not our damaged children To whom if not our piteous ancestors To whom if not the lovely ugly forms We have created, The forms we wish to coax From the clay of nonexistence— However persistent the voice That rasps hopeless, that claims Your fault, your fault— As if outside the synagogue we stood On holier ground in a perennial garden Jews like ourselves have just begun to plant.
Here, in one seamless stanza, the speaker embraces self, family, friends, creative work and spirituality, making what must die away into life.
Like [poet Lucille] Clifton, Ostriker describes the experience of mastectomy, writing a path though the “riddle” of illness with clarity and grace. “You think it will never happen to you,” she begins, whirling us into diagnosis, surgery and recovery with the peculiar intimacy of the second person. There is shock here. The post-op scar is a “skinny stripe / That won't come off with soap / A scarlet letter lacking a meaning … / It's nothing.” There is grief: “Was I succulent? Was I juicy? / you sliced me like a green honeydew.” There is rage. The poet is careful never to say “the thing that is forbidden to say,” never invites her colleagues “to view it pickled in a Mason jar.” There is healing: “Like one of those trees with a major limb lopped / I'm a shade more sublime today than yesterday.” And finally, in the delightfully understated “Epilogue: Nevertheless,” there is recovery. “It actually takes me a while,” she says, “To realize what they have in mind” when friends ask how she is feeling. Book-bag on her back, she is out the door, to whatever comes next. These strong, tough-minded, lyrical poems take us there too. …
Ostriker, though often tender, is overall witty and urbane, a poet of intellect whose voice is filtered through an actual social consciousness.
SOURCE: “Tectonic Shifts,” in The Nation, Vol. 264, No. 18, May 12, 1997, pp. 54-7.
[In the following review, Hacker concentrates on the themes of The Crack in Everything, ranging from female artists, classroom experiences, and the physical and emotional scars of breast cancer.]
Alicia Ostriker's work joins the humanitarian's unalienated will to ameliorate suffering and share what's of value (which energizes progressive political engagement) to the humanist's hunger to re-engage with and continually redefine intellectual (specifically literary, also spiritual) traditions: the pedagogical passion. She is a Blake scholar and a Bible scholar, a feminist critic whose work continues to germinate a wider-branching, inclusive literary purview, a Jew whose writings are informed by, while they interrogate, that heritage and history. She is a mother and a teacher. She is also an important American poet, whose writing is enriched, and enriches its readers, by all those sometimes conflicting identities.
The Crack in Everything is her eighth collection of poems (and her thirteenth book). Ostriker is not a “difficult” poet, demanding of the reader a primary concern with the construction (or deconstruction) of literary edifices: She is a Socratic poet, who engages the reader in complex examinations by means of simple questions, deceptively simple declarative sentences.
I picked the books to come along with me On this retreat at the last moment .....In Chicago, Petersburg, Tokyo, the dancers Hit the floor running .....We say things in this class. Like why it hurts. .....I called him fool, she said It just slipped out
A series of homages to other ordinary/extraordinary women frames the book's first half. Two dramatic monologues, spoken by a middle-class and a working-class woman, confronting the end (or not) of marriage, are followed, mirrored, by two magnificent portraits of known artists—the painter Alice Neel and the poet May Swenson—in which Ostriker meticulously details the way various ordinarinesses can coalesce into genius.
After a vivid introductory stanza in which all the senses are called to witness, in counterpoint with a litany of American brand names, Neel, quintessential urban American painter, speaks (through the poet) for herself:
You got to understand, this existence is it, I blame nobody, I just paint, paint is thicker than water, Blood, or dollars. My friends and neighbors are made Of paint, would you believe it, paintslabs and brushstrokes Right down to the kishkes, as my grandfather would say. Like bandaged Andy, not smart enough to duck.
Palette knife jabs, carnation, ochre, viridian.
—and continues, relentlessly, to recount her descent into and emergence from mental illness.
Swenson's portrait is structured on word-and-eye-perfect observation: of a tortoise, which generates the image of the child-poet examining the animal, and the mature poet's own not untortoiselike, equally cannily observed physical presence. “Amphibian, crustacean?” Ostriker asks, to begin, and concludes, “It's friendly. Really a mammal.” A modest inference to which Swenson would readily have assented, as she'd have been pleased to be glimpsed in her own naturalist's glass.
