Alicia Ostriker and Marilyn Krysl: Review by Ingrid Wendt


The Book of Seventy by Alicia Ostriker (University of Pittsburgh Press)

Alicia Ostriker


Swear the Burning Vow: Selected and New Poems by Marilyn Krysl (Ghost Road Press)

Marilyn Krysl





Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. ...  The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.   John Berger


      For  more than thirty years a fan of poets Alicia Ostriker and Marilyn Krysl—each of whom, during their long and prolific careers, is known for poems acknowledging both the radiant and the darkest extremities of human experience—I anticipated their latest books with eagerness and a longing for the wisdom and courage and consolations I trusted these wise poets to offer.  In Ostriker's The Book of Seventy and in Krysl's Swear the Burning Vow: Selected and New Poems, I have not been disappointed.

     These are poems to linger over, to read and read again, to carry through the day and into sleep: poems that make me want to re-read earlier collections.  Poems throughout each book stun me with their power and compassion,  with their clarity and complexity and their engagement with our troubled world, with their frankness and sense of urgency, and with their willingness to grapple with weighty issues: the concepts of evil and innocence, for example;  issues of justice and retribution; the burdens and joys and responsibilities of recognizing the self in others; of bearing witness to horror as well as to beauty; the nature of truth; the nature of the spirit.

     Organized into four distinct sections, each with its own epigraph, Ostriker's The Book of Seventy is tightly organized, stylistically as well as thematically.   Most of its free verse poems are written in tercets, with minimal punctuation, and are—except for proper nouns and the pronoun "I"—without conventional capitalization.  Adding complexity to an already-elegant patterning, Ostriker's poem sequences ("Almanac," for example, and most of "Approaching Seventy") consist of three tercets in each segment.  Other formal devices include poems in couplets, in quatrains, in septets, in combinations of tercets and quatrains and/or couplets, and a prose poem (with stanzas of equal length).  The book's final poem, "Zeno" (a historical figure Aristotle called the inventor of the dialectic), is one line: "Am I transparent enough yet?"

     Section one—with such titles as "Insomnia," "Lymphoma," "The Surgeon," and "Neurologist"—focuses on health and illness, the diminishments and degradations of aging, the many things that can and do go wrong with our earthly bodies.  Buoying the reader, however, through these tender and wrenching poems, is the strong raft of the book's opening poem, "Approaching Seventy," a reflective, wry, and rigorous examination of what the poet has and has not done with her life, and what she both fears and hopes will be her future: "Sit and watch the memory disappear / romance disappear the probability / of new adventures disappear // well isn't it beautiful / when the sun goes down / don't we all want to be where we can watch it...." ("Approaching Seventy").   She notes the ways others confront their own aging.  She admires and praises the humanitarian works performed by a poet I suspect to be Krysl ("Your friend goes to Sri Lanka and works / for a human rights organization / in the middle of a civil war"); she puzzles over those seeking enlightenment in various self-serving ways; she longs to create, in her old age, a transparent beauty, as did the painter Willem de Kooning, "when Alzheimer's had taken him / into its arms, ... who had the lucidity // each of us secretly longs for / as if everything belonging to the other world / that we forget at birth is finally flooding // back...."   Yet Ostriker's hope for this possibility does not lead her, or us, into complacency: "you hairy impertinent bag of water" the poet says to herself, ". . . Shouldn't you spend more time / trying to heal the world ...?" ("Approaching Seventy").

     Who cares for the caregiver?   Who inspires the one who inspires us?   From where does a poet draw her strength?  Without ever directly asking or answering these questions, Ostriker finds comfort in small moments of tranquility, of beauty found in unexpected places: Sunday mornings shared with a husband of many years, or the "pale iridescence" of sycamores leafing out, or watching the strong male bodies of Brazilians playing handball, "their backs like sinewy roots" ("West Fourth Street"), or in a ghostly visit from the grave of one much loved.   

     In section two, with such titles as "Desire and Joy," the poet picks us a bouquet from her garden of earthly delights:


     You know the way on a rainy night

     when the noise wakes us we lie in bed

     smiling at each other, the way


     enjoyment spills through us

     like after quiet satisfying sex, you know

     how we stay awake listening to lashing rain....

          ("Sonnetina: the Storm")


     The poet's garden also includes memories of her mother, and thoughts of her three grown children, tenderly depicted in "Honey of Generation": "I am shy with them / since they became free. ... they are all so cool / they give me the chills ... flesh of my flesh bone of my bone / going on."

