Alicia Ostriker

In a twelve-poem sequence called simply “The Mastectomy Poems,” Alicia Ostriker takes the reader on a journey from the shock of breast cancer diagnosis through surgery and the challenges of recovery—physical and emotional. Ostriker begins by acknowledging a common denial of vulnerability: “You never think it will happen to you,/What happens every day to other women.” A later poem parallels the approach that Spence and many other disabled activists and artists have embraced: “Spare me your pity,/Your terror, your condolence./I’m not your wasting heroine.” Toward the close of the sequence, the poem below, “Healing,” is a complex portrait of mourning and resilience. From an ice-like fear, the release of a “howl” of rage and grief promises later healing, a potential warming in the “less than zero” weather of the soul.

9. Healing

A day that is less than zero
Icicles fat as legs of deer
Hang in a row from the porch roof
A hand without a mitten
Grabs and breaks one off—
A brandished javelin
Made of sheer
Stolen light
To which the palm sticks
As the shock of cold
Instantly shoots through the arm
To the heart—
I need a language like that,
A recognizable enemy, a clarity—
I do my exercises faithfully,
My other arm lifts,
I apply vitamin E,
White udder cream
To the howl
I make vow after vow.

Alicia Ostriker, from “The Mastectomy Poems.” Reprinted by permission of the author. University Pittsburgh Press. The Crack in Everything. 1996.

Book cover for Alicia Ostriker's The Crack In Everything

About This Site

A Picture of Health: Jo Spence, a Politics of Disability and Illness is a multi-pronged project curated by Kenny Fries and Elisabeth Frost.

In 1986 the British artist, educator, and activist Jo Spence (1934-1992) described the question fundamental to her work: “how to represent a body in crisis.” Spence’s work reveals powerful political and artistic responses to the experience of inhabiting such a body and is as timely as ever. This website places her work in the context of the lived experience of chronic illness and of contemporary Disability Arts.

The Artists

Links to artists, with an image representing each artist that is explored in further detail on the artist's page.