THE BOOK OF SEVENTY, by Alicia Suskin Ostriker, is written from an elder perspective, and thus, contains much to which many of we elders can resonate. And yet, just as the young can learn from the old, this collection of poems is a treasure house for them as well.
“In Sickness and Health," Ostriker writes of a friend, whose husband “will soon succumb to cancer.” Her friend “loves to lie next to him at night” and, no surprise, “they never fight anymore.”
In “The Plateau,” Ostriker describes a long marriage, and “the delicacy with which we attend/ to one another’s liberty.” But she envisions that, when one spouse begins to die, he/she will “lean on the other” –
with horrible need
and passion, passion
will flow again[.]
In “Our Dead Friend,” Ostriker remembers what that friend said about how, with menopause, “the swamp cleared from her mind” and “she could think clearly.” But in youth, “you relax you blur” and “almost anything/can make you tingle with delight.” Ostriker now laughs when she looks at her body “under the spell of gravity,” and writes –
what a joke sex is, though without it
no avenue to paradise
no human glue [.]
With age we become able, as Ostriker writes, to “read between the lines of my tangled life,” with “less grievance and anger than before.” But is there less desire? As she admires the four Brazilian men playing handball, she writes that she has “learned to be a fool for beauty.” (“West Fourth Street”).
In “Late Winter Rain,” one of Ostriker’s ghosts comes to say, in his “old whiskey and cigarette voice,”
being dead is okay, and then you melt
into the rain
and in “Heaven,” Ostriker imagines her parents dancing together.
These poems in parts I and II of THE BOOK OF SEVENTY particularly resonate with me. In part III, Ostriker resorts to Greek myth which I am quite fond of, but rarely find poems based on them, however fresh, as interesting as the earlier subject matter of the book. In part IV, Ostriker turns outward in poems of politics and of seasons, demonstrating that, though older, she is very much engaged with and cares about the pain and suffering in the world.
In reading the whole collection, I think I understand what Ostriker is doing in the first poem of the book, “Approaching Seventy,” a poem consisting of several sections.
The first section expresses the gift in letting go of everything – at last to be able to be purely in the moment of watching a sunset.
The second section recounts what friends are doing in the elder years – off to Sri Lanka or a meditation retreat, or engaging in serial monogamy.
In the third section, Ostriker looks at the paintings of de Kooning after Alzheimer’s disease “had taken him” – paintings as pure and simple as infancy with ”no ego.” This theme continues in the fourth section, reflecting a lucidity belonging to the “other world that we forgot at birth.”
Irresistibly, the poem’s final section begins –
So come on, gorgeous, get yourself over
to the shore . . . .
and ends with these questions –
do you know what is meant by going outside
do you know what is meant by the tide
– questioning all the purported knowledge, all the preconceived notions, we gather through the years that impede the clarity with which we might see.
These questions are profound and answers, or hints of answers, are given throughout this collection in poems of hard-earned wisdom, and in words of clear-eyed truth-telling.