     In many ways a deeply spiritual book, throughout its questing pages, section three brings us a cluster of boldly whimsical and highly-charged persona poems in the voices of Greek and Hindu gods, framed by two others: "The Blessing of the Old Woman" and "Prayer in Autumn."  We hear from Apollo, Persephone, Kali, Artemis, Demeter, Lord Krishna, and Laïs.  How well this poet knows the sacred intricacies of love and desire.  How strongly, in the voice of Gaia, Ostriker rails against the degradation of our planet.   How strongly, in her own voice, she prays to an unnamed being, who is not the father-god of the Judaic-Christian Bible:  "we promise // we lie, we are not competent / still we implore you // please look at us and take us in your arms // not like a master, like a mother."

      Another major theme in this book—besides the necessity of accepting and loving—is the need for making a difference in our world.  A tone of urgency, of getting it right, echoes throughout the book: "get on with it / gather grief like straw / spin it into something like gold / get back to work / you don't have forever" ("Drone").   Here, in section four—with poems on issues of war and peace and America's presence in the world, and with such titles as "Born in the USA" and  "Listening to Public Radio"—Ostriker explores the mixed bag of being American.  We read her gratitude at growing up able to believe in a better future; her fear, today, of the future "like the world of the thirties our parents described / and we have read about // when fascism knew what it wanted and descended / over Europe like a light frost / that suddenly becomes a blizzard" ("Listening to Public Radio"); and her shame at how we can go on with our daily, pleasurable routines while prisoners/detainees in Iraq are being tortured, and children, all over the world, are conscripted to perform acts of unbelievable violence: "There are things you cannot believe, they make you incredulous, but there they are ("The Snowfall").  War is not an abstraction in these poems: "Technology is not required, children with machetes remove the arms of their neighbors, // remove the eyes of their neighbors, many thousand arms and eyes. / Are these children innocent?  Are they themselves victims and therefore innocent? ("The Snowfall").  Reading "Two Poems," in the voices of an idealistic young pilot and his parents, I come close to tears: "We've got you, little burned one, and not them.  Come on home, it's getting dark, don't fuss./ This is the end of your adventures, tomorrow's earth will be cool for you. / For you, little burned one, little ash."

      And yet, says the poet, we must not lose sight of what gives us joy, of the natural world and the world of the senses that can save us, can keep us awake to beauty.  "What times are these," wrote Bertholt Brecht, after the second world war, "when / A conversation about trees is almost a crime / Because it contains a silence about so many atrocities."   Indeed, there are, today, readers of poetry and poets of witness who would indict any celebrant poet for this very same reason.  

     With poets Alicia Ostriker and Marilyn Krysl, however, to write about a tree or of the complex glories of nature and to be a poet of witness are not incompatible acts; they can even occur simultaneously.  Moreover, to write of beauty can strengthen the writer and reader in the resolve to make of this world a better place than we found it.  

      And so Ostriker gives us, as the epigraph for section four, these lines by Ezra Pound: "By what characteristic may we know the divine forms? / By beauty."  And we find, near the end of the book, her long poem "Almanac," each section a different month of the year, which begins with an echo of Brecht: "How can we speak simply of winter light / yesterday glitter glazed every twig in sight / the universe shone like knives...."   This 12-part poem concludes: "we have almost escaped the rule of reason / we have almost returned / to the rule of beauty," taking us almost full circle, back not only to the beginning of another year, but to Ostriker's assertion in "Almost Seventy," the first poem in this collection: "The three things I care about are individual // human lives, then art and beauty, / then politics and cultural history and mythology ... apart from all the personal stuff."

     Marilyn Krysl, in Swear the Burning Vow: Selected and New Poems,  also exults in the beauty and mysteries of the physical world.  Readers will enjoy finding, all through these chronologically-arranged poems (excerpts from five earlier books), a strong, recurring presence of the elemental images of water, fire, earth, and air, of animals, and of the human body: its needs and desires, its joys and sufferings, as well as its manifestation of "the sacred."  