These strains meet in the book's long centerpiece, “The Book of Life,” addressed to sculptor Sheila Solomon, whose work readers won't know as they do Neel's and Swenson's. The theme of the poet's and sculptor's correspondences and their differences, as artists, as friends, as Jews, as parents, interweaves with descriptions of the sculptor's work and workplace, and with the story of a third friend, who died of cancer in early middle age:
You started the eight-foot goddess The year Cynthia spent dying, The same year you were sculpting Her small bald head Fretting you couldn't get The form.
In five sections, seven dense pages, “The Book of Life” is more like the notebook (writers' “books of life”) from which a complex poem might be drawn. “Figurative sculpture is dead,” the sculptor is told, but persists in her own (figurative, majestic) vision. This poem, with its doubled or tripled levels of narration and description, left me wishing for what I equate with the figurative in poetry: the fixed structure of accentual-syllabic form to order its plunges and ascents through the sculptor's studio and garden, the friends' shared history. (Ostriker is, in general, a poet whose formal strategies inspire confidence, and seem the outer manifestation of the poem's intentions, whether in the Sapphic echoes of the triplet stanzas of the epithalamium “Extraterrestrial,” the clear-cut free-verse couplets of the May Swenson tribute or the Augustan rhymed pentameter, witty and elegiac, of “After the Reunion.”)
Ostriker is a teacher by vocation, one feels, not just economic necessity: a poet/scholar who teaches not only “creative writing” but the creative reading that sustains the republic of letters. Many poets and novelists teach. Ostriker (along with Toi Derricotte and Marie Ponsot) is one of the few who has written about, recognized and re-created the pedagogic relationship as one of the quintessentially human connections, as fit a subject for poetry as erotic love or the changes spring rings on a meadow. Her students, as individuals or cohered into a class, are present in a group of these poems, where the dynamic that fuels a class's work together is examined—not a lecturer imprinting young minds blank as new tapes but a multivocal conversation, a collective expedition:
All semester they brought it back A piece at a time, like the limbs of Osiris.
Generous as she is, Ostriker can permit herself the rueful professorial aside that the one student who “gets” Emily Dickinson, after the teacher's inspired cadenza on her poems, is “the boy / Who'd had four years of Latin / In high school and loved Virgil.” And, activist as she has always been, Ostriker cannot view the university in a vacuum, peopled only by students and teachers. “Lockout,” the poem that opens the university sequence, is spoken largely by a middle-aged Latino security guard, aware of how the imported hegemony of English has inflected his life and the lives of the continent's native peoples.
The contemplative poem “After Illness” makes graceful reference to gratuitous, inevitable bodily destiny, different but equally mortal for each individual:
What is a dance without some mad randomness Making it up? Look, getting sick Was like being born,
They singled you out from among the others With whom you were innocently twirling, Doing a samba across the cumulonimbus,
They said you, they said now.
Three pages, two sections later, still in a cropped triplet stanza, the poet/speaker refers to “my mastectomy”—but in a subordinate clause of a sentence whose (conditional) object, and objective, is “mourning” and “feeling,” counterbalanced by imagined indulgence of an improvident infatuation; the conclusion is that any consciously determined subject matter of meditation “By definition isn't it!” In this elegant philosophical play, mastectomy seems to enter almost offhandedly into the discourse, until the reader realizes how it informs the earlier stanzas about the dance of randomness, the falling into the body of illness as we've fallen into our bodies at birth. The balance between the raw, unresolved mourning for Cynthia in “The Book of Life” and this almost ludic intrusion of the harsh word “mastectomy” with its vulnerable “my” prepares the reader for the book's concluding and conclusive achievement, “The Mastectomy Poems,” a twelve-poem sequence.
