Poems by Alicia Ostriker

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photo by Amy Meier

A Young Woman, A Tree

by Alicia Ostriker

From Canary Fall 2016

Alicia lives in Manhattan Valley, formed by an east-west slash in the granite bedrock that goes downhill from Central Park west to the Hudson River. A stream once flowed down it; now wind from the river funnels up.


The life spills over, some days.
She cannot be at rest,
wishes she could explode

like that red tree--
the one that bursts into fire
all this week.

Senses her infinite smallness
but can't seize it,
recognizes the folly of desire,

the folly of withdrawal--
kicks at the curb, the pavement,
if only she could, at this moment,

when what she's doing is plodding
to the bus stop, to go to school,
passing that fiery tree--if only she could

be making love,
be making poetry,
be exploding, be speeding through the universe

like a photon, like a shower
of yellow blazes--
she believes if she could only overtake

the rising rhythm of things, of her own electrons,
then she would be at rest--
if she could forget school,

climb the tree,
be the tree,
burn like that.


She doesn't know yet, how could she,
that this same need
is going to explode every September

and that in forty years the idea will strike her
from no apparent source, in a laundromat
between a washer and a dryer,

like one of those electric bulbs
lighting up near a character's head in a comic strip--
there in that naked and soiled place

with its detergent machines,
its speckled fluorescent lights,
its lint piles broomed into corners,

as she fumbles for quarters
and dimes, she will start to chuckle and double over
into the plastic basket's

mountain of wet
bedsheets and bulky overalls--
Old lady! she'll grin, beguiled at herself,

Old lady! The desire
to burn is already a burning!
How about that!


Meanwhile, the maple
has also survived, and thinks
it owes its longevity

to its location
between a bus stop
and a bar, and to its uniquely

mutant appetite for pollutants:
carbon monoxide, alcohol, spit...
the truth is, it enjoys city life.

Regular working people suffer so grossly
it makes a tree feel happier
having nothing to do

but feel its thousand orgasms each spring,
or stretch its limbs during the windy days
that are like a Swedish massage,

or swoon into the fall
among its delicious rain patters,
its saffron and scarlet flamings.

Then, when the tethered leaves
Snatch themselves away like desperate
children ardent for freedom,

it will let itself sigh, feel wise
and resigned, and draw
its thoughts downward toward its other crown,

the secret leafless system
that digs in dark
its thick intelligent arms

and stubborn hands
under the shops, the streets,
the subway, the granite

the sewage pipes'
cold slime,
as deep as that.


by Alicia Ostriker

From Canary Autumn 2009

Too late for mating season
what is the cardinal doing
all week flying between

the feeder outside my kitchen
and the hedge by the brick wall
where a female or is it a juvenile

waits with needy beak open
yellow-pink inside--not cheeping but
vibrating its wings so fast

they blur like a hummingbird’s
it’s the same thing
girls do with their eyelashes

the adult male pecks some seed
for himself then gracefully swoops
to the brown one’s low branch

and feeds her
and gets some for himself
and feeds her again

all week
I am almost getting stoned
just from watching

Author Photo by Amy Meier

Now Spring

by Alicia Ostriker

From Canary June/July 2009

Now spring cries out again, I'm here, I'm here
until tulips roar like lions, daffodils scream like witches,
robins puff their chests out, sumptuous maples shout

for a wind to come over and wrestle, but as for us
we belong to the species that thinks it can change the laws
we are the ones that trample and soar and bulldoze

what interferes--she wipes mud from her brow, I'm here
in my beauteous majesty, but we are a little terrified
just half recalling how once we welcomed her


Now her excitement subsides

Now her excitement subsides like a mirage
a winged stillness underneath the shrieks
of children out of school is almost audible

and I too seem to have achieve tranquility
as i walk along ringing a bell of silence
each blooming shrub on a lawn, each wildflower

by the road—the lipsticked azalea, the brass daylily--
seems to offer itself: Aren’t you Whitman’s daughter?
Please look at me, please love me


Still a few

Still a few glorious flying amber leaves
but the dark is rising
the grass withered the cones broken

if we think of the countless seeds
wasted by every tree every year
the way each life produces so much death

is a sort of agony and still each seed
down in the dirt is gambling or voting
hoping dear November for the best

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