In the mid 1990s, Alicia Ostriker was diagnosed with breast cancer. She expressed her feelings about this traumatic experience, which resulted in a mastectomy and a long, painful recovery, in her collection of poems, The Crack in Everything. When it was published in 1996, the book confirmed her reputation as one of America's finest poets. The fourth section of the collection, titled "The Mastectomy Poems," deals directly with her response to each stage of her cancer: the diagnosis, the surgery and treatment, and the aftermath. In one of the most powerful poems of this sequence, "Mastectomy," the speaker describes her interaction with the doctor who performed the surgery and imagines how he removed her breast. The poem becomes a poignant exploration of one woman's struggle to understand and cope with the physical and emotional consequences of this disease.
Alicia Ostriker was born on November 11, 1937, in New York City, to David, a civil service employee, and Beatrice Suskin, both of whom had earned bachelor degrees in English. Ostriker grew up in a housing project in New York City where her mother read Shakespeare and Browning, among others, which inspired a love of literature in her and prompted her to write her own poetry. Ostriker earned a B.A. from
Brandeis University in 1959 and an M.A. (1961) and a Ph.D. (1964) from the University of Wisconsin. A year later, she began teaching at Rutgers University.
Ostriker's first book of poems, Songs, was published in 1969. By the time her collections The Mother/Child Papers (1980) and A Woman under the Surface (1982) appeared, her reputation as an important American poet had been established. In 1986, her controversial treatise on literary feminism, Stealing the Language, was published. After that, she continued to write poetry, dealing with personal as well as spiritual topics and essays on gender and literature.
Ostriker's work has been published in various periodicals, including the American Poetry Review, New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Paris Review, Nation, Poetry, and the New York Times Book Review. Her poems and essays have also been published in anthologies, including Our Mothers, Our Selves: Writers and Poets Celebrating Motherhood (1996); Worlds in Our Words: Contemporary American Women Writers (1997); Best American Poetry and Yearbook of American Poetry (both in 1996). Her poems have been translated into French, Italian, German, Japanese, Hebrew, and Arabic.
Ostriker has received numerous honors and awards. Some of these are a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1976-1977), the Pushcart Prize (1979, 2000); a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship (1982); a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (1984-1985); and the William Carlos Williams Prize in 1986 for The Imaginary Lover. She was named a National Book Award finalist, received the Paterson Poetry Award, and the San Francisco State Poetry Center Award, all in 1996, for The Crack in Everything, which contains the poem "Mastectomy."
In 1958, she married Jeremiah P. Ostriker, a professor of astrophysics, with whom she had two children. As of 2007, she was teaching English and creative writing at Rutgers University.
for Alison Estabrook
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.
While I admired your boyish freckles, 5
Your soft green cotton gown with the oval
The drug sent me away, like the unemployed.
I swam and supped with the fish, while you
Cut carefully in, I mean
I assume you were careful. 10
They say it took an hour or so.
I liked your freckled face, your honesty
That first visit, when I said
What's my odds on this biopsy
And you didn't mince words, 15
One out of four it's cancer.
The degree on your wall shrugged slightly.
Your cold window onto Amsterdam
Had seen everything, bums and operas.
A breast surgeon minces something other 20
That's why I picked you to cut me.
Was I succulent? Was I juicy?
Flesh is grass, yet I dreamed you displayed me
In pleated paper like a candied fruit, 25
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. 30
Doctor, you knifed, chopped, and divided it
Like a watermelon's ruby flesh
Flushed a little, serious
About your line of work
Scooped up the risk in the ducts 35
Scooped up the ducts
Dug out the blubber,
Spooned it off and away, nipple and all.
Eliminated the odds, nipped out
Those almost insignificant cells that might 40
Or might not have lain dormant forever.
"Mastectomy" begins with the speaker addressing the doctor directly, explaining her feelings about the operation. Then it jumps back and forth in time from before to during the operation. She begins with a description of their interaction before the surgery when she shook his hand, appreciating his confident manner. She compares him to a ship captain and his view of her as a map of the bay with no reefs (underwater ridges of coral or rock) or shoals. A shoal, here used as a noun, has several definitions: a group of fish swimming together, a group of people or things, or an underwater sandbank that is visible at low tide in shallow water. Here, it most likely suggests a sandbank since that, coupled with the reef, connotes a barrier.
While the speaker appears to have confidence in the doctor, she suggests that he is young or looks it with his "boyish freckles." She then begins her description of the surgery as she notes that she lost consciousness under the anesthesia. When she describes how the drug sent her "away, like the unemployed," she notes her powerlessness. She feels like she is underwater while unconscious, like she "swam and supped with the fish." The speaker assumes that while she was under, the doctor performed the operation carefully; she learns later the operation took about an hour.
The speaker shifts back in time at the beginning of this stanza to her first office visit with the doctor when she learned that she had cancer. She again refers to the doctor's "freckled face," which she liked at that first meeting, along with his honesty when she asked him about the odds that the biopsy would prove that she had cancer. He immediately told her, without mincing words, that she had a one-out-of-four chance of having the disease. She imagines that his diploma hanging on his wall "shrugged" at his estimate of her chances, probably because she did have cancer even though her odds were good. At the end of the stanza, she notes his experience: he has seen "everything" from his "cold window onto Amsterdam," all of the "bums and operas," and that filled her with enough confidence in him to choose him to perform her surgery.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Read some of the other "Mastectomy Poems" in The Crack in Everything that focus on different stages in Ostriker's experience with the surgery, such as "The Bridge" (which chronicles her pre-op experience) and "Normal" (which depicts her struggle to adapt to the loss of a breast). Compare these other poems to "Mastectomy" in an essay, focusing on what Ostriker says about the different stages that women go through when they must deal with breast cancer and a mastectomy.
