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Measureless Pleasure, Measureless Pain: Alicia Ostriker’s Men
[I participated in the panel “A Celebration of Alicia Ostriker” at AWP last weekend. Here’s what I said:]
Preparing for this panel, I tried to think of how to sum up my relationship to Alicia Ostriker’s writing—and realized I can’t do it. The work is too various—and I’m a lousy summer-upper. But reading and rereading poem after poem, I was struck by how often men enter into them. I was struck by how complex and various these men are. And to make a hideously blanket statement without backing it up, which I may regret, I thought how relatively seldom men do seem to show up in women’s poems, and how when they do, they tend not to have a great deal of nuance. So I picked out three poems that show three different sides of Ostriker—three poems that have been important to me. All of them involve men.
My comments on these poems will necessarily be brief and incomplete. But I will say that in general her men fall into several categories: 1) family members (mostly husband and son, but especially husband), 2) men in the news or in history (Nixon, soldiers, William Lloyd Garrison), 3) other men in passing—cab drivers, students, workers—and, 4) giving the husband a run for his money, artists.
First, from her recent book No Heaven:
Back in New York I grab a taxi at Port Authority,
A young Jamaican guy, then a big Af-Am guy in
A monster silver SUV tries to cut him off but he dashes
Round in front like a fox and then can’t move
So we’re sitting in the traffic people leaning
On their horns all around us and the big guy comes
Out and starts threatening my driver—I’m just out
Of jail—So go back to jail. No love lost it happens
All the time, They think they are tough and we are
Nothing, we think they are worse than nothing.
He’s been driving two years saving to go to school
To catch up on his computer design skills, the wife
Got impatient and cheated on him, he still sees his
Little daughter who is so pretty and smart she can
Read at the age of four. He’d like to be a better
Christian but working this job he gets in situations
Where he uses bad language. Next day another
Cabbie this one older we talk about Iraq and about power
I say we are seeing the defects of democracy
He says he doesn’t believe in democracy democracy
Is for the rich.
Went to Sheila’s, we walked on Riverside Drive as
The sun was setting bathing the high limbs of the elms
Coral, the trunks sinking into darkness, we were
Happy together and other walkers also looked happy
Trees tranquilly surviving blight seemed fine
A man passed us with a poodle so elegant it looked
Like a model on a runway.
Small kid on the crosstown bus, a high clear voice:
If you kick somebody, people won’t be your friend.
Woman next to me carries a large flat manila envelope
Her makeup is violent her middle-aged hair is lacquered
Her coat olive green embroidered cashmere expensive
I think art? photography? then I see the envelope says
X-rays, so it’s cancer.
The poet rushes around New York, not on foot but in cabs and on a bus, the 21st Century version of Frank O’Hara’s shoe leather wanderings and dashings. We get a lot of information about America in the pair of cabbie stories. There’s the dangerous-to-touch story of the relations between African-Americans and Jamaican immigrants. There’s the Jamaican guy’s life in a snapshot. And there’s the older cab driver, who is a kind of an oracle. These men are working class, human and likeable; they say interesting things. The guy with the poodle? A nifty little walk-on in the midst of a sort of pastoral-in-the-city respite with a friend. Till we get to the kid on the bus, the poem is a vivacious montage, both serious and light, with some really nice accelerations and downshifts in velocity and feeling. The kid makes the poem completely change direction. He’s not where the poem is going, but he’s the hinge that lets the thing move. What he says is fun: we shouldn’t kick anyone, not because it’s wrong but because of the repercussions: nobody will like us if we kick them. Out of the mouth of babes: Suddenly this poem about difficulty and race and democracy in America is also a poem about war, specifically, I think, in the context of this book and this poem, about the current war. I love that this poem makes this move, and I love that it doesn’t stop there.