In the book's preceding sections, Ostriker has displayed a virtuoso register of styles, voices, forms: the dramatic monologue/word-portrait; the aphoristic or fable-like narrative in meter and rhyme; the pedagogical “I” addressing a plural “thou”; the quotidian anecdotal that shifts subtly into the meditative or the surreal. She deploys all of these in “The Mastectomy Poems” to create a mosaic of a woman's changing inner and outer life as she undergoes this ordeal (become so horrifyingly common as to resemble a rite of passage). All the while, given the book's structure, in the augmented formal echoes of its preceding themes, she reiterates as subtext that the breast cancer survivor is, chastened and changed, the same woman, the same artist and citizen, that she was before—she who praises other women (here, a breast surgeon) in the exercise of their vocations:
I shook your hand before I went. Your nod was brief, your manner confident, A ship's captain, and there I lay, a chart Of the bay, no reefs, no shoals
a sensual/social woman:
I told a man I've resolved To be as sexy with one breast As other people are with two And he looked away
a lyric economist of meter and rhyme:
And now the anesthesiologist Tells something reassuring to my ear— And a red moon is stripping to her waist— How good it is, not to be anywhere
a teacher and member of the academic community:
First classes, the sun is out, the darlings Troop in, my colleagues Tell me I look normal. I am normal.
Always, though, underneath the surface, under the “Black and red China silk jacket,” is the shocked, transformed body, the “skinny stripe,” “short piece of cosmic string” of the mastectomy scar, at once sign of escape and memento mori.
Omnipresent, too, the scar's double, is the lost breast, also with a double significance, first as instrument of pleasure, self-contained sustenance, bodily benignity, badge of responsible womanhood: “my right guess, my true information,” transformed into a kind of time bomb, storehouse of explosives, inert but dangerous matter:
Jug of star fluid, breakable cup— Someone shoveled your good and bad crumbs Together into a plastic container … For breast tissue is like silicon.
And the breast, or the ghost breast, marks mortality now even more than the scar:
Carry me mama. Sweetheart, I hear you, I will come.
“The River” concludes: the generative constant rescue mission of maternity thus transformed into the poet's prescience of death.
Abruptly, the sequence's next, last poem begins and ends with the speaker back in the quotidian world of work and talk: “The bookbag on my back, I'm out the door”—a teacher again, with the vivacity and accoutrements of a young student in her self-description. “Winter turns to spring / The way it does,” and she unthinkingly answers the anxious “How are you feeling” with anecdotes about family and work. The “woman under the surface” is back on the surface, in her disguise as an ordinary worker-bee, an ordinariness like that which camouflages the genius of Swenson and Neel in their poem-portraits. But this section is titled “Epilogue”—which gives us the double message that, despite the brisk exit-line, the poem's real conclusion is the haunted one of “The River.”
One section of “The Mastectomy Poems” has an epigraph—referring to “an ordinary woman”—from a poem by Lucille Clifton. Clifton too was treated for breast cancer, a few years after Ostriker. Some, only some, of the contemporary American writers who are living with, or who have succumbed to, breast cancer are, in no particular order: Pat Parker, Audre Lorde, Susan Sontag, Maxine Kumin, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Penelope Austin, Edith Konecky, Hilda Raz, Patricia Goedicke, June Jordan, myself; black, white, Jewish; fat, thin and middling; lesbian, straight (and middling); childless and multiparous “And”—to borrow the title of a poem by Melvin Dixon about friends lost to AIDS—“These Are Just a Few.”
The Crack in Everything: Is it a shift in the earth's tectonic plates, the purposeful Zen flaw in a ceramic vase that individualizes its perfection, the long pink keloid ridge on a newly flat chest? All of the above. This is not a polemic, a book with an aim, a recovery manual. It reaffirms the poet's unique and contradictory role, at once storyteller and witness, s/he who makes of language not a prison but a prism, refracting and re-combining the spectrum of human possibilities.
SOURCE: A review of The Crack in Everything, in Poetry, Vol. CLXX, No. 3, June, 1997, pp. 174-77.
[In the following review, Taylor considers the significance of and justification for widely mixed themes in The Crack in Everything.]