     From this volume's very first poem, the playful "Poem for the Left and Right Hands" (from Saying Things) the poet relishes decoding the vagaries of the body:  "The right eats / The left listens under the table // The right swears / The left wears the rings // The right wins, the right loses / The left holds the cards. // The left strikes chords while the right / runs, runs, up and down, up and down ...."   Krysl's signature command of hyperbole and metaphor, coupled with a keen wit—stylistic delights that echo throughout her life's work—appear in this first volume in poems titled "Eight Ways of Looking at the Brain," "Feet," "Voice Box," and "Legs," which begins, "Oh green mares in the morning! / Chariots for moving sunlight uphill ...  Hip’s telegrams to their daughters, the ankles. / Carriers of the knee's bouquet...."    In "Persephone to Demeter" we find the same saucy goddess given to us by Ostriker, with an added, almost-defiant, eroticism: "Yes, I will be your Queen / Yes, I accept the arch and the heel / and the earth path / wearing the sole smooth // ... Yes, I accept the cunt, that calyx / holding its insistent, perennial blossom / and the pelvis, frame / the cradle swings from / and the uterus and the hammock of blood it weaves / to rock the chromosome codicil // Yes, I accept the beggar's bowl of the palm...."   We know the world through the body, says Krysl, throughout her passionate, often rollicking book. Even our spoken, everyday words, when we pay them close attention, can be "a birthday party for the mouth, . . . better than ice cream." ("Saying Things"). 

      And, because the poet is Krysl, knowledge of the body’s delights is knowledge of much, much more.  Her long poem "Skin," from Midwife, begins: "Because skin is the first organ / to form in the womb, and first things / are of first importance ... Because it's the organ with which we experience wind, / which most loves water, // Because it's the organ through which we begin / to discover each other // because, because, because, and for all these good reasons // hurry out and touch someone now!"  Turning serious, the poem ends: "After all, it's / the organ // through which we take in / the light we give out."  Here, as in other poems of equally frank eroticism, Krysl presents the body as sacred.  In one of the new poems, "Salt," a poem full of questions and regret at love offered and refused, she writes of the simultaneity of "agape and arousal.... Why do we think we know better than the body? // Maybe refusing the offering is the one thing / we will not be forgiven...."

     Krysl's frequent focus on the body does not, however, imply a neglect of the outside world.  It is, indeed, her love of the outer world that has impelled many more poems, including (in the final section of 18 previously uncollected poems) the ecstatic, delirious, and vivid sestina, "Morning, Madras," in which we also see a fine example of the poet's frequent playfulness with form: instead of repeating six times the end word "goat," from the first stanza, she substitutes "crow," in stanza two, then "cat," in three, and so on.  


     Heat: beating like a heart. Those black goats

     bleating in the street. You who are gods, make room

     for bodies: ours. Horns, taxis, stacks

     of bread. Potatoes. Melons. The million hands,

     the million mouths.  We're here, massed in the thick

     of things, a fan opening: one moment


     opening into the next.  A flaring moment:

     children's faces, their clamoring eyes.  A crow

     pecks rinds. The melon opens thick

     with dew. Music for the mouth.  Love's a room

     where we lie side by side, drink from the hands

     of gods.  Love us, feed us. Bodies stack ...

     Sestinas, in fact, are the poet's forte—I know of no poet who writes them better—and they are sprinkled liberally throughout this new book.  In another equally powerful sestina "West Lake, Hangzhou," part of a series of poems of witness, written from Krysl's period of residence in China, many years ago, we again see the poet's delight in the world around her coupled with bodily pleasure: "Standing, burning, // here on the balcony, you discover you're happy.  The burning / lotus blossoms light the lake.  Isn't / this evening blue beyond belief? Better / than being in love is being here, in love... Those boats / are nothing if not beautiful. A scattering of boats / completes a lake, your hand completes my burning/ shoulder...."

     And because the poet is Krysl, joy is never far from pain.  Beauty has the power to bring us to ecstasy; remembering evil can squelch it, as in another new poem, "The Mind, Doing Its Number": "There was this loveliness now / in the world, put there deliberately by someone / filled with longing...  Then mind rushed in:... I couldn't shut myself fast enough / to keep out the dead child, face beaten in." In this and elsewhere, Krysl shows us the simultaneity of "destruction and the blossom...  The whole and the broken, / dream and nightmare: your hand in my hair, already / familiar, could be the torturer's.  Vase and its blossoms // camouflage for the bomb.  You love where you can." ("Warscape with Lovers," the title poem of Krysl’s fifth book.)  The poem ends: "The refugees make a break / for the fence, running for their lives, crossing this burning, // broken, blossoming Century.  They've already / paid our dues.  Sweetheart, let me show you how. / Hand on the body's book: swear the burning vow."

