“His Speed and Strength,” published in Alicia Ostriker’s 1980 collection The Mother/Child Papers, is a mother’s meditation on both her son’s maturation and the human race’s survival. The poem’s setting, its references to popular culture, and its conversational diction all belong to contemporary America. The speaker’s allusions to mythical goddesses and poet Walt Whitman, however, signal the timeless relevance of the mother’s thoughts. In her book of essays, Writing Like a Woman, Ostriker says of the period in which she wrote this poem: “It was impossible [in the 1970s] to avoid meditating on the meaning of having a boy child in time of war, or to avoid knowing that ‘time of war’ means all of human history.” In the poem, the mother watches her son display “speed and strength” on his bicycle and at the town pool. She fancies herself a modern version of the ancient goddesses Niké and Juno as she competes with and protects her son. Through a series of ordinary images, the mother observes the masculine and feminine traits that compose her son’s emerging adult identity. The poem implies that our culture opposes these traits at its own peril. On the one hand, the mother is proud of her son’s developing speed, strength, and competitiveness—all traditionally masculine traits. But, since these traits also suit boys to become war fodder, the mother hopes to nurture in her son a (traditionally feminine) sense of connection to other people and things. If he maintains this connection, his strength may serve constructive, not destructive, ends. The son shows concern for his mother and a sense of connection to other boys as he goes off to play. Seeing both masculine and feminine traits in her son and imagining herself as both a goddess of military victory and a goddess of motherhood, the speaker implies that her son will also successfully connect and integrate diverse traits.
In these lines, the speaker introduces a boy’s physical speed and strength, repeating the word “strength” twice for emphasis. The poet reinforces the sense of speed by using alliteration, beginning nearby words with the same “s” sound. The traits of speed and strength signal other masculine traits about which the speaker is both proud and concerned. With the first line, Ostriker invokes the expression “the strength of ten men,” but she uses enjambment, wrapping the sentence onto the next line, to create two meanings at once. First, the poet causes readers to complete the phrase “the strength of ten” in their heads with “men.” She thereby introduces themes of manhood and great strength without stating them directly. Next, by beginning the second line with “years,” the poet deflates the heroic phrase and reveals that “he” is only a boy of ten. Though the word “years” holds comic surprise here, the poet causes readers to keep both ideas in their heads: the boy is only ten, but he will grow into a strong man one day just around the corner. Poets often use enjambment to create two meanings from one sentence or phrase.
These lines set a tone of playfulness and companionship between the speaker and the boy. That the mother is first ahead of and then outdistanced by the boy shows that she fosters his sense of competition and that he will soon grow faster and stronger than she. For the moment, however, they are equal. In line 3, the speaker characterizes herself as the Greek goddess Niké, who represented winged victory, or speed, and whose image commemorated military victories in particular. This allusion, together with the themes of manhood, begins the poem’s subtle meditation on masculinity and war. The speaker’s mention of the “Times crossword” suggests both that this is a leisurely day and that the mother enjoys intellectual as well as physical challenges.
The rest of the first stanza shows the boy’s competitive energy as he races out of sight. Comparing the boy to “the...
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