July: and taking my cue from the poem below: one can imagine a parlor game (or a cryptic pick-up line): are you a human, a tulip, or a dog? The correct answer, the best answer, of course, is all three. Unfortunately, for me, I all too rarely “get them all into play” — a serial medium, through which the world passes, leaving its ineffable traces here, here, and here: “mind, body, feelings.” I wonder if it was always this way, or is the artist identified by her ability to reproduce a lost all-at-onceness, and, capturing its essence, moment by moment, offer it to her audience. But, ça suffit. Let’s turn instead to the source — this month’s “secret poem” from Plume contributor Alicia Ostriker‘s “April” — here so smartly — and lovingly — introduced by another Plumecontributor, Elizabeth Holmes.
J. P. Ostriker. Courtesy of Blue Flower Arts
There is no end to the writing of poetry about spring, and thank goodness for that. Cummings calls it mud-luscious, Herrick gleefully sends Corinna a-Maying, and Frost just has to point out that “nothing gold can stay.” (Annie Finch surveys many more in her essay “Spring Ahead” on the Poetry Foundation website.)
Here’s a spring poem that I can happily reread in any season—“April,” by Alicia Ostriker.
The optimists among us
taking heart because it is spring
attending their meetings
signing their e-mail petitions
marching with their satiric signs
singing their we shall overcome songs
posting their pungent twitters and blogs
believing in a better world
for no good reason
I envy them
said the old woman
The seasons go round they
go round and around
said the tulip
dancing among her friends
in their brown bed in the sun
in the April breeze
under a maple canopy
that was also dancing
only with greater motions
casting greater shadows
and the grass
What a concerto
of good stinks said the dog
trotting along Riverside Drive
in the early spring afternoon
sniffing this way and that
how gratifying the cellos of the river
the tubas of the traffic
of the leafing elms with the legato
of my rivals’ piss at their feet
and the leftover meat and grease
singing along in all the wastebaskets
“April” is from Ostriker’s 2014 book The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog, and every poem in the book uses those three voices with a wonderful variety of topic and tone. The old woman is utterly human, thoughtful and lustful and fallible. The tulip is a diva of the senses. The dog can be counted on to bring us back to earthy essentials (though he isn’t always comical as he is here).
With her three speakers, Ostriker has found a new way to write about spring. That should be encouraging to poets (and humans in general) everywhere. Although the old woman is certain there’s “no good reason” to believe in a better world, she envies the optimism of the activists, reenergized by spring to carry on working for change. Much of the stanza is a list of their tireless (and perhaps to the old woman, tiresome) attending, signing, marching, etc. The activists are focused on the intellectual, strategic, and political, and in the woman’s attitude skeptical reason is uppermost.
The tulip doesn’t care about intellect or reason or whether the world could be better. She revels in the world as it is—in dancing, in the sun and the breeze, in the motion all around her. The seasons aren’t something to think about but to live in. Her diction is soft and fluid.
With the dog, though, we get emphatic rhythms and gritty diction. “What a concerto of good stinks”—a line so delicious I could eat it for breakfast every day. “Good stinks” is an oxymoron; putting “concerto” and “stinks” in the same phrase is preposterous. The musical metaphor sings on for the rest of the stanza, equating the dog’s discerning experience of scents with the sound qualities of instruments. And the pungent aromas of the dog’s world just might recall the first stanza’s “pungent twitters and blogs,” circling back to the beginning as the tulip’s world goes round and around.
This is a poem that gives me great pleasure, and reminds me of something Ostriker said in an interview with Contemporary Authors:“ I am a combination of mind, body, and feelings, like everyone else, and I try to get them all into play.”
Poet, critic, and activist Alicia Ostriker was born in 1937 in New York City. She earned degrees from Brandeis and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Twice a finalist for the National Book Award, Ostriker has published numerous volumes of poetry, including Waiting for the Light (2017), The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog (2014), andThe Book of Seventy (2009), which received the Jewish National Book Award. Little Space (1998) was a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; The Crack in Everything (1996) won the Paterson Award and the San Francisco State Poetry Center Award; The Imaginary Lover (1986) won the William Carlos Williams Award. Known for her intelligence and passionate appraisal of women’s place in literature, Ostriker investigates themes of family, social justice, Jewish identity, and personal growth in her poetry and criticism. Her books of criticism include For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book (2009), Dancing at the Devil’s Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics,and the Erotic (2000), and Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America (1983).
Elizabeth Holmes’s latest book is Passing Worlds: Tahiti in the Era of Captain Cook (LSU, 2018), a lyrical and narrative exploration of the first encounters between Europeans and Tahitians. Her previous books of poetry are The Playhouse Near Dark and The Patience of the Cloud Photographer, both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. She works as a writer and editor in Ithaca, New York.
Upcoming, we will schedule a number of readings in the fall and spring as we launch the print anthology, Plume Poetry 6. A swing through the Northeast (Boston, NYC) and then out west, I think. Dates/times announced in the not too distant. Many thanks to Marc Vincenz for designing the cover and to Maurice Manning for his lovely introduction.
As noted previously, we are hard at work on a complete website redesign; more to come, but a completion date is now fixed: September/October. From the beta iterations I have seen, I think you’ll be pleased.
Once again, our cover art this month comes — in response to a number of readers’ requests and inquiries — from Elizabeth Koning. Of the artist, Kala Barba-Court, writing in the journal PLAIN, avers that Koning’s “photographs could be mistaken for a 17th century portrait from the Dutch masters, but look closer and you’ll see some fairly modern touches in each of her works. Playing with the intensity of light and emotion, Koning deftly draws out a subdued yet powerful aura from her subjects. Her series Daylightis one such example: bathed in shadows or exposed in bright lights, Koning’s models appear timeless and elegant; characters trapped in a century where they don’t belong.”
Koning worked in Milan and London, honing her skills in the creative fields of advertising, fashion and modeling before moving back to her native Netherlands. See more of her compelling photographyhere.
Finally, a has become our monthly practice – a few new books from our contributors