The Do-Over

by Kathleen Ossip

reviewed by Heather Treseler

Kathleen Ossip’s new collection borrows its title from American slang: we “do-over” things performed poorly on a first try. It’s a term associated with film takes and sports plays, Broadway ballads and hair dyes, baptisms and buffet lines. As a gesture, a “do-over” is as American as the sales pitch or evangelical exhortation. It suggests our secular investment in redemption, in second chances, in a “sophisticated rewind” that marries technology to the afterlife.

But a “do-over” also carries the hope that art might improve upon experience, refurbishing memory—and expectation—into something more bearable. Ossip’s collection elegizes her stepmother-in-law and the loss of constitutive love, a “stunning comfort / who stapled me.” As in Ossip’s previous books, The Cold War (2011) and The Search Engine (2002), the poet frames the lyric subject within a larger cultural conceit. The Do-Over explores the role of the happenstance mother: a non-biological relation whose sustaining love defies categorization. Ossip’s speaker explores how this relationship allowed her to counter the incursions of time and, in John Berryman’s phrasing, “the horror of unlove.” In memorializing an older woman, “a friend who / couldn’t help but mother,” she traces the ache for a “do-over” in our religious, aesthetic, and consumerist paradigms, uncovering an emotional complex in our cultural moment.

On the one hand, Ossip resists the cult of maternity, the readymade sentiments of the national holiday and its Hallmark cards. In the poem “Mother’s Day,” the speaker declares,

I had no mother, I required none.
I believed in mothers like I believed in the pyramids.

They were complicated too. Monumental but hollow. Dusty but beautiful.
Mathematical and confusing.

With campy defiance, the speaker asserts that she was “motherless,” someone who did not “require” or “believe” in motherhood except as a distant monument, a tomb of antique meanings. And yet, the speaker discovers—in her addressee—someone who instinctively “mother[s],” extending care to others “like the sun.” Highlighting the difference between “mother” as noun and as a verb, Ossip parses motherhood as a social identity, a commercialized role, and a generous “sun” of nurturing warmth, depicting a love sustained without sex or a shared genetic code.

The Do-Over also includes a set of acrostic elegies for Andrea Forster Ossip, Amy Winehouse, Steve Jobs, Troy Davis, Lucian Freud, and Donna Summer. Like headstones, acrostics provide a limited space in which to render a life’s idiosyncratic patterning. In these miniature portraits, Ossip captures public icons who have become, as W. H. Auden wrote of Sigmund Freud, “a whole climate of opinion.” Thus, she writes of Lucian Freud (Sigmund’s grandson):

Lingering over
Unlovely bodies,
Couldn’t help
Intuitively rendering
A whole
Nother angel.

Facts are
Effect worth
Undertaking: yes,
Dear daylight?

Ossip cites the luminosity that Lucian Freud brought to ordinary bodies, the fictive “factuality” of his hyper-realism. It’s an effect that Ossip mimics in many of her own poems, including “It’s hard to keep identities,” in which the speaker recounts falling in love with “a Great Man! Who had a god in him.” Ex-lovers, a young daughter, cutthroat colleagues, an accordion player, a Renaissance painter, and pop singers all cross the speaker’s threshold of identity and shift it. Writing, for Ossip, seems to provide a provisional stay against confusion, saving identity “from ruination” by continually offering it new shapes.

The Do-Over enacts the impossibility of getting things completely right, even in a second try. But “rightness” is not the mission statement of these poems, which aim instead at a thickness of meaning. This supremely protean, dexterous poet focuses her reader’s attention on the hinges between the physical and metaphysical, on the reinvention of narrative and metaphor. In the title poem, the speaker gives herself (and her reader) a set of imperatives:

So kiss the mainstream culture, let it go.

Let go of that beautiful despair.
The shackles of the lyric, let them go.
In the clearing, the now is falling. . . .

There’s something modern within us,
grieving in middle age,
and its intensity stands
between us and death

in the school, the dappled school, of patience.

Ossip suggests that we let grief enliven us, shake up our language, darken our metaphors, and tear us awake. In haiku and acrostics, sonnets and syllabics, ekphrasis and epigrams, the poet urges her reader—as she writes in “Words for a Newborn”—to “give yourself to every fresh chaos / … / This performance will fill eighty years / or more.” To follow Ossip’s dare, we’d best check our “do-over” yearning at the stage door and learn to sing without trusting in an encore.

Published on April 27, 2016