Waiting for the Light: New Poems by Alicia Ostriker
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017; 96 pp
Reviewed by Edward A. Dougherty
Alicia Ostriker is one of America’s necessary poets, and her newest collection, Waiting for the Light: New Poems, only adds to his well-earned reputation. It is pitched perfectly for our times. An Anna Ahkmatova epigraph frames the book and establishes the dire question of our era: “Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold…Why then do we not despair?” Ostriker answers Ahkmatova as she fulfills Whitman’s request, “I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city.”
Ostriker’s answer to the illegal bombing of Cambodia and deaths of 4 students at Kent State was The Mother/Child Papers, first published in 1980 and reprinted in 2009. That book is a manifesto for life in a time of war: “Our bodies and minds shoot into joy, like trees into leaves.” It is a call for courage in a time when the country was tearing itself apart; “Fear teaches nothing ‘that is not my message.” It affirms community in a culture of hyper-individualism: “everything is getting attached.” And it remains a vision of hope by vowing not to be “cut off.”
In Waiting for the Light, Ostriker gives us a new manifesto, a vision of the mythic city brimming with multicultural―no, Whitmanesque―vibrancy. She affirms that “the city belongs and has always belonged to its shoals of exiles.” While the opening section evokes New York City, Ostriker’s perspective is global and historical, and yet she always starts with something very specific.
While acknowledging the rage that many feel in response to the plundering betrayal of humanity and humane values, her moral vision is encompassing enough to also acknowledge our mutuality, which includes complicity.
Her poem “White Morning” contains our whole American zeitgeist. It depicts the market in Fez, Morocco, and reports how the speaker’s guide raises the question of whether to believe the veracity of 9/11. What follows is a catalogue of the fiery and painful images of that September day and the resulting military assaults and patriotism before resolving the scene with “wailing mothers, brothers, cousins.” In the end, speaking as if to us, she affirms: “You believe it all.”
Ostriker enacts human values that go beyond nation and religion, ones that know that all military victories should be mourned; no violence on that scale can be reduced to binaries like success or failure, despite politicians’ simplistic rhetoric. The poem’s ending image turns the lens once again, shifting perspective to “your children.” They crack up when they leave the mosque, “because the rows of men / with backsides sticking up were really funny.”
Ostriker answers despair by such playful turns of attention, her celebration of the rich variety of humanity, and her use of form. She turns the Beatles’ lyric “All you need is love” into an acrostic, modulating tone for range and depth. She uses the Q & A form to investigate our survey culture and the dynamics of perspective. In addition to her playfulness and joyous celebration of humanity, Ostriker evokes the naiveté of childhood in “Ghazal: America the Beautiful,” which begins by eliciting whether “you remember our earnestness our sincerity / in first grade.” Our childhood understandings of the Pledge of Allegiance and the anthem should not remain as we mature. The painful reality, particularly at this American moment, is the realization that “the Nation is divisible.”
Speaking from America’s “fault zones,” Ostriker remains one of our great poet of witness. From “Temblor,” located in the California landscape, that phrase goes far beyond geology to evoke American culture. At the poem’s end, she locates these faults within each of us, implicating herself in a way as she says,
and your poetry also makes nothing happen except among the synapses
that are whispering only connect to each other
and the desperate forces inside each
With lines like “A wall is a symbol of safety that never works,” or “Wars cough up dictionaries of amnesia” Ostriker speaks specifically and perfectly to issues of our time, a time when the “words of the unhealed wound are everywhere.” Her poetics shine the light of imagination and intelligence on injustice, but she also bears witness to humane and communitarian values, offering a light of practical hope for dark times. Ultimately, she is able to utter hope, acknowledging that “the language of hope is underground.”