- Write a poem or short story about the speaker's life and attitude toward the surgery and her body ten years after the operation.
- Interview women who have undergone a mastectomy and present a PowerPoint presentation on your findings about their experiences and views of the treatment they received.
- Research the causes and treatment of breast cancer and give a presentation to your class on your findings.
In this stanza the speaker uses a series of images to describe her body as the doctor performs the operation. She asks the doctor whether her flesh was "succulent" and "juicy" like the fruit she later names. The image of flesh as grass is rather obscure here. Grass is a living thing like flesh
unless it becomes detached, and it also serves as a groundcover. One could compare that to how flesh covers the body's organs. Anesthetized, the speaker dreams about her flesh not as grass but as ripe fruit while the doctor makes his incisions. First, she imagines her flesh as candied fruit that the doctor "displays," then as green honeydew and then "like a pomegranate full of seeds."
This last metaphor she extends to the mythological figure of Persephone, the goddess of the underworld and daughter to the Greek god Zeus and the mortal woman, Demeter. Dazzled by her beauty, Hades abducted Persephone and pulled her down into the underworld. When Zeus intervened, Hades agreed to release her after giving her a pomegranate. When Persephone ate some of its seeds, a spell was cast over her, which forced her to return to Hades four months out of each year. Ostriker refers to Persephone's pomegranate seeds as "electric dots / That kept that girl in hell" and "made her queen of death." Here, the speaker correlates the image of the seeds to the cancer cells in her body.
She then shifts her focus to the doctor cutting out the cells in her flesh, which she likens to a watermelon. She describes him as serious about his work as he operates, trying to "[eliminate] the odds" that cancer exists in the breast and surrounding tissue cells and may kill her if these parts are left in her body. The poem ends on an uncertain note. She is not sure that the excised cells would have developed into cancer if left in her body.
As the speaker in the poem tries to comprehend her experience with breast surgery, she must deal with the physical and emotional changes that occur as a patient confronts and undergoes mastectomy. Before and during the early part of the surgery, she sees herself in traditional feminine images. She imagines her breast as "succulent" and "juicy" like ripe fruit, suggesting that before the operation she felt womanly and fertile. As the surgeon removes her breast, the fruit metaphors shift to verbs associated with incision, chopping, and serving, as though the fruit associated with sexual attraction is now just a lump of matter to be handled with a knife and cleaned. This transition suggests that the speaker's self-image is undergoing a transformation, too. The poem concludes in an open-ended way, without the speaker having found a new identity. The poem ends with a question about whether, had she not had the surgery, cancer would have developed in the excised parts. Here Ostriker suggests that establishing a new sense of self after such a traumatic procedure is difficult and takes time beyond the surgery.
Innocence and Death
Ostriker's allusion to the myth of the Greek goddess Persephone ties into her themes in the poem of innocence and death. Persephone was abducted by Hades and brought to the underworld. The pomegranate seeds that she was forced to eat become a symbol of the speaker's cancer cells. Like Persephone, she was an innocent who should have beaten the one-in-four odds that she had cancer. In that sense she was "abducted" by fate. Her discovery of the cancer threatens to make her the "queen of death" as well. The two are also linked by the image of barrenness. During the months that Persephone was forced to remain in the underworld, winter occurs. The speaker alludes to her own barrenness when the symbol of her fertility, her breast, is removed, and she no longer uses fruit metaphors to describe her flesh. Ostriker's use of the myth of Persephone connects the speaker's plight with a universal pattern of birth and death and the seasons of the year. Moreover, the ratio stated, one in four, suggests that winter or death is correlated with cancer, while the three remaining are correlated to the other three seasons of the year, spring, summer, and fall, times of sowing, growing, and reaping.
Free Verse, also referred to as open form, does not contain set patterns of meter, rhyme, and stanza. Rhythm emerges from the repetition of words or phrases or in line breaks. Ostriker's use of free verse in the poem gives readers a sense that the speaker's observations are spontaneous, that she is thinking out loud about her experiences. This sense is heightened by her use of simple declarative sentences, such as the opening lines: "I shook your hand before I went. / Your nod was brief, your manner confident."
Rhythm is achieved in a variety of ways but does not follow any set pattern. The first two lines form a couplet ending with the words "went" and "confident" as do those in the first two lines of the third stanza, "juicy" and "me" but that end-line rhyming pattern appears no where else in the poem. Also, Ostriker undercuts the standard form of the couplet in the second line of the third stanza when she does not end a thought with the rhymed word. After the word "me," the thought continues on the next line: "In pleated paper like a candied fruit." Ostriker also uses repetition to establish rhythm. In the second stanza, for example, she repeats the image of the freckled face of the doctor, and in the second stanza, she twice uses the verb, to mince. She uses a partial repetition when in the third stanza she notes that the doctor "spooned" her flesh away "nipple and all," and in the next line, she insists that he "nipped out / Those almost insignificant cells." The final instance occurs in the third stanza when the speaker is describing how the doctor "scooped" the cancer from her "ducts." Ostriker's refusal to follow traditional poetic patterns seems in keeping with the personal nature of her speaker's experience with this operation.
