I have been reading Alicia Ostriker’s newest book, Waiting for the Light. When I saw that ethereal title (Ostriker is a senior now), I was preparing for sunsets, tunnels, and late autumn days. That title, however, is a tease, but I will not reveal how exactly, except to say that most of the poems here are far from autumnal, and in fact are emphatically contemporary and relevant. I doubt she composed most of the poems after the election returns came in, which means they speak about our times and our country in general, but they do have a particular resonance during the weird era we’ve suddenly found ourselves in since November 8 of last year.
One of the most memorable pieces is called “America the Beautiful.” It is a ghazal. I’ll quote from the middle of it:
School days school days dear old Golden Rule Days
when we learned how to behave in America
What to wear, how to smoke, how to despise our parents
who didn’t understand us or America
Only later learning the Banner and the Beautiful
live on opposite sides of the street in America
Only later discovering the Nation is divisible
by money by power by color by gender by sex America
We comprehend it now this land is two lands
one triumphant bully one still hopeful America
What I notice about this work is its fresh wisdom and directness of approach. It is not glamorously layered writing meant to dazzle and impress, the kind an ambitious up-and-comer would write to make a big splash in the world. On the contrary, this is the style of someone who “arrived” long ago and no longer needs to show off. This style is the only thing remotely “autumnal” here. As for this poem in particular, the references to the bully and hopeful America are clear to us in 2017, but what is striking is that there have always been two Americas: this was true during Ostriker’s school days circa 1950 (a time of a rising middle class, a time of optimism free of Depression and—more or less—of war, but also a time of puritanism and continuing racial injustice); and this was still true in 2010 (with a shrinking middle class and less prosperity but also more rights and freedoms for large swaths of the population). In our new post-November 8 world, however, the skies seem to have permanently darkened and an era of disbelief and gloom has set in. Those who resist our new Overlords are often now referred to as belonging to the Indivisible movement. Ostriker’s ghazal could be, and maybe should be, the anthem of that movement.
Many of the poems in this collection celebrate the Big Apple. Ostriker does a fabulous job of evoking what is glorious and hideous and sublime and shameful in that most neurotic of cities (and other cities like it). In this vision of the metropolis, things aren’t black and white. “The Glory of Cities” is an Ostriker poem that pushes us headlong into the crazy capitalist soup without heavy-handed irony:
Let us now praise famous cities, our human fists against heaven, let us praise
their devotion to wealth and power and art, goals toward which we swim
ferociously upstream, tearing ourselves apart, to lay our eggs and die
along with swarms and herd of our brothers and sisters, let me especially praise
the cities of the Northeast Corridor from Boston to the District
of Columbia, birth-lips of trade and industry, thumbs of unbeatable deals,
their mayors and their mistresses, their Chinese and Korean neighborhoods
their Pakistani taxis, their Afro-American subway systems igniting
their steel drum arpeggios, moonwalks, laden shopping bags, all superb
for staring at people while sinking into invisibility.
All this is great writing, as good as it gets when it comes to the urban experience, or at least the Northeast Corridor urban experience. It’s a poem that doesn’t lecture but sings. And then it takes a turn in its last two stanzas. Having covered cool men and hot women and anarchists and waitresses, it now focuses on an immigrant:
I watch this boy
he is off the boat, he is thinking food and freedom, he is sending
the money order back home, it is so easy, there is a bank
on every corner of the Upper West Side,
he is a little high, so when the officer detains him,
he is slow producing his ID. Fuck. Fuck.
Watch his hands. Now watch the cop’s fast hands.
What could be more timely? The restraint and the artistry are exquisite. I can just see the poet sitting in an outdoor café recording her impressions. They have the smell and flow and rhythm and taste of real life; Ostriker never gets on a soapbox. It is a loving, generous voice we find in these pages.
Gotham really serves as the foundation of this collection, which after many urban poems proceeds to explore America and the world more broadly. Ostriker was right to put so many New York poems at the beginning, since that city contains everything that is fabulous and hideous in this world, and not just the USA, and helps build up the rest of the collection. In “Times Square,” which I’ll quote here in its entirety, Ostriker offers the history of that iconic place from about 1950 through its low ebb in the ’70s and ’80s (as I remember it!) to its current more clean-cut incarnation:
Great white way when I was a tender ten
first time downtown agape at cheerful billboard
smoke rings every four seconds puffed form the painted
lips of a man who would walk a mile for a Camel
then sordid shabby & sleazy, risky & stinky & low
digital Godzillas catapulted from manhole
now crazy clean your Disney scene
warrior girl in heels, boy with banana
sky-high waxed torsos & the crawl at the bottom
to let us know how the Dow is doing this very minute
selling everything in the world—luxury limos, lattes
fashion entertainment & sport—your neon fire
forever changing forever displaying the same
intolerable unquenchable human desire
I hope this poem will still be around in a thousand, two thousand years, so that people of the future will know what the capital of “civilization” was like. How much will they be able to understand? Will they have a tough time with words like “Disney” and “Camel” and “Dow”? But from our viewpoint, now, this poem offers a rich history and slice of life. Her last word is, importantly, desire. Mad, crooked, amazing desire simmers in almost every part of this collection. Here she modifies desire brilliantly with two adjectives: intolerable and unquenchable. This desire—what we might also call the Will—is responsible for all that is wonderful and awful in this world. Left and right, First World and Third Word, bully and victim, cop and immigrant, sheriff and protester, mogul and peon—wherever we turn in this book, there are likely to be conflicts and tensions, and desire is at the root of all of them, a raucous desire that hums along like crazy New York City itself.