- No Final Puncauation
Alicia Suskin Ostriker
University of Pittsburgh Press
83 Pages; Print, $15.95
The first thing I noticed about Alicia Suskin Ostriker's Waiting for the Light after its striking cover—a full moon peeking out from between darkened apartment buildings—was the setup of the Contents pages: four sections (simply numbered ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR) divided equally into 11 parts each. The page numbers, which at first seemed scattered, on closer look follow a simple plan of being two tabs away from their respective titles. I suspected then, and rightly, that this was a clue to the poems I was about to read.
Section ONE presents a universal cast of characters: the homeless guy, the Bangladeshi taxi driver, the Guyanese woman who describes an awful experience she had on a visit home but still how good it was to go home, see her family. In "The Light," the poet writes, "Porque no comprendes, you don't own this city anymore / the city belongs and has always belonged to its shoals of exiles."
Ostriker has been compared to Whitman, and in her "Manahatta" she speaks of following in his footsteps as times change, looking at the city with new eyes:
you mothering harbor, you royal sewer, you finger inside the sky,you dangling dream deferred, you queer hideout, you incubator of Jewish jazz,you who exist as a landing field for helicopters, you whose laughter is heartless,
In "Dry Hours: A Golden Shovel Exercise," which ends the section, Ostriker references Whitman even as she speaks directly to Gwendolyn Brooks and gives us a mini history of America since the Civil War.
An epigraph from Frank O'Hara precedes section TWO
The sun is hot but theCabs stir up the air
But the first poem, "The City Crocuses," is about flowers and ends with a lovely image portraying the birth of spring: ". . .the tiny snowdrops alyssum crocus // decide to stop waiting / they flex their little legs, they push / and divide the dirt and up they swim." Here, as elsewhere, the quirky punctuation not only allows the lines to flow but adds to a sense of continuity from one poem to the next. This works especially well in going from "Cinco De Mayo," a rumination on celebrating the Mexican Day of Independence, to "Biking to the George Washington Bridge." "It sweeps away depression," she tells us, and well it might until she gets to the sad thought of "American loneliness" that ends the poem.
I must admit that some of the forms used in this collection stymied me. "Acrostic: All You Need is Love" is a terrific poem, the body of which I believe I understood quite well, but I have no clue as to why it's labeled an acrostic, unlike the several ghazals, which clearly adhere to their intention.
I expected the title of "Waiting for the Light," dedicated and addressed directly to Frank O'Hara, to indicate the light of day, the light of enlightenment, even tripping the light fantastic, but no. This is the literal, mundane traffic light that makes us stop or lets us go at intervals that "feels like forever." The quintessential New York experience. I'm sure Frank O'Hara would have enjoyed it.
THREE give us various aspects of war—the grandfather "who walked across Europe to get to America;" "Afghanistan: the Raped Girl" whose brothers will surely stone her; "White Morning in Fez"—"they say the Americans staged nine-oneone." On and on, one atrocity after another until only the poetry is left to feel as I did so strongly in "Ghazal: Not Even There," a portrayal of the poet's reactions to seeing the homeless bedded down in places where there is no bed.
"Q & A: Insurance" is the type of poem I rarely appreciate, made up mostly of zingers and one-liners such as, "If time is an arrow, what is its target // If a Flexible Flyer is the sled I had as a child, when may I become a child again," and so on. However, despite my prejudice, I couldn't help but admire...