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The Body Exquisite: Alicia Ostriker


Alicia Ostriker 



for Alison Estabrook


I shook your hand before I went.

Your nod was brief, your manner confident,  

A ship's captain, and there I lay, a chart

Of the bay, no reefs, no shoals.

While I admired your boyish freckles,

Your soft green cotton gown with the oval neck,

The drug sent me away, like the unemployed.

I swam and supped with the fish, while you

Cut carefully in, I mean

I assume you were careful,

I wasn't there, I was away,

I was, you know, under.

They say it took an hour or so.


I liked your freckled face, your honesty

That first visit, when I said

What's my odds on this biopsy

And you didn't mince words,

One out of four it's cancer.

The degree on your wall shrugged slightly.

Your cold window onto Amsterdam

Has seen everything, bums and operas.

A breast surgeon minces something other 

Than language.

That's why I picked you to cut me.


Was I succulent?  Was I juicy?

Though flesh is grass, I dreamed you displayed me

In pleated paper like a fruit.

I dreamed you sliced me like green honeydew,

Or like a pomegranate full of seeds,

Tart as Persephone's, those electric dots 

That kept that girl in hell,

Those jelly pips that made her queen of death.

Doctor, you knifed, chopped and divided it

Like a watermelon's ruby flesh

Flushed a little, serious

About your line of work

Scooped up the risk in the ducts

Scooped up the ducts

Dug out the blubber

Spooned it off and away, nipple and all.

Eliminated the odds, nipped out

Those almost insignificant cells that might

Or might not have lain dormant forever.

MastectomyAlicia Ostriker
00:00 / 03:54

Alicia Ostriker is a major American poet and critic. Author of 17 collections of poetry, she has been twice nominated for the National Book Award, and has twice received the National Jewish Book Award for Poetry, among other honors. As a critic she is the author of the now-classic Stealing the Language: the Emergence of Women's Poetry in America, and other books on poetry and on the Bible, most recently For the Love of God: the Bible as an Open Book. Her most recent collections of poems are Waiting for the Light and The Volcano and After: Selected and New Poems 2002-2019. Her poems have been translated into numerous languages including Hebrew and Arabic. She is the former New York State Poet Laureate and a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

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