Jim Schley's Essays

The Book of Seventy and The Mother/Child Papers, by Alicia Suskin Ostriker (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009)

In the spiritual tradition of memento mori (from Latin, "remember you will die"), a devotee meditates upon death's certainty, which despite our denials or distractions we're each approaching, gradually or at breakneck speed.

Why would anyone willingly contemplate death? Picture a youthful monk, grasping and gazing at a skull with empty eye sockets and bony grin. In art, the challenge is to beguile and engage sufficiently so that an observer effectively encounters registers the enormity of our shared, inevitable catastrophe, overcoming the natural desire to look away.

The Book of Seventy succeeds in making the "matter" of aging — bodily fatigue and mental dismay, vanishing beloveds and the hazards of longevity — fascinating and deeply moving. This is our prospect, after all, and Ostriker offers her poems to be of service, but not merely to console.

Ostriker's new book is published concurrently with a handsome new edition of Ostriker's 1980 book The Mother/Child Papers, which builds an equation between the Vietnam War, specifically the covert bombings of Cambodia, and a dreadfully invasive childbirth experience, those two realms entwined in the killing by National Guardsmen of four students at Kent State University in May, 1970.

Almost thirty years later, the audacity of Ostriker's collision of private and public still shocks and grips. Yet gone is any idea that either of her subjects — an involuntary epidural and diabolical military adventurism — are unsuitably "poetic." Thanks to Ostriker and her companions in the furious literary insurrection of the past three decades, there is no subject out of bounds any more, and no writerly strategy now forbidden.

The Book of Seventy has a less overtly provocative style and structure, yet in some respects the poems are even more defiant, daring a reader to fully confront repellant truth.

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

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

sink to a spark

Her artfulness is nearly transparent, virtuosity that only comes with decades of practice in life, in art. Without punctuation, the words insist upon careful parsing, moving rapidly but taken in more slowly, the slippage of phrases from line to line catching the mind's skidding awareness as expository prose never could. Right from the start of this book of chaptered sequences and series, Ostriker confidently offers as refracting mirror a contemplative "we" (in other poems transmuted to "you") that effectively includes anyone willing.

Over and over, a reader is struck by the combined formality yet flexibility of Ostriker's writing. Imbued with literary resonance, in diction and metaphorical acumen, frequently in these poems "traditional" and "experimental" are married and merged, in ways both exciting (because startling) and satisfying (as contrasts are harmonized).

What is "mastery" of an art? In Ostriker's twelfth book of poems, the evidence includes sureness and speed of impact, as she repeatedly adapts the age-old craft she clearly loves to the immediate urgencies she perceives.

Our elegant Japanese maple
stands in a pool of rubies
or dried blood

like a dancer
who has just received
the biopsy report from the lab

and for a moment thinks
how can this be happening to me
I did everything right

Like Maxine Kumin in her recent book Still to Mow, Ostriker presses together moments of detailed domestic intensity with sudden recognitions of the world's surrounding wars and hardship and ecological hazard. In "Laundry," the poet's vessel is a denser, brooding prose, resistant to the elegance so evident elsewhere in this book, with darting, interruptive links between forms of awareness:

Just finished folding laundry. There's the news. A slender prisoner, ankles shackled, nude back and legs striped by a brown substance you might take for blood but which is probably feces, hair long, arms extended like a dancer's, walks toward a soldier with rolled-up pants and a gun, posed legs akimbo tough boots in the tiled corridor. I cannot say from the image if the soldier is smiling, too few pixels to tell. . . .

The correct word is not prisoner. The correct word is detainee.

Speaking of correctness, some other terms have lately come into play: hooding, waterboarding, rendition. The bleaching of the news. The rinsing and spinning. Some of the laundry items are not quite dry, a knit sweater of mine, a flannel of his. I hang them on plastic hangers in the bathroom. The bathroom is tiled in white, the tub is tourmaline. . . . The mirror ponders a rebuke.

For a poet whose endeavor is inseparably artistic and civic, the language supplies its capacity for multilayered thinking and feeling: a mind's movement into, not averted from, difficult insight.

In the poem "Burnt Norton," T.S. Eliot asserts, "Human kind / Cannot bear too much reality." In actuality we bear what we can. There are many among us bearing mind-boggling suffering, and admittedly most readers of this season's new books will be far more avid to buy "escapist" thrillers or cheery consoling self-help manuals. But ask yourself: Am I looking for guidance through the harrowing of aging and ambivalent imperial citizenship? You could do no better than to seek out these books, new and reissued, by the masterful Alicia Ostriker.

—A slightly different version of this review appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on January 17, 2010.