The Voice in the Poem

Midway through “The Bridge,” one of Alicia Ostriker’s series of “mastectomy poems,” the speaker switches from the indicative to the imperative. “You never think it will happen to you,” the poem begins, and continues into a deftly rendered scene in a waiting room where a technician opens a door to deliver what will be the first of a series of blows that will change her body and her life.


Then description turns to urgent direction:


Go put your clothes on in a shabby booth

Whose curtain reaches halfway to the floor.

Try saying fear. Now feel

Your tongue as it cleaves to the roof of your mouth.


I have seen this shift before. I have felt it, in the midst of writing, in the midst of anxiety, in the midst of prayer, when a voice comes from somewhere giving direction, and you know it’s not your voice, and you know you didn’t make it up, and you know you’re being spoken to with authority, clarity, and a kind of wisdom that meets the need of the moment. Once the word that came to me in the midst of wrestling with the day’s demons was “Don’t Control Anything.” (Jolted into a fresh level of awareness, my instant response was “Anything?” And it came again, clear and firm: “Don’t Control Anything.”


The commanding voice that appears in this poem seems a little more like that of a friend who knows the speaker needs to be guided through the emotional fog and kept moving so that fear won’t paralyze her. “Try saying fear.” “Put your clothes on in a shabby booth / whose curtain reaches halfway to the floor.”   Just do it, the voice insists. It’s humiliating and cold. It’s impersonal and anticlimactic and you are filled, oddly, with shame like a sheep shorn of its one beauty and protection, but the thing to do is walk the gauntlet of clinical rituals, accept the exposure and the confinement and the isolation and the sterile effacement of shock and grief. That will get you home to where you will be free to lay the facts and their terrible implications out on a tabletop with your tea and pore over them while you weep.


“Feel your tongue as it cleaves to the roof of your mouth,” the voice continues. Notice your body. In group meditation and body work instructors always tell you this: notice what’s going on in your body. Notice where you’re tense, where there are flickers of pain, which parts of you are objecting to the way you’re sitting or are tired, or want to move. “The body never lies,” Alice Miller wrote. And Karen Horney insisted, “The body is the unconscious.” The body will tell you what you need, and will identify for you what is needful, sometimes to the point of preventing you from doing anything else until you locate the deep energies that will serve your needs. When the tongue cleaves, an imposed silence enforces thought, and offers time, perhaps, for a poem to begin. And a poem, if you are Alicia Ostriker or if you are not, may be the thing that equips you for what is to come.

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