Elegies for Existence
(Sarabande Books, 2015)
“There’s nothing good about ill-timed death,” Kathleen Ossip asserts in “Oh, wow, mausoleums,” the final poem in The Do-Over, the poet’s third book of poems. “Nor about the death of love. That poetry glamorizes them disturbs me.” Plainspoken and unsentimental, this passage typifies the tone and subject of Ossip’s newest collection, a bold procession of elegiac meditations and ode-like gestures that never hide behind gossamer veils of rhetoric to soften unforgiving truths. Some of these poems mourn the loss of her mother-in-law; others find the poet stepping through portals to commune with the dead; still others grapple with living and loving in the long shadow of death. “I’m afraid of death,” the poet admits in the poem of that title, “because it invents / a different kind of / time, a stopped clock / that can’t be reset, / only repurchased, / an antiquity.” Ossip’s fear is as ancient as The Epic of Gilgamesh. Her poems may be rooted in the particulars of an immediate present, but page after page of The Do-Over demonstrates the poet singing variant verses from the world’s oldest song. It is a testament to Ossip’s rigorous powers of perception and imagination that this song is sung in new, often startling ways: her poems surprise—and often induce pause.
One of the more salient features of Ossip’s poems is her penchant for making memorable claims. In her hands poetry becomes an ideal medium for positing statements of fog-lifting clarity. In “Mother’s Day,” for example, she claims, “Birth, I believed, / was the brilliant upheaval. Now I see Death is another.” That we know we are creatures with an expiration date imbues us, as it does in “Road Trip and the Apron String,” with a desperate urgency: “The songs are all a pleasure and one day / we won’t have the pleasure of breathing.” But it is precisely through our anxious grappling with the oppositional forces of life and death that we find a common ground. “Whether we accept / These processes or are repulsed by them,” she writes in “A. in May,” “we are still studying, / Each of us one cell in a universe of process.” Later, in “The Great Man is Dead,” Ossip suggests that language-making itself may be a kind of consolation in the face of overwhelming loss: “I want only the clear light … bare attention to the frolic and detour of the human imagination.” Ultimately, however, in “Political Crisis,” Ossip realizes, “The problem is how to remain. / Words are no doorstep whatsoever”—a couplet more devastating than a hundred poems.
If through the lacing of such claims a kind of argument emerges, one that shows Ossip grappling with problems of mortality by way of imaginative refuge, the poet seeks that refuge in a variety of poetic forms. Many of the poems in The Do-Over take form as carefully modulated prose poems that break momentarily into verse and just as quickly return to prose. The hybrid prose-verse poem is quite common today, but rarely is it performed as effectively and purposefully as it is in Ossip’s poems. When such shifts occur, the effect is fluid and jarring. In one section of a long poem, “Ode,” Ossip writes:
The beautiful man is well. The beautiful man is a mirror. The beautiful man is a valve. The beautiful man is a plug and socket,
it being impossible.
The man becomes a travelogue, death a bonus gift if you act now, love a regiment of twinges,
it being impossible.
Here the musical repetitions of the prose break suddenly and lead twice to refrains. In both instances, that refrain reminds us we are in the realm of verse, that the ostensibly expository function of the prose is undermined by an inherent failure of the poem’s true subject. As noted in an earlier verse section of “Ode,” the man, “most beautiful,” from Longhua, is an invention of the poet, her guilt-driven compensation for consumption and solipsism: “If I can create the man, / Beauty can’t redeem / the iPod nano / made in a five-story factory / secured by police offers.” Meanwhile, another subject asserts itself, for she has lost a loved-one who is survived only by her things: “Ode to a pond, a pool. / To a willow pattern on her good plates.” Throughout “Ode,” prose fuses with verse to create a dramatic tension in layers of articulation and understanding. The prose attempts to give the exploited some agency, while the verse strips such hopes away:
If she were well and in Longhua
and in the factory and thrown together with him
and they shared a meal and she spoke Cantonese
or he spoke English and overcame
his desolation and distrust
she would befriend the man.
Any connection between these two could only occur in the realm of fantasy and is made amply clear by the absurdly precise conditions that would need to occur for such a connection to take place. This stanza of verse stands in stark contrast to a single sentence of prose later in the same poem: “He is stately and elaborate and speaks for himself, without any music at all.”
