The Arty Semite

The Tenderness of Age

By Rodger Kamenetz

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Each Thursday, The Arty Semite features excerpts and reviews of the best contemporary Jewish poetry. This week, Rodger Kamenetz introduces “The Change” by Alicia Ostriker. This piece originally appeared on August 3, 2001, as part of the Forward’s Psalm 151 series. It is being published here online for the first time.

Ms. Ostriker has published nine books of poetry, full of biblical and Jewish themes with a feminist approach. Her most recent book, “The Little Space: Poems Selected and New” (Pittsburgh, 1998), was a National Book Award finalist in 1998. “The Nakedness of the Fathers: Visions and Revisions” (Rutgers, 1994), her study of Midrash, may also be read as an autobiography.

In this suite of five poems, Ms. Ostriker touches deeply on the experience of role reversal. The simple story line is familiar: A daughter removes her aging mother from her home, sells her house and places her in a nursing home. We see the mother stripped of her familiar surroundings and of her dignities — but we see the speaker, the poet, also reverting. Ms. Ostriker’s carnal, unflinching view brings us back to the pity of the body and reminds us of our vulnerabilities and our tenderness.

The Change

1 — memory

I wanted to forget that I drank your milk
I wanted to uncurl your grip
and forget your sour smell

your voice pursued me into the tunnel
I ran splashing through puddles
it grew darker

I am afraid of rats and of darkness in strange places
the echo of gongs faded
I was in this concrete pebbly tube

finally it was completely dark
and so dank no breeze
no glimmer even of steel track

but the odor of mud
old snakeskins
hair

2 — about to sell your house

yard overrun with raspberries
canes across the front walk
I fill two quart containers

with plump red berries
eating as I go
scratches inscribe my arms

I have hired someone to cut it all down
after you leave so this is the last crop
the fruit delightfully tender to the fingers

to the tongue deliciously sweet and tart
you would like me to eat it all
leave nothing for the neighbors

I am your child
you want to do something for me
mother, I am sixty-two

at last able to speak the sentence
I love you—I say it
before getting into the car

3 — physical examination

you sit on the examination table
white hair flying
telling your tale

I sit on the leatherette and chrome chair
over your shoulder I look at the degrees
the aluminum shelves

the kindly doctor moves his hand
you remove your cotton blouse
lay it aside you wear no brassiere

you reveal your breasts
with their brown aureolas
my mouth waters

4 — rewind

in the communal dining room
many of the residents scream

one woman repeats I’m good, I’m good
many sit and say nothing at all

you write a poem calling them wounded animals
we move you to a better wing

you claim someone has stolen your bathing suit
you tell people you love them

you sit with your ear to the cassette player
listening to a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt

when you came you had forgotten how to cook
you were living on saltines
my mother my queen
 now you gain weight
here is the photo of you dancing
that was in the newspaper

I saved your writing even the scraps
I saved the letters praising you as a teacher
today you have wet yourself you have soiled your underpants
I embrace you when I arrive and when I leave

5 — memory

first dream I remember
maybe I was three
wearing a little coat
you were pushing a baby carriage
down the block away from me
you were running
my mother my queen
I was trying to catch you


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: The Change, Rodger Kamenetz, Alicia Ostriker, Poetry, National Book Award

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