The forty-two poems in Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s latest poetry collection, The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog, are an enchanting epistemic study of the interaction between character perspective and language. Each poem, a “triptych” of three stanzas depicting three unusual characters—an old woman full of memories, a sultry tulip wearing an “upturned skirt,” and a tireless dog—ruminates on subjects such as love, the month of April, race, fear, liberty, war, sex, and so on, the poems evoke the parable of the blind men and an elephant. That is, they cause us to reflect on how different perspectives broaden our understanding of the mortal condition; through her heteroglossic investigation of broad and specific “life” moments, Ostriker offers us a quiet but urgent meditative journey into how it feels to be alive.
The poems seem at first glance to act as fables, but (thankfully) contain few morals. Rather, Ostriker presents us with poems wherein each character comments on a particular idea, scene, or action (some of them ordered by haunting anaphoric refrains; others by re-iterations from other poems or songs; still others with no evident ordering principles). Further, the poems, in that ever-consistent three-stanza order, operate differently, as some of the corresponding titles suggest (“The Moment on Stage I” or “The Drink Triptych” are good examples), guiding us readers to the observation that these poems are masterfully reaching outside their genre conventions, acting, at one point, as a series of monologues, at another, panel discussions, and still another, paintings.
The organization of the book is visually pleasing, too, although the collection doesn’t seem to proceed with an obvious overall narrative arc. But Ostriker does separate her poems into six sections, so that each contains exactly seven poems. An allusion to the seven days of creation? To the orderliness of nature? In any case, it’s so rare for me to read a collection that has more than three or four sections (especially in a compact collection such as this), and somehow this very conscious arrangement gives the book even more elegance.
Ostriker’s language feels deceptively casual, but taut and full of necessary noise. Here’s an example excerpted from the gorgeous opening poem, “The Blessing of the Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog”:
To be blessed
said the dark red tulip
is to knock their eyes out
with the slug of lust
So much occurs here. That slant rhyme of blessed/lust, and the strange and innovative pairing of words in “slug of lust” (lust as physical abuse!) makes that movement from that opening line to the end so gratifying. Further, that a tulip might be wearing an up-ended skirt, that she might choose to wear it, offers us a stunning meditation on how things really exist in the world—whether they do or do not have autonomy—and also on how beauty affects us.
Indeed, this seems to be Ostriker’s project: to understand how one thing might be understood as another through the eyes of something else. However, the epigraph from Gertrude Stein depicts another aspect of her project: “A very important thing is not to make up your mind that you are any one thing.” In each of Ostriker’s poems, there is either some kind progression toward an emotional conclusion, or else the poem functions more like a collage, depicting not any one response to whatever is the poem’s subject. She never privileges one voice over another—each voice gets her chance in the spotlight.
Which brings me to the dog, who, throughout the collection, frequently gets the last word. Here’s a stunning example:
“What We Love”
Purple velvets and complex brocades
are the fabrics of royalty
and I am proletarian said the old woman
I go around in my old blue jeans
Do not disparage clothing
said the dark red tulip let us remember
that the body is the garment of the soul
and that the eyes are pleased by pretty things
Appearance said the barking dog
is not everything and biology is not destiny
we dogs wake and sleep but we define our identity
by what we choose to love
That ending. It’s the momentum created by the line enjambments in “we dogs wake and sleep but we define our identity,” and then broken with the caesura, that makes this dog seem so wise and magical. Further, that “by what we choose to love” arrives in the mouth of the dog saves this poem from sounding all-knowing while re-inventing the prosaic.
The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog offers readers insights into how experiences mirror but also differ from others. It successfully avoids the pedantic, and, aptly, it’s the dog who, in the final poem “Summertime” reminds readers that to be free is everyone’s great wish:
Finally they have taken me
to the shore it is the happiest
day of my life says the wet dog
oh those seagulls
The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog, by Alicia Suskin Ostriker. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press. 80 pages. $15.95, paper.
Sarah Katz writes poetry, book reviews, and short fiction. She studies poetry in the MFA program at American University in Washington, D.C., reads poetry for Folio, and works as Publications Assistant for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Her work has been published in Ploughshares, jmww, Deaf Lit Extravaganza, and others. She lives in Fairfax, Virginia, with her husband, Jonathan.