The Blessing of the Old Woman,
the Tulip and the Dog
by Alicia Ostriker
To be blessed
said the old woman
is to live and work
washes right through you
like milk through a cow
To be blessed
said the dark red tulip
is to knock their eyes out
with the slug of lust
your up-ended skirt
To be blessed
said the dog
is to have a pinch
and all the other
dogs can smell it
An old woman, a tulip, and a dog. Why does poet Alicia Ostriker bring such an odd and unlikely group together?
I suppose that’s like asking why the ant and the grasshopper, or the wolf and the crane are together in Aesop’s Fables; or why the lion, the witch and the wardrobe keep company in C.S. Lewis’ tale. Once named, there’s an inevitability to such a grouping, and right away we suspend disbelief and accept not only that these beings are together for the length of the tale but that animals can speak, that plants and trees have thoughts and feelings, that the wind and the sea have their own desires.
Ostriker taps into the tropes of fable to bring us a poem that is funny, earthy, and arresting. An unwritten question is posed—What does it mean to be blessed? It’s a familiar set up. Think of a fairy tale king asking his three daughters how much they love him, Rumplestilskin giving the miller’s daughter three chances to guess his name, the riddles Gollum poses to Frodo to answer.
The particularity of each character’s answer reminds me of another old story—the one about five blind men describing an elephant. Like those blind men, the woman, the tulip, and the dog each see blessing—that spark of the divine—only within their own limited experience.
But put together there is a single answer that we can extract from the poem, a theology of sorts. Certainly from the tone of the poem we can say what being blessed is not: serious. It’s also not an idea, it’s not external to us, it’s not situational, it’s not an attitude shift. It’s not about being able to see the beauty of nature or having the comforts that Prosperity Gospel-ites seek. To be blessed is simply to exist in a body. A body that works, plays, makes jokes, has sex. Mostly has sex. Teats, up-ended skirts, dogs in heat, yep there’s a lot of sex in this short poem.
Speaking of sex, I have to pull a phrase out of this poem that I will never get out of my head. Slug of lust—what an image—a slug creeping toward a red, opened tulip —wow. It gives me a funny kind of feeling, shall we say.
My dad used to tell a joke about a psychiatrist giving a Rorschach test to a patient. The psychiatrist shows the man a series of ink blots and asks the man what he sees. To each one the man says, Sex. At the end of the session the doctor says, Here’s the problem, you’re obsessed with sex. Me? says the patient. You’re the one showing me dirty pictures.
Which is my way of saying no, I am not a sex-obsessed poetry reader. Ostriker just writes sexy poems. Here’s a bit from an interview with the Dallas Review in which Ostriker was asked about the erotic and the spiritual in her work. She said,
The idea that eroticism and spirituality should be separated is a travesty of both. Read the Song of Songs, a poem which is utterly erotic and utterly spiritual. Or read the great Persian poet Rumi. Or the Hindu Mirabai. All mystical poetry is erotic, uses erotic language, because it desires fusion with God. This is true of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu devotional writing. And all lovers see the beloved’s face and body as divine.
Alicia Ostriker was born in Brooklyn in 1937 and grew up in a housing project. She earned her undergrad degree from Brandeis and her Masters and PhD from University of Wisconsin. She taught English at Rutgers from 1965 until she retired in 2004.
Her husband, astronomer Jeremiah Ostriker, died in 2001. Together they had three children. Ostriker now lives in Princeton, New Jersey and teaches in the low-residency MFA program of Drew University.
She’s published 17 books of poetry, 8 books of literary criticism, won the National Jewish Book Award, and was named Poet Laureate of New York in 2018.