Alicia Suskin Ostriker's new collection [The Crack in Everything] may at first surprise the reader with its multifarious subject matter (the “everything” referred to in the title), but this impression of heterogeneity takes on a compelling significance and justification by “The Mastectomy Poems,” the fourth and last section. Here the disparate “cracks” that have been observed in others and in various societal phenomena fissure all the way back to the empathic observer, that is, brutally converge on the poet herself. “You never think it will happen to you,” she avows in the first of twelve candid poems, “Then as you sit paging a magazine … / Waiting to be routinely waved good-bye / … the mammogram technician / Says Sorry, we need to do this again.” Ostriker describes her operation (a powerful poem is addressed to her doctor), meditates on “What Was Lost,” before investigating her feelings as she recovers. During her convalescence, for instance, she breaks off an icicle, declaring it to be “A brandished javelin / Made of sheer / Stolen light / To which the palm sticks / As the shock of cold / Instantly shoots through the arm / To the heart— / I need a language like that.”
Ostriker indeed seeks a language capable of taking on “the extremes” (as she puts in “Marie at Tea”), which is to say that she strives to perceive the malefic, debilitating, or cancerous fractures beneath the smooth, deceiving surfaces of reality. This pursuit is admittedly arduous. “What the eye instantly consents to,” she specifies in “Still Life: A Glassful of Zinnias on my Daughter's Kitchen Table,” “Language stumbles after / Like some rejected / Clumsy perpetual lover … / Encouraging himself: maybe this time / She'll go with me.” Yet struggling with language is not the only difficulty. It is remarkable how often Ostriker mediates reality through the creativity of others. Poems here concern, allude to, or invoke Wittgenstein, Rothko, van Gogh, May Swenson, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, Shostakovich, Plato, Chekhov, Rumi, T. S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, et al. Is their presence perhaps sometimes more self-hindering than enlightening? Even the last Mastectomy Poem concludes with Ostriker running off with a “bookbag on [her] back.” Several engagé poems—memorably, those set in Somalia or at a rape trial where the victim is a retarded girl—likewise seem reactions, however justifiably indignant, not to what Ostriker has eye-witnessed (or experienced in her own body) but rather to what she has learned through the news media.
This is not to suggest that Ostriker's bookbag is overly burdensome; only that the problem of “paying attention”—not just to extraordinary events, but also to zinnias on a kitchen table—functions here as a sort of Achilles' heel for the poet. Her occasional under-estimations of the ordinary, as opposed to her eagerness to point up the dramatic, work like insidious cracks weakening or diverting the emotional intensity of some of these poems. Perhaps the poet relies, in places, not confidently enough on her own perceptive gifts, although her talent is evident in the arresting detail of “Locker Room Conversation” or in the delightful opening poem, which depicts dogs plunging “straight into / The foaming breakers // Like diving birds, letting the green turbulence / Toss them, until they snap and sink // Teeth into floating wood / Then bound back to their owners.” This canine image of “passionate speed / For nothing, / For absolutely nothing but joy” is the touchstone—not yet marred by illness or moral iniquity—against which the reader will measure the destructive cracks in everything else. Interestingly, some longer poems begin as detailed, firmly-structured narratives, then conclude in fragments or with an oblique, even dissociated, twist—a sign, too, that a former wholeness has crumbled. This quality is particularly striking in a diary-like poem, “Taylor Lake,” where Ostriker first relates a family hike in the mountains, then abruptly records the tale of a man who has sat down with children in a sandbox.
Too many poems, however, include facile pronouncements. In “The Vocabulary of Joy,” for example, Ostriker exclaims her “happiness” while she watches a laughing, racially-mixed family—a sentiment that she cannot convey more graphically, however, for she adds only: “Though surely you know what I mean / In the late twentieth century // When I say this.” It is a pity that Ostriker has not dissected her “happiness”; such remarks in any case dull the vibrancy of the present, which she had nevertheless evoked with gusto: “Father to shoulders hoists / Their slender redhead daughter, who // Laughs and shouts, pulling his hair, / You're fun, Daddy.” “Lockout” similarly perks our interest in a campus security guard who helps the poet unlock her office door; yet we never get to know this man, for the poem turns to the way he was treated at school: “They hit my hands with rulers and made me eat soap / For speaking my own language, Spanish.” We sympathize, but the poem goes no further than this revelation of organized brutality; the security guard is ultimately used as a mere political symbol.
