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A Pinch of God

by Richard Silberg


The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog, by Alicia Suskin Ostriker, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014, 70 pages, $15.95 paper.


ALICIA OSTRIKER IS A MAJOR American poet. A septuagenarian—her next to last book of poems is The Book of Seventy—she’s got a distinguished body of poetry and prose to her credit. What a kick, then, that her new collection, The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog, is based in a sparkling new idea like nothing else I know of in her work.

The epigraph to her book is from Gertrude Stein: “A very important thing is not to make up your mind that you are any one thing.” And each of the characters in her title appears in that allotted order in each poem, holding forth on the poem’s given subject. The effect is of a chord of consciousnesses, a trinity of beings moving through life in parallax, each seeing things from a distinctive ontological angle. Here’s the first poem, “The Blessing of the Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog”:

To be blessed

said the old woman

is to live and work

so hard

God’s love

washes right through you

like milk through a cow


To be blessed

said the dark red tulip

is to knock their eyes out

with the slug of lust

implied by

your up-ended

skirt


To be blessed

said the dog

is to have a pinch

of God

inside you

and all the other dogs

can smell it

On the one hand, that poem shines with a directness, visceral energy, and perceptiveness, all of which characterize her work in general. On the other, though, its effect is comic. While her poetry is far from humorless, it’s rarely outright funny. Here, as in most of these poems, the dog is the designated comedian, his unfeigned egotism, the implied image of these dogs sniffing each other’s butts for the smell of God. Less specifically funny, more smile-provokingly clever, are the tulip’s egotism and the Marilyn Monroe-ish image of its “up-ended skirt.” But the conception, itself, the triple chorus idea for each poem, is where the basic comedy lies.

She lines them up in parallel. Except for occasional ellipses and em dashes, there’s no punctuation in these poems. In the poem above, each character is beginning with the ‘topic’ phrase, but while that’s not usually the case, the characters always speak equal numbers of lines in each poem, and each section begins with a single capital letter (unless there are proper nouns in what’s said). The order is important and stays the same throughout. So the old lady acts as straight woman—although she’s much more than that—and she sets the theme. Then we wait for the tulip and the dog to bend it to their tulipy and doggy situations.

The first poem also gives us a sense of characterization for each. The tulip is vain, stationary, aloof. The dog, diametrically, is all action, straightahead, go-get-‘em. And the old woman—our human counterpart—has depth and complexity, seems essentially to be the poet, herself. For instance, in “The Wind That Blows Through Me,” she more or less identifies herself as a writer:

I feel the hand of God inside my hand

when I write said the old woman

it blows me away like a hat

I’ll swear God’s needy hand is inside every atom

waving at us hoping we’ll wave back

We can’t jump so fast, though, because in the poem “Liberty” the old woman identifies herself as an immigrant:

Would you believe I started to cry

on the boat, when someone

pointed out her statue said the old woman

I had not a penny in my pocket

and I knew no street was paved with gold

but I walked off that boat like nobility

head like a torch held high

saved from the land that would have murdered me

The actual Alicia Ostriker, however, is a native New Yorker, although she would certainly empathize with a poor immigrant, very likely here a European Jew fleeing Hitler. So, apart from the fact that a written ‘I’ is necessarily something less than and different from an actual ‘I’, which every writer knows, we can’t be too one-to-one in pairing the poet with the old woman. Still, there’s the sense in this book that Ostriker has found a way of airing it out, of writing about ‘l ife’ through this ingenious literary device that gives her opining a comic perspective, that deflates the potential pomposity in poems about blessings or liberty or the numinous.

Comedy, though, isn’t the only, and maybe not even the main, thing that’s happening here. Take, for instance, the small poem “Deer Walk Upon Our Mountains,” whose title comes from Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning”:

When they see me said the old woman

they stop where they are

and gaze into my eyes for as long

as I am willing to stand there

in the wind

at the edge of the forest


You are speaking of my mortal enemy

said the dark red tulip

they have eaten many of my family

they do not spare children

they are pests

beauty excuses nothing


Oh cried the dog

the very thought of them

thrills me to the bone

the chase as much as the capture

the scent weaving ahead of me like a flag

saliva spinning from my teeth

That poem begins and ends with beautiful moments. There’s the old woman’s windy gaze, the enchanted immobility to start, and the flag-maddened motion that spins to its fine cadence at the end. Between, the tulip’s section is essentially witty and efficient, delivering her point of view. The whole poem, like all the poems in this collection, has a honed quality, the sense of being cut back to the purposes of its inspirational device. In so far as this poem is funny, the comedy works through the tulip, whose family is getting eaten by what the old woman finds so mesmerizing. But what it delivers, above all, is a kind of functional perfection, like some compact planet of deerness on which the dog’s day is simultaneously the tulip’s night, the old woman, we might say, embraces the horizon, and the reader is launched into orbit.

Functional perfection, then, in a basic idea something like real estate’s location, location, location, or the Jungian shadow side, or the proverbial to each his own. The rest is expression and invention, and the book is rich in both. Take “Ridiculous”—for brevity’s sake just the old woman and the dog:

This is ridiculous

said the literary old woman

nobody gives us any respect

the young in one another’s arms

are talking on their iPhones

the congressmen are lying through their teeth

and our husbands are watching the game


This is ridiculous

said the dog

now they not only have to walk me

they have to rush up after me with their

sanitary plastic bags

imposing their bourgeois values

on my spontaneous creativity

Among the delights here are Yeats’s line from “Sailing to Byzantium” —perfect allusion for the old woman—juxtaposed with iPhones, the laconic just-rightness of “the game,” the uninflected but heartfelt disgust in the “congressmen” line, all capped by the dog’s indignation.

Or the very short one “Try To”:

Try to love the mutilated world

said the old woman

shopping with Visa

for her granddaughter’s wedding dress


My heart is in the east and I

am in the uttermost west said the tulip

casting a gaze down

at the ants in their intricate paths


Shall there be no more cakes and ale

said the dog, tired

of the routines of city life

when do we go to the beach

Ostriker’s own notes give the three italicized quotes as a poem by Adam Zagajewski, one by the twelfth-century Judah Halevi, and Twelfth Night. As for my comment on these poems’ lack of punctuation, she does use a very occasional comma, as just above to avoid confusion with the expression ‘dog tired’. I’d just point to the quiet profundity of “the ants in their intricate paths” and the consummate comic dogginess of “when do we go to the beach.”

To look at one more, here’s the even shorter “Many Lives,” next to last poem in the collection:

Many lives said the old woman

the grains of sand add up

I have been a housefly and a queen


The grains of sand add up

to nothing said the lovely tulip

unless love waters them


Do you even know what love is

said the dog and are you sure

the grains of sand add up

Alicia Ostriker has written bigger books than this, and deeper, but not, I think, anything pithier or more delicious.

Alicia Suskin Ostriker reads at a benefit reception for Poetry Flash in Oakland, California, on October 25, 2014, and in the Garden Room of Edgehill Mansion at Dominican University, San Rafael, California, on October 27.

Richard Silberg is associate editor of Poetry Flash. His most recent books are The Horses: New & Selected Poems and Deconstruction of the Blues. He received the Northern California Book Award in Translation for his co-translation of Korean poet Ko Un's The Three Way Tavern; his new translation is I Must Be the Wind, poems by Moon Chung-Hee, co-translated with Clare You, from White Pine Press.


— posted October 2014
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