In this selection of poems from thirty years of a distinguished writing career, we see the growth of a poet’s mind, heart, and spirit as Ostriker struggles to love “this wounded / World that we cannot heal, that is our bride.” Whether she probes the meaning of childhood, family, marriage, and motherhood, or art, history, politics, and God; whether she is celebrating sexuality or confronting mortality, the poet includes “whatever I can grasp of human experience within my art—the good and beautiful, the evil and chaotic. I tell my students that they must write what they are afraid to write; and I attempt to do so myself.”
"Like one of those trees with a major limb lopped, / I'm a shade more sublime today than yesterday," Alicia Ostriker writes in "Normal," one of several fine mastectomy poems collected in The Little Space
. A poet of consummate physicality, Ostriker wraps her philosophical inquiries in the fleshly guise of poems about marriage, illness, and above all motherhood--that "continuous egg through time," as she calls it. In "Surviving," for instance, Ostriker mourns expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, who died at the height of her artistic powers, shortly after giving birth. From Modersohn-Becker, she moves to her own mother's oft-repeated disappointments, and then to a single, shattering truth: "What woman doesn't die in childbirth / What child doesn't murder the mother."
What is our responsibility to these thwarted women, these "broken mothers," our forebears? Don't we owe them more than just grief? For Ostriker, the answer lies in poetry itself. Faced with suffering or atrocity ("The Boys, the Broomhandle, the Retarded Girl"), she concentrates on making us see. "Art destroys silence," she imagines Shostakovich writing in "The Eighth and Thirteenth," then hears "the words never again / Clashing against the words / Again and again / --That music." Therein lies Ostriker's mission: to depict evil and at the same time speak against it. Like the speaker of "Normal," these wry, clear-eyed poems are cheerful in the face of affliction, unflinching in their need to bear witness. --Chloe Byrne