During my last year of college, I read Alicia Ostriker’s Stealing the Language for a “Women in Poetry” course. Looking back, it’s hard not to laugh at the obscenely broad course title, at the academic Balkanization of one of half of the college population. Ostriker’s argument illuminated and gave shape to the frustrations I’d experienced in college lecture halls where professors proudly quoted Breslin in describing Plath’s “Daddy” as a sophisticated temper tantrum; and in seminars where my male peers balked at discussing books with “boring” female narrators (This was the 90s, not the 50s!).
Female readers, of course, have been historically expected to identify with male narrators and speakers because, as Ostriker would suggest, the male voice is what we know as the universal. In the introduction to Stealing the Language, she writes: “We need to recognize that our customary literary language is systematically gendered in ways that influence what we approve and disapprove of, making it extremely difficult for us to acknowledge certain kinds of originality—of difference in women poets.” Each of the book’s six chapters form that groundbreaking, revisionist critique of difference in poetry by women—from the quest for self-definition, to motherhood, violence, and the caustic parodies of Plath and Atwood.
Twenty-four years after the publication of Stealing the Language, we have entered an age of abundant, plural poetic subjectivities. These days, contemporary American poetry sings of motherhood, fatherhood, erotic desire, self-definition, self-denial, and the endless variations of everything in between. Female poets of younger generations have had the privilege of following the fruitful careers of poets and critics like Ostriker, whose work, in many ways, has made ours possible. Though gender, sexual, and cultural experiences are still far from equally represented in today’s poetry, they are present and undeniable. And yet, Ostriker’s most recent collection of poetry, The Mother/Child Papers, is anything but a satisfied reflection on a poetic life well lived. Rather, the poems suggest that although literature and culture have become more inclusive, they still, all too often, ignore or misrepresent the violence and injustice that permeate daily life.
Like an invaded country, the babyís body is liberated from the motherís and then extracted, like a body from a trench. The Guards, like doctors, adhere to the false logic of domination: the invasion is for the benefit of the invaded. Through cinematic layering, Ostriker draws the reader into a nexus of associations between technology, medicine, violence, and ideology.
"The personal is political," Ostriker writes in her introduction to The Mother/Child Papers.
The paradigm of domination and submission that has structured the male/female relationship since the inception of western culture also illuminates our national identity, and the irrational cycle of modern warfare. Ostriker claims: “The military invasion of a country parallels the medical invasion of a woman’s body. Technology provides the opportunity. Expert professionals give the orders. As for motivation: the need to control, to dominate, to conquer, while claiming that the invasion is for the benefit of the invaded, is as old as history.” How can one collection of poetry speak to such a broad, complex diagnosis of American cultural consciousness? Curiously, Ostriker’s ambitious project succeeds via an aesthetic of disciplined omission, which favors fragments and anecdotes that enact the disconcerting, intrinsic relationship between the personal and the political.
Titled “Cambodia,” the first section of The Mother/Child Papers begins with a prose recollection of the birth of Ostriker’s son. Given a sedative against her will by a doctor whose interest is to manage and subsume the natural process of labor, Ostriker recalls the experience of powerlessness: “Then Dr. Keensmile appeared to ask if I was ready for my spinal. A faint flare of “no” passed, like a moonbeam. Because of the Demerol, if they had asked me whether I was ready to have my head severed, I probably would have said yes. Drool ran from my mouth. Yes, I said” (5). The section ends with an unanswered question: “What does this have to do with Cambodia?” Ostriker is a master of suggestion. The question is never answered. Rather, we move onto “Mother/Child,” a series of fragmented, utterly lyric scenes from early motherhood and marriage, which are interspersed with historic moments of war and violence. One poem in the section draws corollary between the Kent State Massacre and modern childbirth in which the woman is sedated and forced into a passive, rather than active role:
The Guards kneeled, they raised their weapons, they fired
into the crowd to protect the peace. There was a sharp orange-red
explosion, diminished by the great warm daylight, a match scratching, a
whine, a tender thud, then the sweet tunnel, then nothing.
then the tunnel again, the immense difficulty, pressure, then the head
finally is liberated, then they pull the body out (10)
Like an invaded country, the baby’s body is liberated
from the mother’s and then extracted, like a body from a trench. The Guards, like doctors, adhere to the false logic of domination: the invasion is for the benefit of the invaded. Through cinematic layering, Ostriker draws the reader into a nexus of associations between technology, medicine, violence, and ideology. Instructive rhetoric is evaded, and the reader participates in a visceral process of making meaning via association.