The most common, worldwide form of cancer in women is breast cancer, which in the early 2000s constitutes about 7.3 percent of all cancers. One estimate is that between one in every nine to thirteen women who live in Western countries to the age of ninety is diagnosed with this form of cancer, which is the second most fatal for women after lung cancer. The chances of getting breast cancer increase with age, but younger women who develop it often do so in more aggressive forms. Less than 1 percent of the total number of cases occurs in men.
Damage to DNA is thought to be the leading cause of the cancer, indicating a strong inherited risk, but a direct cause for most incidences is unknown. Some studies have shown environmental influences, such as diet and alcohol consumption, to be factors. Other risk factors include a high density of breast tissue, the onset of menstruation at twelve years or younger, menopause that occurs at fifty-five or older, first pregnancy at thirty or older or no pregnancies, and long-term use of oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy.
Breast cancer in the early stages is difficult to detect since it has no symptoms. It is usually discovered through a mammography or the detection of a lump in the breast, under the arm, or above the collarbone. Other symptoms include nipple inversion or discharge and skin changes in the breast. Regular self-examinations of the breast and mammography are highly recommended for the detection of breast cancers, especially for women over fifty.
The most common treatment of breast cancer when it is localized is the removal of the tumor, called a lumpectomy, which is usually followed by hormonal, chemo-, or radiation therapy. When the cancer is found in surrounding tissue, the surgeon may perform a mastectomy, the surgical removal of the breast. Traditionally, the entire breast was removed when cancer was discovered, but in the late 1990s and early 2000s, more options were considered after diagnosis. Sometimes women who have a high incidence of breast cancer in the family decide to undergo a mastectomy as a preventative measure.
Different types of mastectomy include simple (all breast tissue is removed but surrounding lymph nodes and pectoral tissue beneath the breast are left in tact), modified radical (breast tissue and some lymph nodes are removed), and radical (breast tissue, nodes, and pectoral tissue are removed). Some operations preserve the skin of the breast so that reconstructive surgery can be performed.
Radical mastectomies were the most popular form of breast surgery before the 1980s when the modified radical took its place. By the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries, more concern was shown for breast conservation. As a result, lumpectomies, node dissections, and radiation became more frequently the chosen treatments.
Reviews for The Crack in Everything were overwhelmingly positive, and several critics singled out the "Mastectomy Poems" for special notice. Doris Earnshaw in her review of the collection for World Literature Today finds the tone of the poems "sober and honest" with a "warmth at heart" and insists that "Ostriker puts no barriers of arcane language between herself and her reader." Earnshaw also praises her "acute observation" in the poems. Marilyn Hacker, in her article "Tectonic Shifts," calls Ostriker "an important American poet" and suggests that the collection affirms "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."
In her review for American Book Review, Sharon Dolin describes the collection as "a mature work filled with wisdom about personal grief and the world," written by a poet with "enormous range." Dolin praises the poems' "study in compassion for the self and others" and their focus on "what we can and cannot master, and to what we can at least bear witness." Patricia Monaghan, in Booklist, finds that the "distinguished" Ostriker "writes with calm authority and almost rocklike solidity," proving herself to be "a poet singing at the top of her form." She also points out how immediate and private the poems can feel as one reads them: "although hers is a public voice of great clarity, her poems also possess a quality of being overheard, and reading them can seem like finding an especially lyrical journal or chancing upon a great opera singer practicing in the shower." Putting the same sentiment a different way, a reviewer in Publishers Weekly insists that Ostriker's "accomplished poems … are grounded in the details of a woman's daily life and speak with the appeal of an intelligent, sympathetic friend." This reviewer concludes, "Ostriker confronts middle age and mortality with deft touch and wry humor."
Alison Townsend in Women's Review of Books claims that Ostriker "writes about something terrible, transforming it with the intelligence and beauty of her art" and "from a level of awareness that is both heartbreaking and healing, precisely because it encompasses so much loss." She finds that "one of Ostriker's greatest strengths as poet has always been the lack of separation between self and world in her work," which is "immediate, passionate and direct" with "an intimacy that startles the reader." Though her poetry is "often tender," Townsend claims that Ostriker "is overall witty and urbane, a poet of intellect whose voice is filtered through an acute social consciousness." Her poems "all speak with authenticity and authority … helping us to approach our own terrible stories in the process."
Townsend reserves special praise for "The Mastectomy Poems," which, she insists, are "strong, touch-minded, lyrical poems" that describe "the experience of mastectomy … with clarity and grace." Her poetry "offers us a different perspective on loss, damage or fear and its transformation through the ritual of poem-making." A reviewer in Virginia Quarterly Review claims that "The Mastectomy Poems" are "simply stunning," while Steven R. Ellis in the Library Journal finds that they "convey the experience of mastectomy in a frank and liberating clarity but always with the riddle of an illness underneath."
The Publishers Weekly reviewer argues that Ostriker's observations in these poems "cut as clean and sharp as the surgeon's scalpel" as her readers "become immersed in her sensibility that ‘tragedy / Is a sort of surrender." Monaghan finds the "Mastectomy Poems" are "moving" in their focus on "the push-pull of public and private voices." "In this sequence," she writes, "Ostriker's impressive craft rises to meet a demanding subject so fully that these poems stand among the classics of the poem-sequence genre."