This tendency to take stands crops up even in the complex, ambitious long-poem, “The Book of Life,” which is a challenging exploration of Judaism. A few cumbersome lines (“She used to describe the folk music scene in America / —Before money made a hole in it / And the joy spilled out”) distract from the poignancy of a folksinger's death. “Her daughters assembled,” writes Ostriker, “As she slept and woke, slept and moaned. / They made the decision to switch / To the intravenous.” This simple, moving scene illustrates our (once again) late-twentieth-century manner of seeing off our parents and loved-ones. In contrast to allusions to ever-shifting socio-economic realities, do not these grave gestures and the random, telling remembrances that follow (“A pair of butter-soft, cherry-red / Italian gloves … / her tragicomic love affairs, / Her taste in flowers, Catalan cooking, / Shelves of tattered blues and flamenco records”), suffice in giving us the essential—a lasting, universal emotion?
SOURCE: “How the Light Gets In,” in American Book Review, Vol. 18, No. 6, September-October, 1997, pp. 23-4.
[In the following excerpt, Dolin delineates the themes and style of The Crack in Everything.]
The Crack in Everything, Alicia Ostriker's eighth volume of poetry, is a mature work, filled with wisdom about personal grief and the world. According to the Kabbala, upon the creation of the world, the vessels into which light was poured cracked, and now it is up to human beings to repair the world's brokenness. And though Ostriker knows that she can't fix most things, including herself, she uses her poems to teach us—and herself—that “a crack in everything” is, in words she borrows from Leonard Cohen, “how the light gets in.” Pears, Lake, Sun, Sandy Solomon's first book of poems and the winner of the 1995 Agnes Lynch Starrett Award, also uses brokenness to illumine the harsh surfaces of the world. Both volumes seem centrally concerned with grief—Ostriker having survived breast cancer, Solomon having lost her lover to a muscular degenerative disease. In each case, the poet knows just how much language can and cannot accomplish and the poems become a study in compassion for the self and others.
Halfway through Ostriker's book she announces the themes of loss, illness, and mortality in a long meditative poem called “The Book of Life,” which is about what we do with our loved ones who begin losing their faculties and what we think we'll do with ourselves: “When we think, not of death / But of the decay before it—before us. …” Her friend, to whom the poem is addressed, finds the words that will carry: “Whoever we are, we'll be to the end.” Then Ostriker gives a narrative description in simple colloquial language, unadorned by metaphor, of another friend's decision to die in place of “more chemo”:
Lingering? Fuck that, she said. Morphine for the pain against the pain. That final day, her daughters assembled As she slept and woke, slept and moaned. They made the decision to switch To the intravenous. It was morphine all the way then. All night they waked and watched her sleep And said from time to time, as she almost surfaced, She'd sing a line from one of the folk songs On her Elektra records, that she recorded When they were kids And she was almost famous, As if to sing herself back to sleep, Then sank again, rose and sank.
(from “The Book of Life”)
When Ostriker confronts her own illness, we are prepared for her bravery: “What I want / Is to listen, what I want / Is to follow instructions” (from “After Illness”). And for several poems, she does ask questions: of nature, of a campus security guard, even of her students. We encounter “The Mastectomy Poems,” a sequence that deals with Ostriker's cancer directly, in the final section of the book. Breast cancer is one of those subjects you might feel you've read enough poems about. But these poems are so understated that they are as much about what can't be said—even about a reader's own resistance to reading about illness out of a talismanic fear that it might happen to you by coming into contact with it on the page. So the first poem opens aggressively, addressing that fear quite directly in the second person feminine singular:
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.
(from “1. The Bridge”)
In this age of disease, Ostriker has figured out what poetry can say through negation. In “Riddle: Post-Op,” under “squares of gauze,” the speaker exhibits the angry metaphoric profusions of Sylvia Plath's late poetry:
I've got a secret, I've a riddle That's not a chestful of medals Or a jeweled lapel pin And not the trimly sewn Breast pocket of a tailored business suit It doesn't need a hanky It's not the friendly slit of a zipper Or a dolphin grin Or a kind word from the heart Not a twig from a dogwood tree Not really a worm …
… A scarlet letter lacking a meaning Guess what it is It's nothing.
