It was the four poems that appeared in the February 2011 issue of Poetry, each describing the world from the viewpoint of an old woman, a tulip, and a dog, that first alerted me to Alicia Ostriker. The old lady in these poems has attained a clarity of perception that contrasts with the dog's sensory overload and the tulip's propensity to being swayed by beauty, but is her clarity desirable? I became attached to these figurative voices, remembering them as I showered and cooked and ironed shirts at work. Eventually, I bought The Book of Seventy in the hope it might expand upon the ideas I'd first encountered in these poems.
Reading The Book of Seventy, you quickly learn that Ostriker aligns herself with the figurative old woman in hoping for, and to a degree attaining, a new perception of the world as she prepares to leave it. In 'Approaching Seventy', she refers to the paintings completed by de Kooning when he was suffering from Alzheimers;
A field of cerise another of lime
a big curve slashes across canvas
then another and here it is the lucidity
each of us secretly longs forBy rendering de Kooning's art in a style that parallels its lucidity, Ostriker hints that she has found what she longs for; her simple syntax and strict one clause = one line form are the linguistic equivalent of de Kooning's brushwork. This style, used throughout the book, is disarmingly peaceful; not every line screams for attention, and as a reader you are continuously occupied but never really stretched. The poems attain a sensory equilibrium, and make you feel as though you've attained it too.
But is old age as enlightenment available to everyone, is it the complete picture of Ostriker's old age? In the same poem, she acknowledges the fear that it is not, asking the reader, 'do you know what is meant by the tide', with reference to a preceding allegory about the tide coming in. Ostriker might be able to portray old age with figurative clarity, but she knows that this will not shield her from its realities.
Other poems expand upon this theme, explaining that Ostriker attributes her new found clarity of mind to the menopause; the 'swamp' of lust 'cleared from her mind'. She is becoming more like the old woman, and increasingly alienated from the dog in April who enjoys, 'a concerto of good stinks'. Yet she acknowledges some sadness at losing the sensation that previously cluttered her mind;
what a joke sex is, though without itIn one poem, Ostriker unambiguously portrays clarity and precision as an inadequate response to the human experience. 'Laundry' removes the line breaks that guide the reader slowly through this collection's other poems, replacing it with prose that jumps back and forth between Ostriker's beautifully clean bathroom and a US run Iraqi prison. She expresses disgust at the sanitized language used to describe human rights violations; 'hooding, waterboarding, rendition', by contrasting them with language that is appropriately grotesque, 'the nude prisoners have been formed into a pyramid... A stack of magnified calves' livers'. The former is whitewashing, 'The bleaching of the news. The rinsing and spinning'. So, there are still experiences which resist a calm response, to which a messy, sensory response is necessary.
no avenue to paradise
no human glue
The poems which inspired me to buy this collection aren't included, but the three allegorical figures do make one appearance, in 'The Blessing of the Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog', discussing what it means to them to feel blessed. The old woman's version of blessedness, 'God's love/ washes right through you/ like milk from a cow', represents the acceptance of an unstoppable process of change. But rather than building towards this pinnacle, Ostriker presents the old woman's perspective first, so the poem seems to slip away from it, and towards the more visceral blessings of the tulip and the dog. Ostriker may aspire to have, 'less interfering with my gaze', (from 'West Fourth Street'), but in her central allegory, the dog, whose perception is still muddied by his numerous attractions, has the last word.
To be blessed
said the dog
is to have a pinch
and all the other dogs
can smell it
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