The poetry of aging

Large secrets in small volumes about running out of time in life. If death is alive in the poems of these women, so too is eros.

Shirley Kaufman  (photo credit: Nuri Van Hattum)
Shirley Kaufman
(photo credit: Nuri Van Hattum)
Barn burned down.
Now we can see the moon.
BASHO’S BARN, SYMBOLIZING illusion, announces the poems on aging in Alicia Ostriker’s latest book, “The Book of Seventy.”
What Ostriker’s poems share powerfully with those of Shirley Kaufman in “Ezekiel’s Wheels” is their leveling of illusions.
Kaufman’s poem, “Eighty-five” (she is 87 now), begins: It’s only a number/I’ve come to, not aging, just/ getting riper. I wonder how long/I’ll stay ripe without rotting.
Ostriker, in “Approaching Seventy” (she is 73), goes even further: Sit and watch memory disappear/ romance disappear the probability/ of new adventures disappear
Both poets take pains to explore what’s left after the illusions have been stripped away. Being Jewish poets, their culture of questioning what seems arbitrary, unjust, in bad taste, rattles to the surface, as in Ostriker’s “Prayer in Autumn”: What does the contriver have in mind/ the contrivance wants to know/ Because otherwise what is the point/ of all this moaning
In a talk she gave at Poets House in New York last November, Ostriker referred to herself as “a third generation atheist, socialist, Jewish feminist, who seeks God.”
Kaufman, a major American poet who made aliya in 1973, making her an even rarer phenomenon than an American radical in the time of the Tea Party, incorporates her Jerusalem into the quiet bite of her skepticism.
I raise my eyes to heaven but the three balconies get in my way,/ no more than the code allows/ on our street in Jerusalem (from the poem “Succot”)
AS SOCIETIES IN THE WEST age, and its poets with them, we will no doubt see more books that look seriously at the brave, worried, receding rooms of old age. There are, as a counterweight, poems that take stabs at jollying some of the horrors of this condition.
A companionable strategy. In a poem such as Edward Field’s “In Praise of My Prostate” (merely mentioning the word “prostate” assures comic relief), we are in the presence of a poet whose tactic is to expunge the demon by tickling it.
While most men I know are having theirs irradiated/ scooped out, or surgically removed,/ we’re enjoying a blissful Indian summer
The poems of Kaufman and Ostriker, while salted sporadically with humor, are closer in their gravitas to Yeats’s imperishable “Sailing to Byzantium”:
An aged man is but a paltry thing/ a tattered coat upon a stick, unless/ Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/ For every tatter in its mortal dress
The two are old friends, and the authors of many previous volumes (12 for Ostriker, for Kaufman nine). They have crafted their latest poems with an austerity that wastes no words.
In the poem “West Fourth Street,” we find the qualities of hard-won simplicity, generosity of spirit, and plain radiant seeing that defines enlightened aging in a way no essay can. Approaching the pocket park, Ostriker notices
the sycamores are leaving out/ on West Fourth Street and I am weirdly old/ yet their pale iridescence pleases me Then, she turns her awareness to the four handball playing Brazilian men, torqued like my father fifty years ago/ when sons of immigrant Jews/ played fierce handball in Manhattan playgrounds/ – if I think these men are the essence of the city/ it is because of their beauty/ since I have learned to be a fool for beauty
“West Fourth Street” catches the ripeness and fragility of moments in ways that a younger poet can only imitate. Absent in this poem is the familiar electricity of Ostriker’s intellect. She has always been able to turn her ideas about gender, aesthetics, politics, religion, into art, because of her ability to merge history, most notably the singular and societal history of women, with her narrative mastery and its inexhaustible energy. Her work is the counterargument to critics who decry the thinness of subject matter in modern American poetry.
These lines, from “Everywoman Her Own Theology,” published in the 1986 volume, “The Imaginary Lover,” lets us hear the kinetic, fight-picking voice of the old Ostriker (not entirely absent from “The Book of Seventy”):
I am nailing them up to the cathedral door/ Like Martin Luther. Actually, no,/ I don’t want to resemble that Schmutzkopf/ (See Erik Erikson and N. O. Brown/ On the Reformer’s anal aberrations,/ Not to mention his hatred of Jews and peasants)
The movement of wisdom in Kaufman’s poems is slow and deep and takes her readers to places that peel away basic assumptions like layers of dead skin. In her book’s title poem, we find these lines:
When Borges took charge/ of the library with half/ of one eye/ he could/ recognize the bindings/ he read in memory/ what he could not see/ I live among vague luminous/ shapes that are not darkness yet
 In those words are revealed the unacknowledged paradox of old age: creativity hidden inside infirmity, inside all kinds of diminishment. The power of that eye in decline seeing what normal eyes can’t, an agent of mystery and courage.
For the reader of Kaufman’s earlier works, there is the longing for her travel poems. (She doesn’t travel very far anymore.) Spare and spacious, they reflect her moods, her politics (left of center, in the peace camp), or as in the case of “Cineraria” (from “Rivers of Salt”), her past:

I sit in his Delhi garden/ drinking beer before lunch. / “You start with one toe / and let it get heavy.”/He tells me he learned to relax / each muscle and let the pain go. / I lived in San Francisco in the sixties, so I’m right / at home.
In “Ezekiel’s Wheels,” her traveling is mainly inward, stretching along marginal paths, where insight and bewilderment walk arm in arm. Atrip to the Dead Sea becomes an existential journey.
Now the space between sea / and memory grows wider. / We’re part of the distance.
If death is alive in the poems of these women, so too is eros. The subject of age and eros in elderly women is still hardly a staple of contemporary poetry. It is unexpected, uninvited, perhaps even regarded as unbecoming. A place where many would rather not go.
Kaufman writes in “Late Love Poem:”
I need your hands/ to hold and shape me/ smooth my rough edges into something new./ I’d like to be soft bread fresh from the oven/ fragrant and warm / about to be nibbled.
And Ostriker, in “Gaia Regards Her Children”:
they expect me to go on giving forever/ they don’t believe anything I say/ with my wet green windy hot mouth.
Contained in these small volumes are large secrets about life running out of time. They are part cave-like, part scoops of light that fall on tired water. They are the fruit of heavy lifting and unburdening.