Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Best American Poetry 2012: Hanging out with Friends: Alicia Ostriker

Alicia Ostriker is a friend of "The Widening Spell." (See "The Crack in Everything: Metaphor and Love in the Poetry of Alicia Ostriker," 07-12-12.) Her poems connect with the literary canon all the way back to the first Greek poets, to Blake (a favorite of hers), to Whitman (in particular), and to countless other master poets who have sung the pain and the passion of life--both of humans and of all other sentient beings.

And Ostriker is also a friend of Best American Poetry. Her significant work has found its place in many of its issues. "Song" is a deceptively simple poem in three stanzas that I share here as gateway to the best poetry being written today, and to her best poetry written over several decades.


Some claim the origin of song
was a war cry
some say it was a rhyme
telling the farmers when to plant and reap
don't they know the first song was a lullaby
pulled from a mother's sleep
said the old woman

A significant
factor generating my delight in being
alive this springtime
is the birdsong
that like a sweeping mesh has captured me
like diamond rain I can't
hear it enough said the tulip

lifetime after lifetime
we surged up the hill
I and my dear brothers
thirsty for blood
our beautiful songs
said the dog

Unless you know Ostriker's work, you might not see "Song" as her metaphoric "Song of Herself" (with all connections intended), looking backward "lifetime after lifetime" and forward, singing "a lullaby" to the future, while celebrating the present "delight in being/alive in this springtime." Each stanza not only connects with all three dimensions, but also with noteworthy images in her (and in her poetry guides') previous work.

In "the first song...a lullaby/pulled from a mother's sleep/said the old woman" of stanza 1, I hear Whitman singing of "The little one sleep[ing] in its cradle" and then "lift[ing] the gauze...and silently brush[ing] away flies."

In "the birdsong/that like a sweeping mesh has captured me" of stanza 2, I hear the "tuwees" of "Birdcall," Ostriker's opening poem in her book, No Heaven (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005):

Tuwee, calls a bird near the house,
Tuwee, cries another, downhill in the woods.
No wind, early September, beeches and pines,

Sumac aflame, tuwee, tuwee, a question and a faint
But definite response, tuwee, tuwee, as if engaged
In a conversation expected to continue all afternoon.

Or in a conversation expected to continue for lifetimes.

And in "surg[ing] up the hill/I and my dear brothers/thirsty for blood/uttering/our beautiful songs/said the dog," of stanza 3, I hear Ostriker's other dogs, part of the pack of "The Dogs at Live Oak Beach, Santa Cruz"

As if there could be a world
Of absolute innocence
In which we forget ourselves

The owners throw sticks
And half-bald tennis balls
Toward the surf
And the happy dogs leap after them
As if catapulted--

These "black dogs, tan dogs,/tubes of glorious muscle" are not the same dogs as the ones "thirsty for blood," because their beach world "of absolute innocence" is not the world where their brothers "surge up the hill" (in order to capture it, not enjoy it). They still have the same teeth that "snap and sink...into floating wood." But these teeth are now in the service of something outside of (but not greater than) themselves:

[They] bound back to their owners
Shining wet, with passionate speed
For nothing,
For absolutely nothing but joy.

This "Song" of Alicia Ostriker is the song of all of us. It too, is for nothing but joy."

Alicia, you can come to the party anytime, because you bring the party with you!

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