Perkins is a professor of twentieth-century American and English literature and film. In this essay, she explores Ostriker's focus on the transforming power of poetry.
The title of Alicia Ostriker's collection of poems The Crack in Everything alludes to an interpretation found in the writings of the Kabbala, a mystical Jewish doctrine that includes stories of the creation of the world. One such story focuses on the cracking of the vessel, representing the world, into which the first light was poured. Humans were directed by God to repair the brokenness of the world. The title also refers to a line from a song by Leonard Cohen, which Ostriker uses for the collection's epigraph: "There is a crack, a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in." Both of these allusions relate to the theme of the poems in the collection, including "Mastectomy," in which Ostriker explores how poetic language can express the experience of a woman whose world has "cracked" after she is diagnosed with breast cancer.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Ostriker wrote twelve poems in The Crack in Everything (1996) that center on her experience with undergoing a mastectomy. The speaker in these poems focuses on her responses to the diagnosis, the surgery, and the aftermath as she tries to adjust to her new body. One especially poignant poem is "Normal," which focuses on others' as well as her own response to the operation.
- Ostriker's controversial treatise on literary feminism, Stealing the Language, was published in 1986. This work proposes that only women can have an authentic voice when constructing female literary characters.
- The Cancer Journals (1980), by Audre Lorde, is a courageous chronicle of Lorde's struggle with breast cancer and radical mastectomy and the support she received from her community of women. Lorde was one of the first to speak out about the harsh reality of the surgery and its aftermath.
- How Cancer Works (2003), by Lauren Sompayrac, defines the ten most common cancers and explains causes and treatments.
The twelve mastectomy poems that appear at the end of the collection chronicle the stages a woman who has breast cancer experiences. In "Mastectomy," she confers with her doctor whom she has chosen to perform the operation and then describes what she imagines happened during the surgery. The cancer has created a significant crack in her world which she needs to repair. Yet ironically, as Cohen's song suggests, that very crack allows light in. Here the light becomes the poetic process of putting experience into words that express the emotional pain the speaker endures as she struggles to understand what is happening to her.
In "Class," another poem in the collection, Ostriker insists, "The teacher's job is to give [her students] permission / To gather pain into language." She tells them to "Write for the sake of the silenced. / Write what makes you afraid to write." Ostriker gives a perfect example of this instruction in "Mastectomy" as she gathers the pain into a poetic language of cancer, breaking the silence caused by the fear of imagining what it is like to lose a breast.
Ostriker juxtaposes direct, declarative statements with detailed metaphors as she finds the language to express the reality of the speaker's experience. The speaker's keen, straightforward observations create a personal, almost conversational tone, as if she is thinking out loud. She does this when she describes the doctor, to whom she addresses her observations about him and about her surgery. Here Ostriker's free verse adds to the effect of individualizing the speaker's experience as her lines sound more like prose than poetry: "I assume you were careful. / They say it took an hour or so."
The speaker's direct tone as she details the doctor's characteristics reveals the confidence she has in him. He appears capable yet youthful with "boyish freckles." He is honest when the speaker asks about her odds, not "mincing words," which is why she chose him to "cut" her. He flushes during the operation, "serious / About [his] line of work." She adds a note of irony, however, when she imagines his medical diploma "shrugg[ing] slightly" when he tells her that her odds of her getting cancer are only one out of four, a direct response to a complex question. She soon learns that even a capable, experienced doctor, who has "seen everything" from his "cold window onto Amsterdam," can get the odds wrong.
Ostriker moves from direct to metaphoric language whenever she describes the speaker's cancer or the surgery she endures. Through the use of a series of metaphors, the speaker tries to find the right images to understand and express her experience. Her initial use of figurative language occurs in the first stanza when she describes herself lying on the operating table. Here the doctor becomes "a ship's captain" while she is a chart of the bay unfurled before him. Her confidence in him is reflected by her determination that there are no "reefs, no shoals" on the chart—no impediments to his successful navigation.
She extends the maritime metaphor a few lines later when she describes the effect that the anesthesia has on her. She feels as if she is underwater, swimming and eating with the fish, a rather peaceful and benign image. That tone, however, is modulated by her likening herself to the unemployed after "the drug sent [her] away." Here she suggests the powerlessness she feels regarding her body and what is happening to it. She can neither prevent the cancer from spreading, nor can she ensure that the doctor will perform the operation successfully, which she notes when she admits that she can only "assume" that he was careful.
In the third stanza, Ostriker begins a series of fruit metaphors that are used to characterize the way the speaker feels about her breast as it is being removed. This series is linked to the previous stanza when she uses the word "minces" to describe what the surgeon does in the operating room. In the operating room, he becomes a dark chef, as he "display[s]" the speaker's flesh "in pleated paper like a candied fruit." She knows that flesh is nondescript as "grass," little more than a covering for the important bodily organs, yet dreams about her own as ripe fruit. She wonders whether her flesh was "succulent" and "juicy" as "green honeydew," "a pomegranate full of seeds, or a watermelon" when he made his incision.
She extends the image of the pomegranate full of seeds to the Greek goddess Persephone, who, after eating some of the seeds from that fruit given to her by Hades, was forced to return to the underworld for a few months every year. "Those electric dots … kept that girl in hell" where, for those few months, she became "queen of death." The speaker imagines the seeds of Persephone's pomegranate as the cancer cells in her own breast, "jelly pips" that could also keep her in hell and make her the queen of death if they spread throughout her body.
