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Kathleen Ossip's The Do-Over
How could caring for a dying woman be life affirming? Witnessing death confirms our own vitality: the caregiver is living, the cared for is dying. But before long the inevitable question creeps in: vital for how much longer? Kathleen Ossip’s The Do-Over brims with these apparent contradictions in a poetry of bracing both-ness:
When you die, you die. Your body
returns to the earth and those living live on until they die too.
Your spirit doesn’t float around after you’re gone.
Your spirit is nothing more than your conscious and unconscious
thoughts and feelings. When your body dies, your thoughts die too.
This I don’t believe or disbelieve. (“What is Death”)
The Do-Over, Ossip’s third collection, is a lyrical, open-ended, meta-leaning meditation on the subject of death, but while the passing of the speaker’s step-mother-in-law is the book’s chief impetus, the reader is invited to engage with more than passive sympathy for the speaker’s loss. Ossip actively befriends the reader in the process of coming to terms with her grief, reminding us that it applies to everyone: “one day / we all won’t have the pleasure of breathing” (“The Road Trip and the Apron String”). Death is not Ossip’s only subject—the book also examines her past, social injustice, the 2008-10 economic collapse, and the men she has loved—but Andrea’s death becomes the lens through which she views everything else.
This pervasive awareness of loss is threaded through the language itself, where those who have been lost are both present and absent. The Do-Over includes several acrostics using the names of the dead (not only Andrea but Amy Winehouse, Steve Jobs, Troy Davis, Lucien Freud, and Donna Summer). “A in May,” one of three acrostics employing Andrea’s full name, opens the collection with the information that the speaker’s step-mother-in-law is dying: “She’s part of the carbon cycle.” Objectifying her beloved mother figure as food for worms seems to provide the speaker with a modicum of relief from what appears to be a relentlessly painful grieving process. It also affirms that humans, along with trees, millipedes, flower, and salmon (which all make appearances in the book), are part of the nature order of birth, death, and renewal (“Each of us one cell in the universe of process.”).
What exactly does Ossip wish to “do over”? She seems to wish for an alternative to dying: “No aspect of life is to be despised”; “I see the forest, I see the trees”; and “Let go of that beautiful despair / The shackles of the lyric, let them go.” But her desired “do-overs” might also include taking Grandfather Joseph’s advice to learn what to forget and ignore, to be more assertive. Instead of a clear answer, the poem wends its way from obscure pronouncements (“My hand is Wyoming, discovered”), to statements about modernity versus the Middle Ages. This combination of hopefulness and disgust, the speaker’s dual fascination with and dread of cycles, provides the inspiration for the book’s title. Asking for a “do-over” is magical thinking, a last ditch effort in the throes of grief to find a way out: if only we all got another chance, not only at how we “do” our lives (more kindly, mindfully) but that we get to do our lives again. Ossip is not sure if she (or any of us) will or will not get another chance.
In “Mother’s Day,” we learn the speaker “had no mother,” which helps to explain why she finds herself so bonded with Andrea (“When I think of mother, / you are the image I think of / like a sun . . . and now a mass blocks the sun.”) Before losing Andrea, “Birth . . . was the brilliant upheaval” [but] Now I see death is another.” The speaker has traveled far, from “believ[ing] mothers like I believed in the pyramids,” to gaining a mother-figure (“a friend who / couldn’t help but mother”) to losing this mother, an upheaval she equates with birthing a child. In this way she connects birth and death in a circular fashion, one inevitably following the next, not unlike the carbon cycle. Both are natural and necessary insofar as death is life is death is life, ad infinitum. Ossip’s speaker wants “to believe in reincarnation an eternity of do-overs.” (“Lyric,” 23). In “Lyric,” an exquisite cocktail of displacement, minutiae, and metapoetic introspection, everyday tasks have heightened significance, a focus on the “small and mute” that rarely “have things the way they want them.”
Asking for a “do-over” is magical thinking, a last ditch effort in the throes of grief to find a way out.
This friction between acceptance and dread of inevitable decay are also exemplified by the fact that the speaker is both doubter and believer (“I have kept I have lost my religious faith”). She is aware of the contradictions she lives with daily, with the murder she commits as she eats “The salmon [that] died in terror in agony.” With a self-referential wink at the reader, she refers to “the reality effect,” a term coined by Roland Barthes to name the seemingly trivial details in a literary work that develop character (example: James Bond shops at Fortnum and Mason). In “Lyric,” the reality effects are the squirrels, the salmon, “this white face / (w/moisturizer serums & mascara).”
