Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Crack in Everything: Metaphor and Love in The Poetry of Alicia Ostriker

At first I was going to entitle this post Departure. It is a slight detour from my current series My Top Ten Pittsburgh Poets. But only slight. For some time, Ostriker's poems have found a home at the University of Pittsburgh Press with more than half of her dozen collections of poetry being published in the Pitt Poetry Series. And since I met her in 2006, her work (Ostriker is also a world-class scholar, essayist, non-fiction writer, lecturer, literary critic, social reformer, feminist, wife, mother, daughter, friend), has found a place in my life, my writing life, my soul. I will attempt to limit my remarks to a small portion of her capacious body of work in poetry.

I decided to borrow the title of Ostriker's National Book Award nominated collection, The Crack in Everything, as she borrowed it from Leonard Cohen (There is a crack, a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in), because it seems to celebrate life and art in the same way that Ostriker does: by not stepping over the cracks on the sidewalk, but by working one's toe into them (even if it breaks your mother's back), testing to see if they crumble to reveal a pit to be avoided or a root system that connects at a deep level what appears on the surface to be isolated, individual organisms, but is rather one living tree of life. I also decided to use the title of her book because just last night I had the privilege of hearing her read from it once again. (Ostriker is a faculty member of the conference going on this week at Dominican University on The Healing Art of Writing.)

Section IV is entitled The Mastectomy Poems. The series is a master class in metaphor, which Ostriker defines as the "intuitive similarity in dissimilars." Their language is at once gorgeous, erotic, ambiguous, tragic and comedic. Below is a compilation of Ostriker's own explanation of the most salient passages of metaphor in the poem, "Mastectomy," and my own observations.


for Alison Estabrook

I shook your hand before I went.
Your nod was brief, your manner confident,
A ship's captain, and there I lay, a chart
Of the bay, no reefs, no shoals.
While I admired your boyish freckles,
Your soft green gown with the oval neck,
The drug sent me away, like the unemployed.
I swam and supped with the fish, while you
Cut carefully in, I mean
I assume you were careful,
They say it took you an hour or so.

The metaphors in this passage, as well as in others, serve both to unite the things compared and to provide a distance, a separation between them. This process is not a neat or tidy one--just as in the case of lovers, the goal is to lose identity and to further define it.

Comparing the surgeon to a ship's captain, and the body of her patient to "a chart/Of the bay, no reefs, no shoals," elucidates both the metaphrands (the patient/her body) and the metaphiers (the captain, the chart). This surgeon (like a ship's captain who has navigated the waters of numerous bays), is as experienced performing this surgery on the patient's body as the captain is charting her course through the bay. But notice how the unspoken images of the surgeon and the waiting body of the patient lend meaning to the work of the ship captain who surgically navigates through the open body of water lying before her. This unspoken gesture, this holding back is what adds to the eroticism of the passage that would be spoiled with simile. The further details of "no reef, no shoals" provides more interest as we approach the images: this body, this procedure, is uncomplicated, straightforward--an additional reason for the "manner confident." In addition the choice of "bay" rather than ocean or river or lake (which would all give different slants to the roles of captain, chart, physician, patient), as the body of water connotes a place one returns to: home, hearth, family, safety, the consummate place of nurturing.

A similar analysis could be made of lines 7-8, as well as in the first half of the ultimate stanza:

Was I succulent? Was I juicy?
Though flesh is grass, I dreamed you displayed me
In pleated paper like a candied fruit.
I dreamed you sliced me like green honeydew,
Like a pomegranate full of seeds,
Tart as Persephone's, those electric dots
That kept that girl in hell,
Those jelly pips that made her queen of death.
Doctor, you knifed, chopped and divided it
Like a watermelon's ruby flesh
Flushed a little, serious
About your line of work
Scooped up the risk in the ducts
Scooped up the ducts
Dug out the blubber
Spooned it off and away, nipple and all.
Eliminated the odds, nipped out
Those almost insignificant grains that might
Or might not have lain dormant forever.

This is poetry at its highest function: to express love of language and life by shining the light of metaphor on both to discover inherent connections--the chiefest among them in this volume residing in "the cracks." Not just in the The Mastectomy Poems, but in the entire work, Ostriker exposes these cracks, these seams, the hidden zippers in fabrics that cover us, and artfully (even with humor) undresses one reality in order to reveal another--and to be revealed by them both. This is the reason one must read in order to write. And I have found no one better to read than Alicia Ostriker to discover what one didn't know that one knew. I can think of no better place to start reading her than with The Crack in Everything--you'll find her love (metaphors) shining on all the cracks--even yours--and you just might find your own metaphors, as well.

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