Alicia Ostriker – A Note on ‘Notes from the Body’

A Note on 'Notes from the Body'

Alicia Ostriker

Published in Connotations Vol. 3.2 (1993/94)

Women's love poetry is not what it used to be. Of course it never was. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose "Sonnets from the Portugese" were once considered the height, or is it depth, of sentimentality, is actually writing about what it means to be a pair of lovers who are intellectual and moral equals. "Two souls erect and strong," as she puts it, makes for a revolutionary notion of romance in our time as well as her own. Emily Dickinson, about whose love for some unknown male "master" critics and biographers have endlessly speculated, probably wrote some of her hottest love poems to her sister−in−law Susan Gilbert Dickinson. When women today write love poetry, they are as often as not writing not only to⁄about their lovers, but about their concept of love; a concept which begins with the body, includes the passions, rises to the intellect, and does not end with the lovers but abuts onto the world of politics and history.

The sweet old view that coupling constitutes a shelter from the storm—Matthew Arnold's notion that if the world is a darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night, you can solve the problem by saying "Ah, love, let us be true ⁄ To one another"—doesn't work for us any more. We cannot in our poems divide the private life from the public life. There is only one life. When Shelley wasn't writing love poems he called it "the one life within us and abroad." We share it with lovers, yes, or we hope to. We also share it with our neighbours, who may be next door or in Africa. We share it with the rapist and the torturer. We share it with trees—we are trees, and may be cut down [→page 208] without warning—and poisoned rivers, and dying continents. The claim in Vaught Brogan's "Notes from the Body" that the "talk" between lovers needs to include the world is a radical claim, and a necessary one. True love in this version of love poetry does not mean sexual fidelity. It means truth to one's vision of reality, and the demand that the other, the beloved, be able to hear. "If I can't say this," the poet insists, no other communication is possible. There cannot be "us" without "it." The map of the world maps us.

We are used to poems which resolve themselves. This one does not. It reads like a part of a conversation−in−progress, a slice of a relationship of which the future is unknown, and not hopeful. That too is a radical move in a poem. Like the Language poets of the eighties, and like post−modern poets in general, Brogan draws on, and draws together, theories of discourse and theories of politics. As we bow to the indeterminacies of language and history, so we submit to the indeterminacy of love. None of these things are finite, or final, or even definable, and it is the absence of certitude—in the presence of passion—which shapes the form of "Notes from the Body." The close, in which there are two assonant antonyms of love, "afraid" and "hate," lets the reader think several things, all of which may be the case: it is possible to love when you are paralyzed by fear; it is impossible to act on your love when you are consumed by hatred of the violence and stupidity in the world; it is impossible to act on it if the lover refuses to listen.

Separate: it is not what the poet or the poem wishes. But it may be the fact.

Rutgers University
New Brunswick