In contrast to what came before, the final character is a woman, and she is middle class, and the poet doesn’t like her. She is looked at differently than the men. She is physically described. By contrast, the men are simply “young” or “big” or “older”—however, we can picture them quite clearly because their surroundings, actions, or props act as mirrors. Even the poodle is a kind of mirror for the cameo dog-walker. But: “Her makeup is violent her middle-aged hair is lacquered.” The most sisterly of poets is being, well, unsisterly. It’s a brilliant move. What’s happening here is a recognition. We understand that the poet knows something about cancer because she immediately knows the secret of this woman’s life once she sees the word ‘x-ray’. And because this woman comes after the montage about class and race and the war, she also becomes a kind of emblem of America itself, its privileged and impervious surface, with a cancer inside. That the poet sees herself in the woman suggests that she sees herself, and by extension, the reader, as complicit in America’s crimes. The central figure in the poem, then, is the woman on the bus. But she could not do everything she has to do for this poem without all of the men setting her up. The men reflect her world; she exists in a world of men.
Ostriker’s poem “Matisse, Too” appeared in Poetry in December, 2006.
Matisse, too, when the fingers ceased to work,
Worked larger and bolder, his primary colors celebrating
The weddings of innocence and glory, innocence and glory
Monet when the cataracts blanketed his eyes
Painted swirls of rage, and when his sight recovered
Painted water lilies, Picasso claimed
I do not seek, I find, and stuck to that story
About himself, and made that story stick.
Damn the fathers. We are talking about defiance.
This poem is about courage, about frailty, about how to keep going as an artist. And then—“Damn the fathers. We are talking about defiance.” Damn the fathers. The phrase tickles and fascinates. Is it a rejection of the patriarchy? Certainly that’s one idea that’s in the poem. And yet the father-artists have wedded innocence and glory, shown how to defy the loss of eyesight, how to control one’s own narrative. They are inspiring and interesting. Could defying the patriarchy be this poet’s big struggle, like Matisse’s arthritis, Monet’s cataracts, Picasso’s story? Could it also mean—damn worrying about the patriarchy: it’s not about gender, it is about art? Damn, then, these notions of how a contemporary woman artist is supposed to relate to the male masters? And even so, even still, damn the men? This poem contains all these ideas without resolving them: Negative Capability is possible in feminism.
Finally, The Mother/Child Papers is a sequence of poems and prose published in 1980 about the birth of a son in wartime—in this case it’s 1970: America has invaded Cambodia and shot its own children at Kent State. The men in this book-length poem are the son Gabriel, the husband, President Nixon, Dr. Keensmile, the condescending doctor who gives the poet Demerol without her permission during childbirth, boy students, boy soldiers, National Guardsmen, veterans. In the middle of it all, there is this extraordinary love poem:
The door clicks. He returns to me.
He brings fresh air in.
We kiss, we touch. I am holding the flannel-wrapped baby.
The girls run to him.
He takes his jacket off and waltzes
bundle over his shoulder.
We eat dinner, and evening falls.
I have bathed the girls. I walk by our broad bed.
Upon it rests a man
in a snow white shirt, like a great sleepy bird.
Next to him rests his seed, his son.
Lamplight falls on them both. If a woman looks, at such
a sight, is the felt pang
Is it measureless pain?
I end with this poem because it seems to me hard to talk about. It’s so simple and at the same time so mysterious. Pleasing domestic scene, happy family. That’s the first two stanzas. The third stanza turns sexy, and eerie. A woman looks at her man, and he is animal and he is Fatherhood with a capital F and he is, in that white shirt, both purity and civilization. He is intimately familiar and inaccessible. And then the fourth stanza—“If a woman looks”—she may not look. Anyone may recognize the feeling here, the shock of love that keeps getting renewed, and the way that love is this hybrid thing made up of pleasure and of pain. It’s a place of discomfort and excitement—just as a good poem is a place of discomfort and excitement. The man in this poem is the poem. Like a poem, he takes away the familiar, via the familiar. The poet lets him. She can’t help letting him. This is feminist poetry about living with men.