This anaphoric list offers a chilling display of the limits of metaphor. And this “nothing,” this sense of “What Was Lost,” as she titles one poem in the series, is what each of us—in aging, illness, and death—has to confront. Yet though a contrived sense of normalcy returns—“The falsie on my left makes me / In a certain sense more perfectly normal” (from “8. Normal”)—and though the sequence and the volume ends with the poet declaring, “I'm fine, I say I'm great, I'm clean / The book bag on my back, I have to run” (from “12. Epilogue: Nevertheless”), the jarring, almost too-perfect iambic pentameter last line makes the voice feel forced, as though it were the words themselves that were steeling her against the fear of not being fine.
The Crack in Everything is about so much more than cancer and personal illness that I wished “The Mastectomy Poems” hadn't been placed at the end. Better to have opened out into the world of brokenness and mortality with this new vision and to encounter her poem about the black families whose homes were torched by Philadelphia's authorities: “The angel lifted a voice / Like a furious siren … And it sang through the desolate fumes …” (from “Deaf Cities”) or about “The Boys, The Broom Handle, the Retarded Girl,” “who was asking for it.” The irony builds throughout the poem until it burns with its own embers of rage.
Ostriker exhibits enormous range; she can also speak in the voice of migrant workers who are fully imagined waking up to the beauty of California—
Desire comes up in us Like the morning sun over the Great Central Valley
—before assuming the shackles of work, and the reader is caught by surprise, as are the men, from one stanza to the next. She can evoke the voice of a dying baby: “compared to being buried alive,” “Death by starvation. Is very good, yes, good / As life can be” (from “Somalia”). Or Aphrodite in the form of a “[c]razy lady” living in the Port Authority Terminal in New York City. The most experimental are a group of ekphrastic poems. “Nude Descending” manages to evoke the confused cubist abstraction of Duchamp's famous painting as well as to wrest back from the male painter some of the woman's autonomy.
By far the most breathtaking poem in the entire collection is “The Eighth and Thirteenth,” a poem chosen by Adrienne Rich to appear in The Best American Poetry: 1996. If Adorno said one shouldn't write poetry after the Holocaust, then this poem proves that a poet of Ostriker's strengths can and should write poems about the Holocaust. Ostriker, caught by happenstance listening to Shostakovich's Eighth “on public radio,” has written a poem that avalanches down the page:
… An avalanche of iron violins. At Leningrad During the years of siege Between bombardment, hunger, And three subfreezing winters, Three million dead were born Out of Christ's bloody side. Like icy Fetuses. For months One could not bury them, the earth And they alike were adamant. You stacked the dead like sticks until May's mud, When, of course, there was pestilence. But the music continues. It has no other choice.
Then the poet moves on to deliberately play Shostakovich's “Thirteenth,” a memorial to the massacre of Kiev's Jews. The poem weaves in narrative, Ostriker's commentary, passages from Shostakovich's notebooks, and Tsvetaeva's “All poets are Jews.” Illness produces silence or a negation or profusion of metaphors in Ostriker's poetry, the Holocaust in memory produces a collage of voices in place of the silenced. The poem is a masterful crescendo—howbeit mid-volume—to a masterful book about what we can and cannot master, and to what we can at least bear witness. …
SOURCE: “Repairing the World,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XVI, No. 3, December, 1998, pp. 10-11.
[In the following review, George provides an overview of the principal themes of Ostriker's career within the context of the poetry in Stealing the Language and Writing Like a Woman and her two groundbreaking revisionist volumes on the Bible.]
In a conversation many years ago about her own poetry and that of Anne Sexton and Alicia Ostriker, Maxine Kumin told me that she thought of all love poetry as elegiac. For three decades Alicia Suskin Ostriker has been writing an extended elegiac love poem, in the way of Emily Dickinson's letter to the world “that never wrote to me”. She asks for an answer that she does not expect, because that answer would take the form of global transformation. No matter if she knows humanity isn't yet up to the task of loving-kindness toward itself; she writes the poems anyway.
