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INTRODUCTION Christopher T. George The Poetry of Barbara Ostrander (1956-2005): An Appreciation CONTENTS The Poetry of Barbara Ostrander: Africa Unleashed Sorrow Cravings Intensive Care Nurse Raxaul, Armpit of India Scabies Yeti Airlines From Raxaul, India, Back to Kathmandu Shucking it down to the cob broken dreams story goes like this... Chemo I'll Never Get Used to These Words Untitled Cat Nap POST SCRIPTUM Contact information for Christopher T. George
The Poetry of Barbara Ostrander (1956-2005): An Appreciation by Christopher T. George I first knew Barbara Ostrander through the Poetry Kit e-mail workshop run by Liverpool performance poet Jim Bennett and we contacted each other privately by e-mail in the fall of 2003. I met Barbara in the aftermath of Hurricane Isabelle when she came to Bethesda for cancer treatment at the National Institutes of Health. Somehow it was emblematic of Barbara's on-the-edge poetry of faraway places that we would meet when part of Bethesda was blacked out by the storm, and we would dine at the Mongolian Grill where Barb told me of her upcoming trip to India and Nepal. Although of American parentage, Barbara, the daughter of Frank and Jean Amis Baugh, grew up in Bangladesh and southern Tanzania, where her father ran a hospital. During this time, she went to boarding school in Kenya, starting with eighth grade. In a memoir written for Poetry Kit where she was featured poet in August 2002 (http://pk-poetry-list.port5.com/featurpoet/fpindex.htm - click on Featured Poet 14), Barbara recorded that although she was by then a happily married mother of four living in Lexington, Kentucky, she still viewed East Africa as her home. Indeed, she liked to tease her friends that she was the true African American although her skin was white.
Barbara began writing poetry as a child and a number of her poems are about her time in Africa. I view the following poem as one of her best, sensuously binding the love of her husband with longing for Africa, while ever mindful of the wildness, beauty, and dangers of the continent. Africa Unleashed ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ I wonder if it is the way you pace soft-pawed by the window that makes me think of home. You watch for me to reappear, a lion on the move. Or maybe it's the way your nostrils flare that brings to mind the gazelle standing alert, knowing it's being watched sinew-tense, aware. I map out beneath my fingertips the parched plains of the Serengeti, feel along your spine and hips the urgency of the dry season, poised for the rains. Your heat soaks my skin, consumes like a bushfire, leaves me stretched spent, a lizard on the windowsill, limbs languid and still. I smell in you the raw nerves of Africa unleashed, close my eyes, breathe deep of home.
In the next poem, Barbara again makes clear her love for African flora and fauna. Once more the poem is very tactile, making use of all of the poet's faculties: taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing. Sorrow ~~~~~~ 'Just as water mirrors your face, so your face mirrors your heart.' - Proverbs 27 The smoky aftertaste of burnt maize absorbs the color of river water at dusk, seeps into the bush, shadow art drawn with nubbed point. It penetrates pores in decimals; metal against tarmac, a rabbit's cry, the red choking cough sucked airless by negative force, fists that quiver before they fall like quails shot from the sky. It mews in the hushed tones of the lost and alone, the constant flutter of the weaver bird in the acacia tree, the sudden blending of lines a baby zebra's stripes, the underbelly of any beast. Each night in the mirror she lifts a finger, maps out footpaths through endless banana groves, great rifts forged by the rains and scorching sun. When "Sorrow" appeared in WORM 30, Compiling Editor Margaret (Maz) Griffiths made the poem an editor's choice, and she commented, "I found the series of images in this poem very poignant. The African references - the wildlife, the oppressive heat, the landscape of the final strophe - combine a sense of powerful forces and personal sadness, of the innate connection of the author with the natural world."
