The Arty Semite

National Poetry Month: Old Men, Scattered

By Dan Friedman

  • Print
  • Share Share

Alicia Ostriker is a major American poet, critic and teacher. Recently a participant in the Forward’s “3 Alicias 3” event (part of our Jewish Art for the New Millennium series) and a judge for our Triangle Fire Poetry competition, Ostriker has twice been nominated for a National Book Award.

An emeritus professor of Rutgers Ostriker has taught across the world and has been published in many major periodicals (The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Nation, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, The Atlantic). In recent years she has shown increasing interest in her Jewish heritage, culminating (thus far) in winning the Jewish Book Award for Poetry in 2009 for “The Book of Seventy.”

The two poems below come twenty years apart but show a similar oscillation between metaphor and subject, between foreground and background, between the context and the observation. In the earlier one, forebears (the “old men” of the title) are compared to a God, for the purpose, it later seems of showing why old men evoke the idea of a God that stretches into a vast kindly past.

The allusion to the narrator’s grandfather playing chess with “Yiddish Socialists in Heaven” who are somehow less than kin, more than kind and stuck in a Heaven that none of them believed in, is a delightful move, not least because it recapitulates the kind of belief / non-belief that the poem itself explores.

“Diaspora” is, even on the face of it, more complex. It includes a more resonant example of Ostriker’s strongly female voice but the two self-referential sections complete with preceding epigraph, the more striking stanza structure and the rhetorical question, all provoke thought. In this case, sexuality, death and the first performance all lead to the anxiety that more and more “will be expected of you.”

Old Men

It seems to me the kindliness of old men
Is something incommunicably vast.
My grandfather, behind them all, plays chess
With studious Yiddish Socialists in Heaven,
Which he did not believe in, and awaits
Me eagerly slipping onto his lap,
To hear “The Story of the Man Who Traveled
From Place to Place.” For he had walked across
Europe to London, he had sailed
To the goldeneh medina. My other grandfather,
Who sat in a brown chair near the piano,
Not permitted by his wife to speak,
But smiling shyly, eyes lit up like windows
In a Litvak village on a Friday night,
Waits also. And an Irishman named Frank,
Who trimmed the bushes in the Project gardens,
Called me “Margaret O’Brian” for my braids,
And let me use the shears. Lastly my dad’s friends
Who lived like lambs in lonely East Side playgrounds,
Petted me, taught me checkers patiently,
For many windy autumns.
And were we not safe in the Land of the Free,
And was this not as good as paradise?
It seems to me then God’s a grandfather —
Infinite tenderness, infinite distance —
Not that I have any religion, but
It seems a way to talk about old men.

From “A Dream of Springtime,” Smith/Horizon Press, 1979.

Diaspora

You live here, in the impossible,
surrounded by fires.

                          — Paul Celan

                

i

The forsythia bush is made of yellow fire,
The daffodils are made of yellow fire,
It is why they are so difficult to look at.

To obtain your attention,
They cry shrilly just beyond the capacity of your ears.
Perhaps you feel the discomfort in your sinuses
And guess that if you permitted yourself one glance

They would grip you with the tenacity
Of the wheelchair-bound elderly, or of the mad —

ii

Take the above as an allegory of learning:
Springtime, resurrection, your postwar heritage,
Each dangerous truth you would almost prefer to refuse —

Neither does it stop here,
For already a bed of tulips holds flesh cups
Like the dead family around a child
Dressed stiffly for a first recital, a row of eyes

And a row of heaving breasts, until you see
You can never learn the routine of life —
Were you ever wise?
If when you were children you knew, you knew —
More and more will be expected of you.

From “The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968-1998,” U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1998


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Alicia Ostriker

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.