Alicia Ostriker has amassed so many honors and awards in her fifty-year career as a prolific poet, scholar, and critic, it would take all my space here to mention even half of them. Her real significance, though, is that she helped bring feminist (and Jewish) themes into mainstream American poetry. It is hard to remember today how male and monocultural American poetry was not so long ago, and how little specifically female experiences and perspectives featured in the work of even the greatest women poets until the generation of Plath, Sexton, Ostriker, and Rich broke the taboos. Too much blood and fury, I suppose.
Of that era, Ostriker is one of the few still with us, and it’s a great privilege to have five of her new poems in this issue. In them, Ostriker writes about her own mother and herself as a mother, about old age and fear of death, about a long-standing marriage—two elderly people in Covid time, making soup and dancing in the kitchen. Don’t be deceived by the simplicity of the language: there are plenty of surprises here, and even shock. In “A Woman,” Ostriker compares breastfeeding to sex: “when we were young lovers / pressing into each other / didn’t our own bodies / sing just like that.”
So lovely and lyrical, but that breastfeeding can be arousing is dangerous to acknowledge. Motherhood and sex are supposed to be kept far, far apart. As recently as 1992, a mother in upstate New York had her two-year-old put in foster care for a year after she told a volunteer on a help line that she found breastfeeding sexually exciting. Aren’t we fortunate that Ostriker is still bringing us what Ezra Pound said poetry should be—news that stays news?
Where Ostriker is spare, Amber Flora Thomas is lush and luscious, with long lines, complex syntax, and a rich vocabulary. (I even had to look up one word in the dictionary, where I learned that “brome” is “a grass with a loose, branching cluster of flowers.”) These two poems are visual and full of surprises that deepen the more you think about them. “Summer Field” is a luxuriant evocation of an afternoon alone in a meadow, a space of physical freedom but also psychological freedom of a very particular sort.
“One Swan” gives us an encounter with a painting at the Guggenheim by the Swedish mystic painter Hilma af Klint. The painting, The Swan, No. 1 (1915), depicts two swans, one black, one white, symbolizing duality: darkness, light; male, female; death, life. In Thomas’s poem, the black and white swans become one in her own biracial self, “a swan-shaped woman / with a beaked sword.” It’s a difficult poem, and I’m not sure I’ve gotten to the bottom of it. But, as with all the best poets, Thomas makes me want to reread as many times as it takes.