In “Spaces,” the third section of the collection, private domestic and geographical space become metaphors for violent processes of invasion and containment (of female body and foreign country, be it Cambodia, Vietnam, or Iraq). Written as a casual, intimate letter between mothers, “Letter to M.” ends with a critique of the cultural perception of motherhood as martyrdom: “Why are mothers always represented sentimentally, as if having some sort of altruistically self-sacrificing “maternal” feelings, as if they did not enjoy themselves? Is it so horrible if we enjoy ourselves: another love that dare not speak its name?” (33) Adopting a clichéd euphemism for homosexuality, Ostriker creates an image of the closeted, assertive, eroticized mother.
Through edgy enjambments and frank, monosyllabic words, Ostriker evokes the rituals of parenthood as a kind of backyard baptism. The collection ends with the ritual of childbirth, expressed in the form of an oceanic dream ..
“Exile,” written in the voice of a Cambodian mother during the 1975 evacuation of Phnom Penh, resonates as an archetypal image of the devastating effects of war upon families:
The downward turning touch
the cry of time
fire failing without sound
plunge my hand in the wound
children marching and dying
all that I do is a crime
because I do not reach
their mouths silently crying (40)
Here, Ostriker expertly draws the reader back to “Cambodia,” the title of the first section of the collection. By giving the poem such a specific historical context, she also stresses the U.S. government’s role in destabilizing the Cambodian state and paving the way for Pol Pot’s regime.
His Speed and Strength,” the last poem in this section, enacts the inevitable psychic separation that occurs between mother and child, once the child begins asserting independence. At a public pool with her son, the mother observes the temporal innocence of children playing:
and white boys wrestling and joking, teammates, wet
plums and peaches touching each other as if
it were not necessary to make hate,
as if Whitman was right and there is no death (58).
Ostriker’s speaker is all too aware that Blakean innocence is followed by cynical experience. The poem’s final image captures the son on his bicycle, “peeling” away from his mother, “pedaling hard, rocket and pilot” (58). In a world where sons become soldiers and killers or causalities, childhood is a momentary stay against the violence of cultural inscription.
The title poem of the final section, “This Power,” enters into the adult son’s voice, as he realizes the physical power he wields over his mother: “I am taller than you, two inches/why are you dancing and whistling/Mother, fish in your giant tank/Mother, scars puckering your skin” (64). Now a father himself, the son recalls:
as once I held
my children on my shoulders
one after the other
in a swimming pool
and they jumped, they flew
off me, and made a good splash,
and I fell back, into the water, welcoming
this is the way we played one afternoon (64).
Through edgy enjambments and frank, monosyllabic words, Ostriker evokes the rituals of parenthood as a kind of backyard baptism. The collection ends with the ritual of childbirth, expressed in the form of an oceanic dream in which “a woman/oliveskinned like an Indian/brownhaired like a European” crouches “in a green room,” in full control of the labor. “She rides with this work/for hours, for days/for the duration of this/dream,” Ostriker writes (65). As a compressed symbol of the collection’s themes, the hybridized, idealized woman giving birth cannot exist outside of the speaker’s dream.
Would The Mother/Child Papers resonate with such profundity if Ostriker’s critical introduction were excluded? Perhaps not. Yet, the collection’s innovative layering of genres and voices achieves the depth and authority necessary to sustain its broad scope. In the tradition of Levertov, Forche, and Rukeyser Ostriker writes out of life experiences in order to change the world. The Mother/Child Papers is a brave, unmediated tide of insight and critique that posits the interconnectedness of the personal and the political.