The woman Ossip mourns is terminally ill, but the book she writes about this woman is the opposite of bounded or fixed at an endpoint. Embracing dualities at every turn—that there is meaning, that there isn’t; that there is an after-life, that there is nothing at all—The Do-Over reads like a yin-yang guide to overcoming grief. As she states in “Lyric”: “My life is true my death is true the ravine is true” and “I have kept I have lost my religious faith I’m eating a salmon.” The last thing on Ossip’s mind: pat answers, straight-up conclusions, easy solutions, solvable equations.
That said, there are poems (and a prose piece, “After”) in which Ossip earnestly (and un-ironically) shares her encounters with spirits. Including these visitations serves to reinforce the overarching tendency in this book to swing between extremes regarding what happens after we die. In “Three True Stories” we learn that her Uncle Bob visited her in a “waking dream or vision.” In “After,” we learn she took part in a genuine quest at a spiritualist community, where the medium receives a message from Joseph, her mother’s father. The message: “Go with your gut.” For the next few months Ossip wakes in the middle of night and travels to a place where there are “an enormous number of people …like Pauline Kael and Kurt Cobain and Sojourner Truth,” along with some of her ancestors. The first “high-def” ancestor she greets is the aforementioned Grandpa Joseph. Many nights are spent in this fugue state communing with her forebears, and then the visits suddenly stop. While there is initial skepticism, Ossip soon drops the jokey disbelief, sharing these encounters as the God-awful truth. In the final Andrea acrostic, we learn “A piece of you flew into me one day,” that Andrea’s spirit entered her as she drove along (“It didn’t hurt, it tickled” “A. in September”). And yet, despite these unequivocal encounters with ghosts, the book retains its inconclusive feel regarding the afterlife: no one, and least of all Ossip, knows for sure.
As for the battle between love and death, by the end of the book, Ossip is relatively clear about where she stands:
with death, and love
never does . . . (“The Arrival of Spring”)
Relatively clear, I assert, because if you read past the lines that are likely to be quoted most from this poem (“Love triumphs / over brutality / because brutality / must end / with death, and love / never does”), if you continue reading, you will get to a passage that is less definitive:
and we believe
it’s our job to
and if you can’t
believe it perhaps
you need a harder
kick in the ass
delivered in a
loose slurred voice . . .
In other words, love wins because otherwise . . . what kind of a world would we live in? How could we raise children in it? How could we ever round the bend past grief, toward acceptance? Ossip’s book does move in a Kubler-Rossian fashion, in and out of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Like Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” Ossip’s poems document “First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go.”
Yet the Dickinson poem that The Do-Over recalls most strikingly is 568, “We learned the Whole of Love”:
We learned the Whole of Love—
The Alphabet—the Words—
A Chapter—then the mighty Book—
But in Each Other's eyes
An Ignorance beheld—
Diviner than the Childhood's—
And each to each, a Child—
Attempted to expound
Alas, that Wisdom is so large—
And Truth—so manifold!
This poem attempts to articulate what may be the book’s most upsetting contradiction of all—that as we gain wisdom, words fail. It becomes increasingly difficult to express our thoughts and feelings through language, and even if we could, there is no such thing as a single, knowable truth. Ossip sums up this sentiment in “Three Short Lyrics”:
No more truths! A story please.
Free verse spare and small.
Sometimes Ossip speaks directly to us, as in “Ghost Moon”—“Or—no, wait, that’s me” and “Or—no, wait, how I would like the moon to believe in me”—and again in “Lyric,” where she states “(can’t bear to look back have done that in last book).” There are cross-outs in the poem “On Political Crisis,” along with a reference to the mutability of “the whole plot,” which “will be changed, gladly.” She is Kathleen Ossip, the poet, and she is The Speaker. Sometimes she, the poet she, pops up in her own poems (like Dickinson) to let us know she is busy making them.
In The Do-Over’s final poem, Ossip rides in a car with a man, presumably a lover, speeding by the mausoleum where Andrea now resides. What can be said here at the end, except that Ossip knows that endings are artificial, staged, untrue? And yet, she knows she has to end, that a book (and a life) can’t go on forever. She focuses on the faces of the angels guarding the souls of the dead, how “Their expressions won’t change / except to be wiped away, gently, by time.” Surprisingly, she states “They are what I now want to be”—an angel that disappears, never saying “I do but I don’t.” Ossip has decided to be a definitive, doomed-to-fade seraph. And yet, in signature style, the final words are somewhat difficult to parse. How exactly does she want us to read them? My guess: that love conquers all. And yet, two poems prior, in “Funeral of My Character, she states that “A moral or an ending is a lie.” She seems to be saying the choice is yours, reader. It is your life (and your death), after all.
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