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.


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

                          — Paul Celan



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 —


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!
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • 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.