Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Alicia Ostriker. The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog. University of Pittsburgh Press.

Reviewed by Caitie Leibman

In her new collection The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog, Alicia Suskin Ostriker brings together a trio of voices—each a living thing, each mortal and yet calling out its truths in a clear tenor. These three voices, extraordinary in their ordinariness, build conversations that whirl around each topic. They catch angles of consideration that illuminate issues of the body, mind, relationships, and the earth itself. The woman, the tulip, and the dog have their say in turn, agree and disagree where they ought, and leave the reader in a deep, smiling contemplation.

Ostriker balances the bodily experiences of each figure with what a reader might consider purely human concerns—guilt, purpose, deceit. In one moment, the old woman defines “fear” as the moment when “you recognize / your mind is slowly turning to mush.” In the dog’s typical third stanza, however, he expresses fear as a moment with “the man in the white coat”: “get away from me with that silver thing,” he says at the close of the poem. No matter the topic, the reflections feel true to each figure in their own way. And with the dog’s earnest reflections, especially, it’s hard not to laugh. He pines for the beach, a game of fetch, and  the “concerto of good stinks” along Riverside Drive. He brings the levity of simple pleasures and the presence of a totally embodied experience.

If this collection and its premise were merely about the issue of perspective, then the tulip’s commentary on immobility or blocked sunlight might suffice to make the point. Instead, what results is a deeper consideration of experience: what creates satisfaction? Is it forgiveness or sated hunger? The poems suggest that these ideas are all too well connected.

In fact, some of the most painful and sweetest poems in the collection consider broken or distant relationships. In each, it is the expectation that determines the quality of the reaction. The old woman, for instance, sounds her bitterness when she considers “the cruel wound” of past hurt. In “Anger I: Gray Cement”—one of the heavier meditations—the old woman reflects that while her various attackers (her mugger, her rapist) “owed [her] nothing . . . the smooth men who promised me and lied / the politicians who promised me and lied / should fry in hell and be smeared on toast.” The righteousness in her lament is echoed by the tulip and the dog, one of whom burns at the obnoxious privilege of bipeds and the other with the pain of watching a brother-dog turned into a tool of violence. The weight of disappointment rings through each experience. And the dog, again, clarifies the tension I feel about the role of humans, the suffering of tulips, and the thoughts of dogs:


You are creating distinctions
that do not exist in nature
where “self” and “not-self” are like salt
in ocean, cloud in sky
oxygen in fire
said the philosophical dog
under the table scratching his balls

I can’t say it enough: the dog’s voice is as refreshing as the beachside breeze he craves. “Theology,” he says, “is bunk but the springtime wind is real.” And yet the human hurt remains: when one’s reality defies one’s expectation, when a trusted figure or a loved one creates that reality, yes—we suffer.

As the old woman and tulip lead each stanza, the tones that balance the philosophical dog ring reflective and feminine. The old woman promises herself to always remember “the afternoon [she] slow-danced naked” with her lover, while the tulip dares the viewer to come close to witness unblinkingly “the moisture / in the depths of [her] well.” The tulip is often fussing with her skirt of petals, and the woman declares she is the proletariat in her blue jeans. And yet the old woman’s tone does give her reflections some distance: they carry the memories of a woman’s lived experience, which swirl into the tulip’s perspective to form conversation.

While the woman reflects on her memories and the tulip on her beauty, it is the dog yet again that raises questions of purpose. In “What We Love,” Ostriker writes: “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.” When Ostriker speaks this way through these dynamic, lovable beings, I am reminded of the burdens and aches of life as well as its joys and triumphs.