     Beginning with her second book, More Palomino, Please, More Fuschia, the pain of the world—which includes the suffering she herself endured at the hands of an abusive father—increasingly occupies the poet's attention.  It is, as she suggests, partly because of and through her own traumas, she has become attuned to the suffering of others.   In "Sestina for Our Revolution," a tour de force double sestina, the poet writes of "Red Emma" Goldman and Alexandra Kollontai (Lenin's chairwoman of the People's Commisariat/Ministry of Human Welfare), weaving their personal histories together with memory fragments of her own.   Goldman had a violent father: "His rage / made her the orator of revolution." Krysl's father, a violinist, had his violent side, too:" I sit in clover, legs spread, father's rage // mounting.  I am three... Mounting rage / is what I feel, reading Alexandra's autobiography." And further on, "At three I was a radiant thing. Rage / was my heritage from my father. His absence / became my ambition...."

     A modern-day Valkyrie, Krysl has made protecting others part of her life's mission.  When she was eight, her uncle, at his firing range, "raised his rifle, and his body let loose / the way, when the gate lifts, the stuck bull charges. / He'd hit the target's center, and he thrust the gun / over his head and leapt up and whooped. I knew / then that the world was dangerous, soft things //  were in danger...  I told / myself I would learn to run fast, and if they caught me / I'd turn and spit and scratch, and I would burn / a ring around myself with my fierceness, those flames / would burn them, I would be that angry.  As now / I set fire to the ring I would burn around all children...." ("Target")

     Indeed, fierceness and love walk hand in hand in the many poems grown out of Krysl's service to others: as artist in residence at Denver's Center for Human Caring; as a volunteer at Mother Teresa's Kalighat Home for the Destitute and Dying in Calcutta; and as a human shield with Peace Brigade International in Sri Lanka.  The stories behind these poems are compelling.  "Because when they came for her son she saw their faces / I pulled on the tee with the logo in three languages / and walked into the dirt street with this woman / they wanted to kill...." ("Unarmed Bodyguard: You Will Hear the Lutes").  "Hasima's fourteen, so thin / she can't walk, sit up, // hold a cup. Eyes a single bean / scanning for food, even when / she's full. She's the mouth / of the soul, open around hunger...." ("Famine Relief").  Exquisite in their careful rendering, with a control of language and form that creates for us just enough distance, enough beauty, to not be consumed by them, these and other heartbreaking  poems with such titles as "Baghdad: The Disappeared Girls," and "Suite for Kokodicholai. Sri Lanka,” take us on paths toward a recognition of our own (particularly American) privilege and the need to be mindful of it. "They are my war— // I who buy the Uzzies, mortars.... Our broken treaties fan my / shame: hurt girls, dead seas, / the poor polishing our luxuries." ("Bulldozer Sestina: Rafa, 2004")

     Fierce love and compassion, the need to keep alert, to envision peace, to recognize ourselves in each other: these and other humanitarian imperatives infuse as many of these poems as do the poet's acknowledgments of joy, of peace, of gratitude, of laughter, and of the need to honor and be mindful of all we're given. "To feed // another being is like / eating: both of us filling ourselves // with the certainty that there is, / in us and around us, // kindness so infinite / that we cannot be lonely." ("Famine Relief")  "Each day the sun / lays down its ultimatum.  Be: don't sleep/ away this blazing gift, your life." ("Carpe Diem: Time Piece")  The "you" in "Rite" could be any of us, reading these poems, reminded every day, in our own lives (and usually forgetting), that doing "the things [we] want to, [we] may hurt someone"; forgetting, and remembering "the poor, for whom we have orchestrated / a hell of their own.... the body in which we are / solitary...." For these reasons, Krysl explains, "I reach across / the cups, the plates, the napkins, // and take hold of your hand."

Ingrid Wendt has won the Oregon Book Award in Poetry with Singing the Mozart Requiem, the Carolyn Kizer Award, and the Yellowglen Prize for her 2004 book, The Angle of Sharpest Ascending. Her fourth full-length book, Surgeonfish, received the 2004 Editions Prize. Her other books include Moving the House (poetry); From Here We Speak: An Anthology of Oregon Poetry; In Her Own Image: Women Working in the Arts; and Starting with Little Things: A Guide to Writing Poetry in the Classroom. She divides her time between Eugene and Seal Rock, Oregon, with her husband, poet and writer Ralph Salisbury.