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POETRY MONDAY: March 3, 2014

Dropped on:March 3, 2014
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Alicia-ostriker

Alicia Suskin Ostriker

The Old Woman, the Tulip and the Dog, by Alicia Suskin Ostriker.
Pitt Poetry Series. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014.

Why a review instead of a new-poet feature this month? Because next month is the official “pay attention to poetry” month, when we will all be bombardedwith press releases and “Hey, look at me!” e-mails and posters featuring poetry, and one book – one marvelous book – might possibly get lost in the fight for our attention.

It’s rare that a book with such a modest voice but such a commanding presence makes this reader want to set everything aside to revel in it and talk about it, but here it is. The journey it takes us on is existential, and the collection a tour de force.

“A very important thing is not to make up your mind that you are any one
thing,” said Gertrude Stein, whom Ostriker quotes in her epigraph, readying us for what is to follow: a tripartite self in dialogue.

Some of you may remember “The Blessing of the Old Woman, the Tulip, and the  Dog,” which appeared in her prize-winning collection, The Book of Seventy:

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

This was my first introduction to these three characters who, on second thought, may not be talking to each other at all but rather addressing the audience in a series of plain-language dramatic asides. We can almost see them on the stage, casting an occasional sly look or even a wink at one or both of their companions.

What Ostriker goes on to do here is take her cast on a long, philosophical journey, replete with the wisdom of experience. Each poem in the collection has a different title and theme, but they are all essential to the theme of our passage through life. At one point – and toward the end, at another, she actually places them on stage:

The Moment on Stage I

I am
happy to be
here
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

Don’t be misled by the simplicity of the language here; this is a perfectly crafted poem. The line break in the first stanza, for example, reminds us that every aspect of form enhances meaning:

I am happy to be
here

With most poetry collections, I have favorites – one or two that I know will draw me back again, that I will mark for saving and reading aloud to anyone who will listen (usually students, a captive audience). Not so with this one. I savored ever poem in it, couldn’t put it down, intend to recommend it, first to you, dear readers, and then to other poetry lovers in whatever remote places they can be found.

Irene Willis
Poetry Editor

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