Interviewed in Poetry Kit about what inspired her to write, Barbara replied, "Africa's dusty plains, suffering in any form, the sea, the beauty of my own kid's faces. . ." Asked why she wrote, she said, "The same reason I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro: it's beautiful and challenging and it is there." In addition to climbing Kilimanjaro twice, Barbara told of shooting her own zebra "for food (of course)." The sensuousness observed in "Africa Unleashed" and "Sorrow" is rife once more in the next selection, although the poem is more circumspect and operates in a more limited locus. And yet, remarkably, the seeming simple romanticism of the first two strophes come to a pitch of full adult sexuality in the final couplet of the third and last stanza. Cravings ~~~~~~~~ last night I had a craving for the sweet taste of warm summer days coconut and salt waves hitting the shore last night I had a craving for hot sand brushing against skin the sultry breeze whispering my name last night I had a craving for exploding spectrums of color when the sun finally sets as I lick your suntan oil from my lips. In fact, on close examination, we can see that "Cravings" works quite subtly, presenting an escalating series of types of craving. The poet begins in the first stanza with simple personal nostalgia, moving in the second to an open desire for hot sand and a reaching out to the sultry breeze "whispering my name" and this escalation of degrees of craving sets up the final images of exploding spectrums of color, the setting sun, and the poet licking her lover's suntan oil from her own lips. The finale thus achieves a clever, even cunning surprise. And although "exploding spectrums of color" might be viewed by some as being on the telling or ambiguous side, the poet gets away with it because of the strength of the truth and realism in the last two lines.
In 1994, Barbara read about the Rwandan Civil War, and this would lead to her going to Goma, Zaire, and working as part of a medical team in the refugee camps and at an orphanage, then coming back to the United States to finish her nursing degree. She also later worked in Africa in 2000 as part of a drought relief team. Unfortunately, just after she finished her BSN, RN degrees in 2001, Barbara learned she had renal cell carcinoma. Her fight against cancer did not dampen her desire to help others, and she continued to work as a nurse. Intensive Care Nurse ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ you placed your life into my hands looked straight in my eyes said don't let me die would that I had such control someone should tell you I can't save my own
In October 2003, Barbara went to India and Nepal to work as a nurse. The following is excerpted from a cycle of poems that she wrote during the trip, partly diary notations, partly insightful and poetic observations on what she experienced and the hardships, poverty, and disease among the people she helped to treat. Raxaul, Armpit of India ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ An open-sewer smell claims the place, welcomes you first, garbage and dung along the streets, beggars with their pleading palms, bony men pedaling rickshaws, faces peaked with suspicion and questions. But through the door of the orphanage, every hand is outstretched in welcome, every face alive with greeting. Like love, children can do this... bridge the gap between worlds. Scabies ~~~~~~~ can burrow under the skin within 2 minutes, lay their eggs, erupt into open wounds. I watch you limp, touch hand to your hot face, investigate the bottom of your feet the infection, the green pus, that mingles with filthy ground. Not a tear or whimper, you join the others for dinner but I wonder, how to scrub away a world of dirt, wash your feet so they stay clean after I am gone? Yeti Airlines From Raxaul, India, Back to Kathmandu ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ I start to clean my glasses, realize it's the window that is dirty, glimpse green plains below that give way to forests divided by wide sandy riverbeds cutting through the densely growing trees. The Monsoons have barely passed and already the rivers are virtually dried up. I strain my eyes looking for wildlife. They say this is where you come on safari, ride the elephants through the jungles in search of tigers, other things. Next to me, a woman in sari, her baby cries, but her young son sits glued to the window, bouncing in his seat, excited by flight. The steep hills rise up from the plains, cut by deep ravines and smattered with huts and terraced farms, mustard, tea, lush from above. Now flying blindly, over peaks, there's only clouds ahead through the cockpit window. Up here everything's masked by a facade of beauty, covered by fresh green below, white clouds above, disease and poverty erased by altitude and distance. I'm aware of not liking how relieved I feel to be flying away from Raxaul.