The ripe fruit images suggest the speaker's feelings of fecundity and femininity, values associated with breasts. After the doctor is done knifing, chopping, and dividing her flesh, the fruit images, along with her sense of herself as a woman, disappear. At the end of the operation, he "scooped" up the ducts and the blubber, "spooned it off and away, nipple and all" in order to "[eliminate] the odds" that she will die.
The poem ends on an ambiguous note. The speaker does not know whether the cells that the doctor has removed along with her breast were "insignificant" or not. She acknowledges that they "might / Or might not have lain dormant forever," and thus she comes to an acceptance of her mortality and the part that luck plays in it, for this is an answer that she will never find. She is left with the experience of losing her breast, which she has tried, as part of the grieving process, to put into words in order to understand. In this sense, then, through the transforming power of poetry, while she may not be able to repair the crack in her world, she has been able to let some light through it.
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on "Mastectomy," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following essay, the critic gives a critical analysis of Ostriker's work.
Alicia Ostriker has published nine books of poetry and several works of feminist literary criticism that examine the relationship between gender and literature. In a comment that applies to both Ostriker's poetry and criticism, Amy Williams in Dictionary of Literary Biography noted how Ostriker "consistently challenges limitations. For discovery to take place there must be movement, and Ostriker refuses to stand still; each volume tries to uncover anew what must be learned in order to gain wisdom, experience, and identity. She is a poet who breaks down walls." In the Women's Review of Books, Adrian Oktenberg wrote: "One of the great pleasures in reading Ostriker is hearing her think out loud; putting her humanity fully on the page is one of her strengths as a writer." Calling Ostriker "America's most fiercely honest poet," Progressive contributor Joel Brouwer observed that she "puts the reader to work, and she blenches at nothing that experience offers up." According to Williams, Ostriker's voice is "personal, honest, and strong; her poetry incorporates family experiences, social and political views, and a driving spirit that speaks for growth and, at times, with rage."
In Ostriker's criticism, she argues that literature written by women can be tracked as a tradition. In Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women Poets in America, she asserts that women writers have produced poetry that is "explicitly female in the sense that the writers have chosen to explore experiences central to their sex." Furthermore, in their search to find an aesthetic that accommodates this expression, Ostriker claims that women poets are "challenging and transforming the history of poetry. They constitute a literary movement comparable to romanticism or modernism in our literary past."
These claims have evoked a wide range of response from reviewers. Frieda Gardner, writing in the Women's Review of Books, agreed that women have brought new subject matter to American poetry; the "thematic landscape" of literature now includes poems on "women's quests for self-definition, on the uses and treachery of anger, … female eroticism and, most impressively, on women poets' sweeping revision of Western mythology," according to Gardner. However, "lots of male poets grew fat on the ‘butter and sugar’ Ostriker calls peculiarly feminine," Mary Karr pointed out in a Poetry review. Reviewers also questioned the notion that poetry by women is unified by the concentrated "drive for power" that Ostriker sees in it. Nonetheless, stated Karr, "those predisposed to feminist criticism will eagerly take up these pages. At the other extreme, certain critics and philosophers will shudder at the very thought of women generating language, a practice they interpret as exclusively masculine."
The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions (1994) offers "an imaginative and spiritual dialogue with characters and narratives of the Old Testament," wrote Lynn Garrett in Publishers Weekly. By exploring both men's and women's stories from the Bible—from Adam and Eve to Job and Job's wife—and speaking through their voices, Ostriker attempts to offer a more humanized and modernized reading of the Bible, and in doing so, she attempts to reconcile the revisionism of feminism with the traditions of Judaism. She presents Esther through the lens of a post-Holocaust family party, and shows Job's wife as a bystander who must accept the "casual brutality of this world," according to Enid Dame in Belles Lettres. Ostriker's book is as grand and comprehensive as her subject, offering, noted Dame, "a retelling-with-commentary of Jewish scripture intertwined with a brilliant web of poems, stories, personal memoirs, scholarly observations, and speculative meditations." Ultimately, it is "in the reclamation of the Shekhina, or female aspect of God," stated Dame, that Ostriker finds a reconciliation between Judaism and feminism.
Dancing at the Devil's Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics, and the Erotic drew a great deal of praise for its observations on a multitude of poets, from John Milton and William Blake to Maxine Kumin and Lucille Clifton. Pif Magazine reviewer Rachel Barenblat maintained that, "for Ostriker, poems are both crucial and relevant. She respects poems, the way one respects magic or religion or anything that smacks of the ineffable." Noting that Ostriker approaches her subject matter with "passion and precision," Barenblat concluded: "Ostriker's criticism is grounded in her impressive knowledge of American literary traditions and their adherents. … This is a strong, compelling and beautiful collection of essays. I recommend it highly." In her review of the same title, Oktenberg stated: "As we follow [Ostriker] into her reading, we are more and more illuminated, not only intellectually but with a palpable, physical sense of expansion, and even spirituality. This is the best writing—it gets you at all levels." The critic concluded: "I would … recommend this book, and unhesitatingly, as one of the finest I have ever read."
