Poet and literary essayist, Alicia Suskin Ostriker lives in Princeton and
teaches English Literature and Creative Writing (Rutgers University). She
is the author of nine books of poetry, including The Crack in Everything
(U. of Pittsburg Press, 1996) which was a finalist for the National Book
Award and won the Paterson Poetry Prize and the San Francisco Poetry
Center Award. Her latest book of poetry, The Little Space: Poems Selected
and New
(U. of Pittsburg Press, 1998), a finalist for the National Book
Award, was finalist for the Lenore Marshall Nation Prize. The Imaginary
(1986), won the William Carlos Williams Award of the Poetry
Society of America. Her poetry and essays have appeared in American
Poetry Review
, Kenyon Review, The Nation, The Paris Review, The New
and numerous other literary magazines and periodicals.

After Illness
O lente, lente, currite noctis equi -

I picked the books to come along with me
On this retreat at the last moment,
Flinging them into a carton almost randomly,

Not for their greatness, or for any special direction,
So I do have Rumi, Hass, Roethke, Rich,
Olds, Oliver, and the Jew Goldbarth,

But I don't have Rilke or Williams,
And I have a book on Plato a friend gave me,
And the second edition of The Selfish Gene

Which I hope will be difficult
And put some bristle in my brains,
But nothing else philosophical

And nobody else's treasure
Or latest fashion. Yes, I have
Some old notebooks of my own

To sieve through, to interrogate,
To make me feel ashamed. For who am I?
Is it possible I still don't know?

What is a dance without some mad randomness
Making it up? Look, getting sick
Was like being born,

They singled you out from among the others
With whom you were innocently twirling,
During a samba across the cumulonimbus,

They said you, they said now,

You had no opportunity to choose
This body or that, as you expected -
At the turnstile, somebody knocked you cold,

It was so unfair.

You woke up thinking it wasn't fair,
But by then it was too late, of course,
You were already glued inside the body

You still possess, or that possesses you,
These rusty chains of being - listen hard,
If the world is rushing

Through a starless, moonless night,
You hear the engine thud, the hiss of water,
You limp through the humid black

To a railing: there,
You can see lights flowing
From a lower deck

Dimly illuminating the
Dizzy white foam, and
You're so alone, but you hear music too,

So you bravely resolve to explore the ship,
And after all, what choice do you have,
And after a few years

You discover they are all
On the same ship, oh yes,
All your friends, your cohorts,

Everyone from before, in their new
Flesh and bones, you agree it's wonderful -
No cause now to be melancholy. Reading? Dancing?

Get up, stand up, thumb some folly
Without which there's no wisdom, you have to
Trust that, you have to take a chance.

Damn choreography. After thirty-six battements
And one tour jeté
Too many, you fall through the trapdoor anyway.

Slowly, slowly - yes, that's what I want
Right now, just that sensation
Of my mind's gradual

Deceleration, as if I
Took my foot off the gas
And the Buick rolled to a stop.

Shadows lucidly
Flutter on the tree trunks
At the wood's edge where I spread

My blanket, wordless -
Hush. Slower, you eighteen-wheelers
On the brain's interstate highways, you eels

In the neural nets, you sharp
Dealers on the trading floor
Of rhetorics, hold your horses, easy there.

Let someone else speak for a change -
My presences,
My guides -

Look at the kids in the cloakroom throwing galoshes
While the teacher tries to introduce
A visitor, a foreign child who waits

With downcast eyes, lashes like brown feathers
On his flushed silk cheeks.
What does my inner mind have on its mind?

If I say, I'll use this solitude
To discover my true feeling about my mastectomy,
To do the mourning I've been postponing,

Or if I think, I'll surrender myself
To the adoration I feel for X,
Which I prudently control when he's nearby

Then that's not it!
Whatever I can consciously intend
By definition isn't it!

Hush. Quiet the mind. Leap motionless.
The Tao that can be spoken
Is not the true Tao.

Perhaps I must surrender
The need to write, to metabolize experience
Into poems. Come on, my guides,

Presences, do you think that's impossible?
Do you think it is desirable?
I'm not going to decide this by myself.

Look, I'm just going to turn
Over on my back, on the blanket, nothing
Between here and the sky,

What I want
Is to listen, what I want
Is to follow instructions.

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