POETRY

Suite For Eleanor

By Alicia Ostriker

    When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act
    to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?
        —ER, 1884-1962

i  The Mountain

Difficult to say what the supreme
Moment is in the life of a mountain,
But in your sixties when they made you a delegate

To the United Nations you pushed through
A finished draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 
You insisted the phrase all men are born free and equal

Be changed to say all human beings,
You graciously forced the other delegates to compromise
With one another on wording.  To get it done. And it was done.

ii  The Streams

You had that form Helen Hokinson cartooned
In The New Yorker for decades, the stout pouter-pigeon
Shape of the society lady,

You had your mother’s neglect, your drunken father’s
Shallow promises, his death, your mother-in-law’s rules,
You had Franklin’s lifelong infidelity,

You had a brilliant Frenchwoman teacher and some friends who loved
Your intelligence and goodness, you had at least
One lifelong woman lover, and all

These facts converged, like the streams to the Hudson River
Over near Val-Kill, for the point of privilege
Is to make one compassionate

To make one act on behalf of the defeated
To make one breathe the soiled breath of the poor
To make the demand that the rules change.

iii  The Ribbon

While Woody Guthrie walked that ribbon of highway
Looking at that endless skyway, and while John
Steinbeck followed the dust storms west,

You feared being the Governor’s wife, the President’s wife,
The irritating visits, the awful balls
Where Franklin flirted with everyone

But when you discovered you too could charm and organize,
Could drive the Cadillac of politics throughout this mighty land
Where banks were made of marble and people were growing hungrier,

You took to the road like bee to clover, learned to enunciate
Opposition to lynching, support for a World Court
And for slum dwellers, miners, dirt farmers, negroes, Jews, women—

You bucktoothed horse-faced woman
At the golden end of the ladder of class,
A man like Guthrie and his guitar at the dustbowl end

Twanging this land is your land, this land is my land--
The ribbon connected you, you with the FBI file of 3000 pages
And a Klan bounty of twentyfive thousand on your head--

Your enemies called your husband “that man in the White House,”
They said the two of you were Commie Jews,
They laughed at you over cigars and whiskey

(That is what pigs do, they laugh
With a nasty snorting sound
In their sty, that they take for the world).



iv  The Brink, 1939

A war, and then the fantasy of peace like a canoe headed smoothly,
Unstoppably toward Niagara, you think no, please, but there’s the roar
Ahead, the mist.  Still, on the brink, My country ‘tis of thee,

Sweet land of liberty sounds utterly real in Marion Anderson’s big
Black contralto voice, when you quit the whites-only Daughters
Of the American Revolution that refuses to invite her

To sing in their hall, when instead you arrange the gig
On the Lincoln Memorial steps, and the crowd fills the Mall
With tears.  As if we the people believed in justice for all.
 
v  Interlude

Sensitivity is a little boring.  What of toughness,
What of fun—the trip to Yosemite
Where you eluded the swarming journalists
And camped at the hidden lake named Roosevelt, after Teddy,

Where you swam each dawn in the icy waters, where you rode
Like a cowboy, where you hiked like a Ranger
And came back from the high ridges laughing fresh as a girl,
Where you and Lorena slept under singing stars.

vi   Diana the Huntress in Camouflage

Before they invented pills for depression, you wrote:
If anyone looks at me, I want to weep.
My mind goes round and round like a squirrel in a cage,
I want to run and I can’t and I despise myself,

And then proceeded to compose your syndicated column
“My Day” daily for twenty-two years, offering advice and opinions,
Your prose domestic as a centerpiece
On a polished cherrywood table,

The way you might say to the man, Now, Franklin, you should—
Or remark, when some weary delegates wished to quit for the day,
I drive fast, and when I get home I will be tired,
And so will the gentlemen on this committee,

In which fashion you obtained much of what you wanted
Oh woman of pragmatic subtle strategy--
Your quivering mind packed with the arrows of liberty,
The joy of the hunt, the lay of the land of the free

Under your feet as you ran together with your band of friends.




Alicia Ostriker's most recent book of poems is No Heaven (University of Pittsburgh
Press, 2005).  Ostriker is professor emerita of English at Rutgers University and teaches
in the low-residency MFA program of New England College.


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