In addition to her reputation as a feminist literary critic, Ostriker is also an accomplished poet. In 1986, the Poetry Society of America awarded her the William Carlos Williams Prize for The Imaginary Lover, and two of her works have been finalists for the National Book Award. Ostriker "is at her best when most urbane and ironic" in these poems that look back at marriage from the perspective of mid-life, said Times Literary Supplement contributor Clair Wills. "The actions are melodramatic, but the recording consciousness is steady," Patricia Hampl related in the New York Times Book Review. Since the poems often reflect on disappointment or loss, they have an elegiac tone. More noticeable, however, "is Mrs. Ostriker's tendency to locate a sustaining force for the rest of life—a force that is both passionate and honorable," Hampl observed. "This is evident in lines from ‘Everywoman Her Own Theology,’ in which Ostriker declares: ‘Ethically, I am looking for / An absolute endorsement of loving-kindness.’" At times, says Hampl, the poems lack music, but they charm the reader with their "candor and thoughtfulness."
Green Age (1989) is a book of poems that blends "personal time, history and politics, and inner spirituality," wrote Williams. As Robyn Selman noted in Village Voice, Ostriker's title denotes "the stage in a woman's life—after her children have left home, after the death of her parents—when her sense of herself is clear and muscular: a time of loss, but also of heightened awareness and passion." Ostriker offers love poems, poems which are forceful and persuasive, and poems which, according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "sympathize and nurture, affirming life," as when the poet states: "Friend, I could say / I've been alive a half a dozen moments / but that's not true / I've been alive my entire time / on this earth / I've been alive."
The pieces in The Crack in Everything are "accomplished poems," declared a Publishers Weekly reviewer. To quote Patricia Monaghan in Booklist, the poems are "grounded in the details of a woman's daily life and speak with the appeal of an intelligent, sympathetic friend," making the work feel as if it possesses "a quality of being overheard." The topics of some of Ostriker's poems range from the rape of a mentally retarded girl by her high school classmates to the bombing of MOVE in Philadelphia, so that her poems feel, according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, as though "a broad-based politics enters this work routinely, like the morning news." The long sequence, "The Mastectomy Poems," which concludes the collection, movingly address the poet's successful treatment for cancer, "in a frank and liberating clarity," stated Steven Ellis in Library Journal, as Ostriker refers to how "cells break down, their membranes crushed / Where the condemned / Beg for forgetfulness."
The Little Space: Poems Selected and New 1968-1998 expresses itself as an autobiography in poetry form, as the volume begins with the birth of Ostriker's child and moves through the changes that age wreaks in relationships between mates, between parents and children, and within the poet's sense of herself. Nominated for a National Book Award, The Little Space was described by Judy Clarence in the Library Journal as a "lively and moving collection," containing poems that "move into deeper levels of mystery and spirituality." A Publishers Weekly contributor maintained that the poems are "simultaneously funny and tragic, intense and conversational, politically charged and personally graphic," and that the book reveals a writer "with a rare intelligence."
Ostriker told CA: "All poets have their chosen ancestors and affinities. As an American poet I see myself in the line of Whitman, Williams, and Ginsberg, those great enablers of the inclusive democratic impulse, the corollary of which is formal openness. As a student I wrote in traditional closed forms, as did they—before they discovered the joy and meaning of open forms. To write in open forms is to improvise. Improvisatory verse is like doing a jazz solo: we know what we've just done, and the next line has to be connected to it, has to grow out of it somehow, but there is an essential unpredictability. This is an American invention because we act, in America, as if the future is partly shaped by the past, but is not determined by it. We are (a little bit) free. As a poet of the spirit, I have always been inspired by the great heterodox visionaries—Whitman since childhood, Blake since my student days, and H. D. since the 1980's when I discovered that she was not a minor imagist but the exquisite peer and rival of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Wrestling with the Bible, I am Blake's daughter; trying to imagine the divine Feminine, I am H. D.'s child. I am also in love with the poetry of Lucille Clifton, whom I believe to be the most important spiritual poet writing today. And then there are John Donne, George Herbert, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. As for the women poets who have influenced my poetry and my life, they are probably countless—but among them are Emily Dickinson, Louise Bogan, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich, May Swenson, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Maxine Kumin, Marge Piercy, June Jordan, Sharon Doubiago, Sharon Olds, Ntozake Shange, Toi Derricotte, and (as said before), H. D., and Lucille Clifton.
"People who do not know my work ask me what I write about. I answer: love, sex, death, violence, family, politics, religion, friendship, painters and painting, the body in sickness and health. Joy and pain.
"I try not to write the same poem over and over. I try to stretch my own envelope, to write what I am afraid to write. Composing an essay, a review or a piece of literary criticism, I know more or less what I am doing and what I want to say. When I write a poem, I am crawling into the dark. Or else I am an aperture. Something needs to be put into language, and it chooses me. I invite such things. ‘Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me,’ as D. H. Lawrence says.
"I write as an American, a woman, a Jew, a mother, a wife, a lover of beauty and art, a teacher, an idealist, a skeptic. Critics seem often to remark that I am ‘intelligent’—but I see myself also as passionate. Actually, I am a combination of mind, body, and feelings, like everyone else, and I try to get them all into play.