While Barbara underwent cancer therapy, from 2001 to the first months of 2005, Barbara's love for poetry and her need to write continued even if she showed little or no desire for publication, rarely sending her poems out for consideration. During this time, beginning in late 2003, Barbara volunteered to serve as a daily monitor and advisor at the on-line poetry site Desert Moon Review where I am editor, as well as, for a time in 2004, as an editor at Writer's Block. Her activity as a writing poet began to lessen as her health complications grew in the winter of 2004-2005 and into the early months of 2005. The intense feeling seen in all of Barbara's poetry carries through to her works that center on her battle with cancer. The power of expression and the pain in these poems speak for themselves. Shucking it down to the cob ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ I lost my diamond ring the other day looked down at my finger saw a pale band of skin where it should be but no ring two days later my Mexican toe ring gone as well I'm wearing skin these days shedding the layers the illusion of being in control the worry about what others think the realization of how few things really matter in the end born naked heading back home broken dreams ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ fall to the ground like an upturned purse shaken empty everything precious spilling out to roll from view I'm on hands and knees searching under the day's moments, running my hand in the shadows, coming up with only dust balls. story goes like this... ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ I'm dying before my eyes on the horizon a shadow a slow shadow falls my soul as well as my skin becomes loose, falls back folds of dry waste that smell of rain but no rain falls all is empty bitterly sad I am unable to plump up newness and the rosy color of health. dis-ease creeps into how the world sees me dreams stripped away expose the weakness of being weeded out survival of the fittest is like that loneliness takes on a new degree I gather myself fill my lungs with chilly air try to breathe Chemo ~~~~~ It never hits with the crack and flash of a storm, doesn't sweep away in a raging flood, maybe that's why I forget to run, why I allow such damage to be done. No, it's more like the gentle relentless rains, the steady flow that seeps and drowns the worm, leaves it stretched across the sidewalk for the birds to pluck away. I should be glad it's working, I should be, but somehow when I pass a mirror and see the swollen marked terrain, I want to cry-- enough. I'll Never Get Used to These Words ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ You've got growth. It's a gut punch every time, like the first time they were said to me. And so the grieving process begins again, I know all the steps by now. I can tick them off one by one on my fingers. Even as I yell, I don't want to do this again, my mind says, Step I: Anger, normal human behavior. Perhaps the grieving becomes shorter each time, perhaps I proceed with rapid speed to acceptance. Still, there is a rise that grows steeper every day. In the preceding works, the sense of loss or the looming of loss is intense. Anger is shown by the poet in regard to the unfairness of her situation. Again, to me, the essence of Barbara Ostrander's work is that realism and truthfulness always shine through no matter what the subject matter happens to be. These are well-constructed and well-though-out poems but they are not contrived poems. They are poems written from real experience.
One of Barbara's last poems, originally titled "Peace" but published as "Untitled" in the Winter 2005 issue of Crescent Moon Journal, is about her hopes for the coming of spring, informed by the poet's faith in God: Untitled ~~~~~~~~ How beautiful is the bare winter branch silhouetted against the deepening night sky. Pencil drawn, thicker branches divide to smaller limbs, finally extend fingers of twigs spread open to the night. How beautiful is the winter soul at rest, the man who stands naked and at peace, Tonight the moon slips past the clouds. Drops of water rest like sleeping stars, grace the end of each branch with a tiny tear. A crown of crystal thorns, the hope of things to come.
Barbara's faith in God remained a consolation throughout her life and helped mold her world view, as well as how she dealt with her illness and what would happen to her. In answering questions about the above poem when she posted it on the PK list, Barbara wrote: "I've not really had an urge to write for many months now so it was a relief to feel this come together." One of the list members, Englishman Stuart Nunn, commented in part: "Have I got this right? 'crown of thorns' = Easter = spring, so 'things to come' is the new leaves. Or is it mankind's redemption through Christ's sacrifice and resurrection? Or both?" Barbara's response of January 16, 2005 is informative about her work with the poetic process as well as about her faith: "Oh my, of course this refers to Christ and what the cross means for our future, but if you look, you will see this is a crystal crown of thorns, what happened on the cross already complete, we look forward to hope of his touch in whatever way it comes. For me crystal also represents a person's thorny crown of suffering, the transformation that occurs during winter, that this person is wearing that is somehow becoming priceless, and adds to the peace of winter. Remember faith is the certainty/ hope of things not seen.....like spring....we have no guarantee it will come again and yet we believe in our hearts/hope/have faith that it will." Almost exactly a year earlier, in February 2004, the poet had explored similar feelings about the coming of spring- Cat Nap ~~~~~~~ Feline-like, I curl, a tight ball where winter's sunlight beams through sliding doors, puddles like warm cream on the bedroom floor. Against this wash sounds the grateful purr of prayers as eyes drift closed. Feel palm absorb heated glass, sleep at last, warm and content. Later, the mirror shows only one cheek flushed, licked pink with hope of spring.
After a battle with cancer of just over four years, Barbara Baugh Ostrander died on August 12, 2005 at age 49 at her home in Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband Kent at her side. I am grateful to Kent for agreeing to allow me to put together this selection of Barbara's poetry which I dedicate in her memory as a keepsake for Kent and their children, Erick, Grant, Anna and Kyle.
Christopher T. George Editor, Desert Moon Review http://www.desertmoonreview.com Co-Editor, Loch Raven Review http://www.lochravenreview.com
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