While Alicia Suskin Ostriker's The Mother/Child Papers contains some fine poetry, it's equally notable as social commentary. It was written in the 1970s, but the newly republished collection is more than a time capsule. It's also a provocative take on two phenomena that are always with us: motherhood and war.
Ostriker, 72, lives in New Jersey and teaches at Rutgers and Drew universities. She originally published Mother/Child in 1980, on little Momentum Books. In a preface to the new University of Pittsburgh Press edition, she traces the collection's origins to 1970, when she gave birth to her son, Gabriel, days after the Kent State shootings of four students protesting Nixon's invasion of Cambodia.
Bringing a boy into the world in wartime was fraught enough. But Ostriker recounts that the birth (her third and final delivery) occasioned its own kind of invasion: Doctors overruled her wishes for a natural childbirth, numbing her from the waist down, thus evincing "the need to control, to dominate, to conquer, while claiming that your invasion is for the benefit of the invaded ..."
The 62-page book addresses the experience of giving birth at that historical moment; the always-changing nature of the mother-child bond; and a sense of family life evolving over several years' time.
In "Exile," Ostriker writes of "children marching and dying / all that I do is a crime / because I do not reach / their mouths silently crying." Elsewhere, she chills by comparing a newborn's body to a slain soldier's: "They hoist it, shining, they support it, under artificial lights, under / the neck and knees, it is limp as a glove, a handful of tendrils ..."
Yet in the "personal is political" terms Ostriker embraces, it's her explorations of motherhood itself that remain most provocative, though perhaps for different reasons than applied three decades ago.
Back then, Ostriker writes, she often parted with fellow feminists in embracing childbearing and motherhood as earthily ennobling pursuits. "Propaganda Poem: Maybe for Some Young Mamas" begins with the poet reading "my old pregancy poem / that I thought ripe and beautiful" to college girls who respond with revulsion. The piece asks, "who can tolerate the power of a woman / close to a child, riding our tides / into the sand dunes of the public spaces."
Yet as she demonstrates elsewhere, the much-lauded Ostriker is surely more poet than propagandist, delving into the shadowy corners of domestic life, spinning out its haunting implications. Likewise with motherhood, whose primal nature and wild emotional swings she depicts in ways that might still shock today's romanticized culture of "baby bumps" and "family values."
In "Song of the Abandoned One," Ostriker writes, unflinchingly, in the voice of a mother who wants to "kill the baby," with its "rubber arms and legs and ugly doll face." And in the prose piece "Letter to M," she describes "the erotic pleasure of nursing" -- and asks, quite politically, "Why are mothers always represented sentimentally, as having some sort of altruistically self-sacrificing 'maternal' feelings, as if they did not enjoy themselves?"
Alicia Ostriker reads 7:30 p.m. Wed., March 18 (reception and signing follow). Kresge Theatre, 3333 Fifth Ave. (Carlow University campus), Oakland. Free. 412-578-6346