"When I give poetry readings, my hope is to make people in my audience laugh and cry. They often do. The gamble is that my words will reach others, touch their inner lives. When I write literary criticism, I try to see and say clearly what is actually there in the work of other poets. Teaching is extremely important to me, my students are important, I try my best to awaken them to the delight of using their minds. Although clarity is unfashionable, I encourage it. When I teach midrash writing workshops—midrash is an ancient genre which involves elaborating on Biblical stories and characters—I want people to discover how powerfully the Bible speaks to the issues of our own time: gender roles, family dynamics, social class, freedom and slavery, war and peace, fear of the stranger, and the need to overcome that fear. These are my issues, too."
Source: Thomson Gale, "Alicia (Suskin) Ostriker," in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2002.
In the following review, Hacker focuses on the sometimes conflicting identities in the poems in the collection. She argues that the poems reaffirm "the poet's unique and contradictory role, at once storyteller and witness … [of the] spectrum of human possibilities."
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
Blood, or dollars. My friends and neighbors
Of paint, would you believe it, paintslabs
Right down to the kishkes, as my grandfather
Like bandaged Andy, not smart enough to
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
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
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 recombining the spectrum of human possibilities.
Source: Marilyn Hacker, "Tectonic Shifts: A Review of The Crack in Everything," in Nation, Vol. 264, No. 18, May 12, 1997, pp. 54-57.
In the following review, Taylor finds a wide range of subjects and themes in the collection. In "The Mastectomy Poems," he finds that the "disparate cracks" that the speaker observes in others, appear in the speaker's own world.
Alicia Suskin Ostriker's new collection 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 goodbye / … 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 socioeconomic realities, do not these grave gestures and the random, telling remembrances that follow ("A pair of buttersoft, 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: John Taylor, Review of The Crack in Everything, in Poetry, Vol. CLXX, No. 3, June 1997, pp. 174-77.
In the following review, Townsend finds the poems in the collection both "heartbreaking and healing." She claims that Ostriker forges a strong connection between self and world, and is "immediate, passionate and direct."
Rilke once said, "Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something that wants help from us." Each of these three poets writes about something terrible, transforming it with the intelligence and beauty of her art. Against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and her brother's suicide, Roseann Lloyd confronts incest, abuse and alcoholism. Lucille Clifton writes movingly of cancer and mastectomy. Alicia Ostriker examines illness and healing from breast cancer, as well as the power of poetry in an imperfect and increasingly dangerous world.
Near the end of the title poem in War Baby Express, Roseann Lloyd asks "What is left, then, at the end of grief?" The response is "a voice that bears witness/ to human pain." Lloyd's luminous second collection bears witness to the development of that steady and authentic voice against nearly overwhelming odds.
The speaker in these poems goes on a journey propelled by loss: beginning with the drug overdose of her artist brother at 21, and continuing through the losses inflicted by sexual abuse and battering, the poems in the opening section comprise the landscape the poet traverses to move from "a place of pain" to the peace attained at the end of the book.
The metaphor of the journey first appears in the incantatory "Angles of Vision." In this hypnotic gathering of evidence, the speaker literally walks herself back through her terrible memories, knowing that when I'm walking it's the movement that counts thinking whatever flits across my mind the way a cat tracks each purple shadow catching the grass &
when I'm walking I let
myself think about the
doctors who thought my
symptoms indicated a
tumor buried deep inside
Here are the after-effects of incest. The walking in the poem provides a perfect meditative structure for remembrance that is both rhythmic and obsessive, that permits the speaker to link seemingly disparate experiences into a coherent whole. As she walks, she allows herself to think about the unthinkable: incest, its lingering physical and psychological symptoms, her father's violence toward her brothers, her brother's suicide, her husband's "violent silence" in the face of it all. The poem walks/works its way through the past, up to a present where the speaker is "not afraid any more':
walking up the canyon …
the knapweed up to
the purple lupine the fringed
gentian the scarlet gilia
& on up to the shooting stars
walking into my life walking
up the canyon I never
reach the end of
Reading this poem, I had the feeling that the rhythm of the body, the actual walking woman, had made it possible.
One of the pleasures of reading Lloyd's work derives from her completely unobtrusive technical skill. In "Angles of Vision" she uses repetition, mid-line caesuras and lack of punctuation to capture the halting, eliding movement of memory and mind on the page. In other more directly narrative poems, such as the stunning "Cloud of Witnesses, All Saint's Day" and "County Mental Health Clinic, 1976," she employs a longer, almost Whitmanesque, iambic line and mostly endstopped couplets that underscore the pain and solemnity of wife abuse.
When I told the story of how he beat me
up, why, and how,
his face cracked like neglected plaster
in an empty house.
I could never believe it was happening.
It was always a shock to be slammed
sideways against a door.
He was careful not to break my glasses.
Bruises—raw umber—don't show on
the back of the head.
These lines have a cumulative power that builds into one of the most affecting poems of witness I have read in recent years.
The feature of Lloyd's work I find most appealing is what I can only describe as her undefendedness. There is no pretense or posturing in these poems. This is a poet who has fought to understand things exactly as they are, and is not afraid to name them. Despite the painful stories at the core of this book, it is full of redemption and grace. In one of my favorites, "Tenderness," the poet sits in the hospital with a sick friend:
I want to tell you
how your hand held on to mine like a
& you said, will you stay until If fall
& I sat there for a long time
& felt close to you peaceful in the white,
still room holding you to earth.
Long one of my favorite poets for the courage of her art, in this collection Lloyd is both stylistically original and emotionally whole, transforming the landscape of loss into one of possession.
