Thursday, June 18, 2015

Nina Tassi on Alicia Ostriker - Review

Alicia Suskin Ostriker, The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014.  69 pages, paper. $15.95U.S.  ISBN 13: 978-0-8229-6291-5.

At a recent reading, Alicia Ostriker confessed her surprise—being a serious woman, she said, when the three extraordinary characters who eventually gave the title to her new book, The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog, popped up and began talking to her. Lucky poet, because all three are a sheer delight to meet.

Each of the forty-two poems in this slim volume contains three stanzas, in which these characters take the stage in turn, with an equal number of lines allotted to each. They address the subject at hand, whether it be life, liberty, nature, religion, love, evil, anger, or war. Ostriker said that she was not certain which of the three characters represents her—perhaps the tulip. All of them, it seems, are aspects of her poetic psyche, delving into earthly life from three perspectives: human, plant, and animal.

What is one to get out of these poems besides pure enjoyment? Well, culled wisdom for one thing, as well as a sense of the multiplicity of possible views of existence. This gem of a collection offers humor, wit, stunning lyricism, always surprise. The language is outstanding not only for its conciseness which appears utterly natural, but for its deceptive simplicity, its everyday idiom—wherein its power resides.

In the poems, the characters compete to win dominance for their views, often slyly undermining one another. Humor, wit, earthy expressions become the vehicles of common sense, deflating excessive poetic rhetoric and overblown emotions.  “The Moment on Stage I.” for instance, moves from self-dramatization to playfulness in the moment:

I am
happy to be
said the fragile old woman

when my beauty
fades I
shall die
said the dark red tulip

Come on and
throw me
that Frisbee
said the dog (30).

Ostriker celebrates with fun the simple supremacy of life. In “Church,” here is how the dog says it: “I ain’t nothing but a hound dog/cryin’ all the time/nothin’/but a hound dog cryin’/said the dog/but the preacher says/no matter/how blue I may get/I am a damn sight better/than a dead lion” (33-34).

Although Ostriker gives equal time to all three characters, it is no accident that the dog gets the last stanza every time. Bawdy though he is, or maybe because he is, the dog wins the poet’s deepest sympathy. She knows how he feels, and admires his devotion to humans even when some (or many) are undeserving. This dog is authentic, true to himself, and can express outrage with a sharp bite, as in the last stanza of “Anger II: The Rape:” “Definition of a bleeding heart—/you could not bear to look/so you crossed the street and did nothing to stop/ the man on the corner with the stick/beating me said the dog belligerently” (51).

“In War Timeis chilling. It uses ordinary words and phrases, turning them to exceptional effect, creating layers of metaphor in the most matter-of-fact tone.  The poet’s passion comes through as she decries all wars and the most horrifying of events, the Holocaust.

Ah here you are at last
sorry about the guards
I hope they didn’t give you much trouble
I was afraid you’d never make it
across the river before curfew
let me take your coats
said the old woman

Thank you
how could we possibly pass up
such a sweet invitation
but let me tell you
said the tulip
when we reached the bridge we saw
the river was full of corpses

A dog too can be afraid
despite an appearance of ferocity
navigating unfamiliar streets
dodging unpredictable explosions
still one persists in one’s errand
here we are said the dog
thank you I will keep my coat (61).

This collection presents an exceptional poet’s argument with herself. It is brilliant, daring, earthy, proclaiming that there is no substitute for life and the living of it.

Ostriker, author of 15 poetry collections, including The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems, 1979-2011, and The Book of Seventy, has received numerous awards, among them the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement and the National Jewish Book Award. A finalist twice for the National Book Award, she is professor emerita of English at Rutgers University and teaches in the low-residency MFA program of Drew University.

-Nina Tassi has published three books: Urgency Addiction (nonfiction), The Jeremiah Tree, and Antarctic Visions (poetry), and has recently completed a new collection, Spirit Ascending.

Copyright 2015 by Nina Tassi - All Rights Reserved