Ostriker is among America's leading poet-critics, with eight books of poetry, critical studies including Stealing in Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America (Beacon, 1986) and Writing Like a Woman (University of Michigan, 1983), and two groundbreaking revisionist volumes on the Bible. An academic with a comprehensive command of the male canon, Ostriker challenged it early in her career, and whatever her misgivings about being labeled an intellectual, she is justifiably stuck with that title. It's not so terrible to be an intellectual if you're also a visionary, and now that Ginsberg is gone, Ostriker is contemporary poetry's most Blakean figure. Like Blake's, her vision of how things might be is grounded in anatomy of how things are. Ostriker is in love with a wounded world and wants us to heal it with the force of human imagination, compassion, and love. And she thinks we actually could. This is not a metaphor.
Themes Ostriker anatomized in other American women poets are exhibited amply in The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968-1998: the natural world as a continuation of the body, anger juxtaposed with the imperative of intimacy, autonomy and self-definition emerging from cultural erasure. In the recent work, Ostriker grows toward what I'd call wisdom literature. The Little Space contains plenty of that, so my major complaint is simple: about two hundred pages seems, well, too little a space for a poet this large. Some of her finest poems are not here, such as “Dreaming of Her,” “As in a Gallery,” “Downstairs,” “Wanting All,” “While Driving North.” I'd have horse-traded a few of her formally fine, judicious, tame poems about art for these wild-minded works, tonal balance be damned. That said, this is a wonderful book.
“Writing like a woman” for Ostriker originally meant meditating on motherhood as an act of love. Her thinking on maternity is central to her poetry, even to her poetics, in which death is countered by the genuine heroism of giving birth. When her son is born in 1970, the doctor remarks that he will make a good soldier. “The Guards kneeled” becomes a premonitory chant not only for Ostriker's early poems, but for her life's work:
The Guards kneeled, they raised their weapons, they fired into the crowd to protect the peace. There was a sharp orange-red explosion, diminished by the great warm daylight, a match scratching, a whine, a tender thud, then the sweet tunnel, then nothing. Then the tunnel again, the immense difficulty, pressure, then the head finally is liberated, then they pull the body out.
(“Mother/Child,” p. 26)
Far from holding only men responsible for war, Ostriker continuously acknowledges her own complicity in the design, even as she labors to imagine a way out. Her deterministic bent poises delicately against indomitable optimism. In the midst of a moment of pure laughter, her infant stares at her, “intense, impersonal, like icy dawn / like the son of beauty, the bow bent, and the arrows drawn.” She cannot know whether his will be the arrows of desire or of destruction. “I want to tell you it is not your fault. / It is your fault.” Their intimacy will remain with him, even after he has turned away from her in order “not to waste breath,” to become a man.
You will never forget this, will always seek, beyond every division, a healing of division, renewed touch.
(“Mother/Child: Coda,” p. 37)
If the poet is afraid of loss, separation, betrayal, death, violence from without and within—and she is—she is fearless about her fear. The speaker of “Message from the Sleeper at Hell's Mouth” knows damnable things, but in this early foray into revisionist mythmaking (from A Woman Under the Surface, 1982), Ostriker offers a plural reading of the ur-texts of Western culture. Like Sexton's, her revisionist language and tone alternate between jazzy update and lyrical sway. At the end of this poem cycle, represented too slimly here, Psyche asks, “Anyway, what is the soul / But a dream of itself?”