Elsewhere, various interchanges of verse and prose exploit powerful shifts of consciousness, as they do in “Tool Moan,” where a moment spent with a man and his daughter in an Irish pub furnishes Ossip with a sudden dip in time, remembering words she had spoken years earlier to her mother. In “On Sadness,” a sudden break from prose into verse establishes emphasis and anticipation:
You always asked: What do I feel like doing? I always ask: What should I be? Those are two very different ways of being sad or happy…
Some of Ossip’s prose poems might be considered outright stories, given another context. “Three True Stories” and “After” could appear in short fiction collections, though their inclusion here is necessary, as the poems—as Ossip posits them—articulate aspects of her greater theme of living in the shadow of death. The first section of “Three True Stories” shows Ossip receiving an important visitation from Uncle Bob, a man she hardly knew when he was alive. In “After,” Ossip leaves her boyfriend’s bed to interact with her deceased relatives on the other side of his bathroom mirror. More than theme, however, connects these pieces to the rest of the book. Here, as elsewhere in The Do-Over, are moments of intense juxtaposition. In the second section of “Three True Stories,” following a Manhattan dinner with two white male critics and a “Distinguished White Female Poet,” the latter, trying to hail a cab, orders Ossip, “Go stand on the corner and look blonde.” In “After,” the poet remembers meeting Jen at a publishing company where both women worked: “Only [her] uncleanness and [her] sandwich made her at all approachable.” Such juxtapositions show the poet to possess a mastery of observation and subtext thoroughly appropriate to the sophistication, violence, and absurdities of our age—an age where “Helen / Vendler’s looking mighty like Sasha Fierce.”
Despite her notable achievements in prose and verse blended with prose, Ossip’s most conspicuous formal accomplishment in The Do-Over can be seen in her redemption of the acrostic from an oft-abused form to a legitimate vehicle for poetic expression. Three seasonal acrostics for “A”—Ossip’s mother-in-law, Andrea Forster Ossip—mark each section of The Do-Over as entrance, thruway, and exit. These, in addition to five poems honoring various cultural icons, constitute the most substantial examples of acrostics in recent American poetry: all establish themselves as genuine, significant poems independent of the novelty of their form. “A. in May” begins the collection and is worth quoting in full:
Alfresco on a chairbed the woman confirms the natural
Disgusted and hopeless at being related to her,
Relating to her is what keeps me alive.
Even the unfair trees and the lawn are alive.
Alive with beating life she flies in the face of
Five w’s: what when where why why?
On the chairbed she is breaking out of the sun and the lawn.
Really, out of the sun and the lawn and the trees and me. I am
Still studying, aren’t you? Whether we accept
These processes or are repulsed by them, we are still studying,
Each of us one cell in a universe of process.
Realm of the universe, hers, and realm of the bourgeois
On the chairbed, in the sun, she’s turning yellow.
She’s part of the carbon cycle. I toe several pits on the lawn.
She’s been eating cherries and has dropped pits on the lawn.
It’s natural to have lost my breath and found several
Pits on the lawn.
As with many acrostics, the demands of the form promote a plasticized presentation of language. Many lines are end-stopped; others unfurl as intentional fragments; still others have odd syntactical inversions that result in backpacked lines. Not only does Ossip appear to embrace the acrostic’s tendencies, she exploits them for a variety of effects. Phrases appearing at the end of backpacked lines are sometimes repeated in the opening phrases of following lines. The result causes a kind of hypnotic chain of language found frequently in Biblical verse, particularly Psalms and portions of Genesis. But more than tethering the poem to ancient traditions, the repetitions serve here as a map to Ossip’s gradual understanding of her mother-in-law’s demise, a process that involves disgust, fear, hopelessness, and relentless questioning. “I am / Still studying,” she claims midway through, “aren’t you?” This gesture to the reader links her quest to our own. It also prepares us to share with her in the poem’s brutal revelation that we are all “part of the carbon cycle,” eating, discarding, and eventually breaking down in the earth among the things we have discarded. The final lines vibrate with epiphanic power similar to precise, unsentimental moments of linguistic perception in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. They also echo the jarring, vivid simplicity of the final image in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Woodspurge.”
Each of Ossip’s acrostics shows her to be a master of compression, whereas the longer, serial prose-verse poems demonstrate her ability to build longer structures without sacrificing density of language. “Lyric” is the finest example of such poems and is woven together by disparate fragments and textures. Some of these textures come from a variety of poetic allusions; others come from anonymous posts on internet message boards. Collage techniques are amplified by unorthodox spacings and contrasts in font size. Again, Ossip’s methods are hardly new to poetry, but she employs them more intelligently and purposefully than most others; and for once, dramatic spacing suggests more than absence.
But perhaps the collection’s single most important poem arrives by way of traditional (for Ossip) procedures. “The Millipede” begins with a group amble through the woods. The reiteration of the phrase “We didn’t know” underpins the poem with a sense of enormity that is juxtaposed brilliantly against the mundane details of the trip itself. Set in quatrains, the language moves along like prose and eschews lyrical ornament. There are occasional observations that leap to the foreground, such as a wonderful couplet early on about trees that “spend, I’d read, 300 years growing, / then 300 years living and 300 hundred dying.” But the overall drabness of unremarkable experience subtly yields, after a “perilous incline,” to the ninth stanza where, in a stunning turn, an immobile millipede found underneath an upturned stone becomes a symbol for humble endurance in the face of our human need for transformation: Unlike the caterpillar, the millipede “doesn’t want a do-over. / The millipede didn’t move and never flew.” Ossip’s poems take wing in all directions, but they always return us to the same core truth of existence. We are here one day and then we’re gone. The Do-Over observes this with honesty and patience—and with the inventiveness of an artist’s artless, brilliant artifice.