The journey Lucille Clifton undertakes in The Terrible Stories begins in the interior and moves outward into the world. This movement is established in "Telling Our Stories," which serves as introduction and overture to the collection. The speaker recalls being summoned by a mysterious "fox that came every evening to my door/ asking for nothing." Trapped by fear, the speaker hopes to "dismiss her." But she cannot escape the message the fox brings:
child, I tell it was not
the animal blood I was hiding from,
it was the poet in her, the poet
and the terrible stories she could tell.
She enters into an almost shamanic relationship with this fox, who represents her instinctual/animal/creative self. Though her malaise is never named, it is clearly one of the soul, something that the fox knows about. In "One Year Later" she wonders
what if, …
entering my room,
brushing against the shadows,
lapping them into rust,
her soft paw extended,
she had called me out?
what if, …
I had reared up baying,
and followed her off
into vixen country?
what then of the moon,
the room, the bed, the poetry
The poet has not followed the fox, and yet by meditating on its image, something in her is transformed. In "a dream of foxes," the fox vanishes, becoming "a lovely line/ of honest women stepping/ without fear or guilt or shame/ safe through the generous fields."
The "terrible stories" Clifton tells in this collection are all powerful. But I found the most affecting sequence in the book to be "From the Cadaver," the poems about cancer and mastectomy. "What is the splendor of one breast/ on one woman?" she asks. In "lumpectomy eve" she describes the sense of loss "all night it is the one breast/comforting the other." And in "1994" she describes the fear of waking "into the winter/ of a cold and mortal body/ thin icicles hanging off/the one mad nipple weeping."
There is no self-pity here, however. What is here is a willingness to embrace our collective experience—"you must know all about this," she says, "from your own shivering life." Finally, there is hope. In the wonderfully spirited "hag riding," we wake with the speaker "to the heat of morning/galloping down the highway of my life" when
something hopeful rises in me
and I lob my fierce thigh high
over the rump of the day and honey
i ride i ride
Clifton's stripped-down lines, characteristically direct and unadorned language, lack of punctuation and gem-like metaphors all work to create a poetry so concentrated it bypasses the cerebral, traveling straight to the heart. Gritty and determined, these are poems that look mortality in the eye.
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 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
Here, in one seamless stanza, the speaker embraces self, family, friends, creative work and spirituality, making what must die away into life.
Like 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. Bookbag on her back, she is out the door, to whatever comes next. These strong, tough-minded, lyrical poems take us there too.
Though they begin from similar emotional points of reference, each of these three poets offers us a different perspective on loss, damage or fear and its transformation through the ritual of poem-making. Lloyd, whose work I find most direct, accessible and affecting, speaks in a voice that is both intimate and individual. Reading her is like sitting with a friend at a kitchen table, exchanging confidences over tea. Clifton, by contrast, is a myth-maker: her condensed, gem-like poems cast their spell from some source near the center of existence. Ostriker, though often tender, is overall witty and urbane, a poet of intellect whose voice is filtered through an acute social consciousness. But all speak with authenticity and authority, claiming the events of their lives and helping us to approach our own terrible stories in the process.
Source: Alison Townsend, "No Pain, No Gain," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 6, March 1997, pp. 12-13.
Dolin, Sharon, "How the Light Gets In," in American Book Review, Vol. 18, No. 6, September-October 1997, pp. 23, 24.
Earnshaw, Doris, Review of The Crack in Everything, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter 1997, p. 156.
Ellis, Steven R., Review of The Crack in Everything, in Library Journal, Vol. 121, No. 6, April 1, 1996, p. 87.
Hacker, Marilyn, "Tectonic Shifts," in Nation, Vol. 264, No. 18, May 12, 1997, pp. 54, 57.
Monaghan, Patricia, Review of The Crack in Everything, in Booklist, Vol. 92, No. 17, May 1, 1996, p. 1485.
Ostriker, Alicia Suskin, "Mastectomy," in The Crack in Everything, University of Pittsburg Press, 1996, pp. 88-89.
Review of The Crack in Everything, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 18, April 29, 1996, p. 63.
Review of The Crack in Everything, in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 73, No. 1, Winter 1997, p. 29.
Townsend, Alison, "No Pain, No Gain," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 6, March 1997, pp. 12, 13.
Benedet, Rosalind, and Bob Hogenmiller, After Mastectomy: Healing Physically and Emotionally, Addicus Books, 2003.
Benedet, an experienced oncology nurse who has helped hundreds of women recover from mastectomies, offers important guides to emotional and physical recovery, including reconstruction options. Hogenmiller provides detailed photographs of the surgery and of the healing process.
Lucas, Geralyn, Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy, St. Martin's Press, 2004.
The twenty-seven-year-old author, producer of the television show 20/20, chronicles her bout with breast cancer, including her emotional response and coping strategies pre- and post-surgery.
Perkins, David, A History of Modern Poetry, Vol. 2: Modernism and After, Belknap Press, 2004.
Perkins examines the works of individual poets published up to the twenty-first century as well as important movements such as modernism, beat poetry, and confessional poetry. He notes the distinctiveness and the interconnectedness among the poets in these movements and addresses the critical response to them over the years.
Spiegelman, William, How Poets See the World: The Art of Description in Contemporary Poetry, Oxford University Press, 2005.
Spiegelman investigates how poetry makes connections between the word and the image and offers insight into the processes of reading and interpretation. He also explores how word and image are influenced by biographical and cultural factors.