The figure Ostriker calls “the imaginary lover,” after whom she titles her 1986 collection, is another form of Psyche's wounded lover, Eros, and she pursues him throughout her work. And let there be no mistake about the scope of the quest, because Ostriker's poetry is about the soul's desire. The beloved Eros is not only a husband, a lover, a son and daughters, a dead father, a living mother; it is the human community itself, and the earth on which these many feet walk. In “The Marriage Nocturne,” Ostriker's speaker drives home to her husband “through this wounded / World that we cannot heal, that is our bride.” This external world opens out to us from within the mind in “Letting the Doves Out,” where the lover is described as a “form in the mind / On whom, as on a screen, I project designs, / Images, whose presence makes me dilate …”
The prophetic urge always drives Ostriker back from hell's or heaven's mouth to the ordinary world inhabited by women and men like herself, where the real work of survival happens, or does not. “Surviving” is about Paula Modersohn-Becker, Ostriker's mother, all women artists whose lives were cut short or unfulfilled. “How can the broken mothers teach us?” she asks. In “The War of Men and Women,” a companion lament (at least I read it as one) that is as fine as Rich's “Diving into the Wreck” poems, ours is the failure of the imagination to “join our life with the dangerous life of the other.” That failure to reach out to each other over the chasm of difference—any kind of alienating difference—has cost us so much that “we would need an archaeology / Of pain to trace the course of this frozen river.”
Any poet with an agenda so urgent might be expected to offer a grim vision, but this isn't true of Ostriker, whose laughter often echoes through even the earnest stuff. Most of her readers know this from “Everywoman Her Own Theology”:
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. …
Ethically, I am looking for An absolute endorsement of loving-kindness.
That wish for unconditional kindness defines her spiritual quest poetry as she enters the 1990s. In the final section of Green Age (1989), she writes of the beloved Friend that Rumi called God. Finding the Friend in ordinary people, in children now grown, in students and strangers, she addresses a “you” on whom she confers multiple identities. “The Death Ghazals” challenges that other God, the Father God, whom she also addresses in Feminist Revision and the Bible and in The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions, books from which it is now difficult to separate her poetry: “Does your smeared forehead out-top the gracious mountains?” And in “A Meditation in Seven Days,” she forces entry, as female and as Jew, into the sacred patriarchal place. “Fearful, I see my hand is on the latch / I am the woman, and about to enter.”
Kumin's sense of elegy certainly applies to Ostriker's recent work, where dirge is often joined to songs of joy. Loss upon loss stacks up over the years in the life of the poet, the country, the globe, and readers can see it in this volume as we move toward The Crack in Everything (1996). But it is not herself she mourns—as the title of this volume indicates, Ostriker prefers humility about one's own little space in the universe to the counter-stance of arrogance. Indeed, she thinks herself fortunate, for now she has faced down death. In the excerpts from “The Mastectomy Poems,” wit wins over despair, as in “Mastectomy,” where she asks her doctor, “Was I succulent? Was I juicy?”
I thought you sliced me like green honeydew Or like a pomegranate full of seeds Tart as Persephone's, those electric dots That kept that girl in hell, Those jelly pips that made her queen of death.
The “Uncollected and New” section is disappointingly short, as is the custom in collections, with only nine pieces, nearly half poems inspired by works of art. This is one of Ostriker's career-long interests and she serves it well, in poems always accomplished, polished, far-reaching, formal—but it's simply not one of my favorite things to watch her do. Here, though, one is a stunner, up there with her lifelong best. “From the Prado Rotunda: The Family of Charles IV, and Others” is about Goya, about all of us:
If he is leading us by the hand like babes To worship the abject monstrous because it exists, to sniff Hysteria from within like an infection Among the tambourines and the fans and the mantillas, If Goya's lascivious Maja Nude and clothed in the duplicity Native to women Makes your mouth water— If her pale legs flow strangely together As if glued to a board they cannot bend at the knee, As if returning to fishtails—
The painting is never what is there, It throbs with the mystery Of your own sick-to-death soul Which demands, like everything alive, Love.
“Holocaust” is the inverse of the same human tendencies “in the fiery patriotic mind”:
You as a child first feeling that excitement At the cave mouth— Sparks flying upward to emulate stars
You dancing to emulate the fierce commotion Your mouth greasy after eating Running with the dogs round the circle
The hiss, the crackle, the boom, the fragrance— The sweet savor—
You draw close enough to set Two hard fires ablaze in your two eyes And they never go out—
It is no accident that the last poem here is “About Time,” the body's “loop from clay to clay / Interrupted. Wrestled, made to gleam.” Ostriker follows her own advice: “Express your anger like a swan.” That is what she has always done, in poems where language does not evade its own knowledge of how Yeats' “terrible beauty is born.”