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!
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • 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.