Back to Issue Thirty-Four

The Death of the Swan, and Other Questions



After many a summer, does the swan die?
    Yes, after many a summer, the swan does die.

Left alone, would people hate each other and make war?
    My mother said they would not.

—Lapel needs straightening. —Leave me alone, will you?
    —I will never leave you alone.

Yesterday seems so far away, doesn’t it?
    Yes, and it will never return, not until time swallows her yellow tail.

Old man river, do you trust him to flow forever?
    I do, deeply.

Unlike the turnpike traffic on Friday night?
    The turnpike traffic cannot flow forever, ultimately it will rust.

Nothing really touches you does it?
    I don’t have to answer that question.

Everything frightens you?
    If you say that again, I’ll punch you in the mouth.

Even your own son, running hopefully toward you?
    You have heard of the sins of the fathers.

Do you not wish you knew how to leave me?
    I wish scrambled eggs and a side of bacon.

—Nevertheless I move. —Can you move on?
    —On and off, I can. I can and I will. Bye.

Is it true that we can only be hurt by those we love?
    No, it is not true. Not at all.



The Words When I Wrote Them



When she was two, and made to hike with the rest of us,
our younger daughter toddled on her fat little legs

across the soft beach singing “I don’t know, I don’t know,
I don’t know, I don’t know” to the tune of “Twinkle, twinkle,

little star,” I still remember that, and she has spent
a lifetime learning what she does not know,

because she is a scientist, but all of us are seekers, in our way,
all of us still learning what to think of ourselves and the world.

When H. D. was an old lady like me,
a voice commanded her ​Write, write or die.​

The words when I wrote them were oddly familiar
ocean-floor exoskeletal creatures, glossy, lumpy, waving tails

or waving tentacles. To me it was beautiful and good
down there, but I don’t know. I only collected them,

hoisted them from deep to daylight, nearly drowning
and here I am gasping, pulling off my mask, breathing.


Alicia Ostriker has published sixteen volumes of poetry, including Waiting for the Light; The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog; The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems 1979-2011; No Heaven; The Volcano Sequence; and The Imaginary Lover, winner of the William Carlos Williams Award. She was twice a National Book Award Finalist, for The Little Space (1998) and The Crack in Everything (1996), and twice a National Jewish Book Award winner. Her poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The Atlantic, Paris Review, Yale Review, Ontario Review, The Nation, The New Republic, Best American Poetry, The Pushcart Anthology, and many other journals and anthologies, and has been translated into numerous languages including Hebrew and Arabic. Ostriker’s critical work includes the now-classic Stealing the Language: the Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, and other books on American poetry and on the Bible.

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