Dear Alicia Ostriker,
Mrs. Ostriker, your poem struck me as bittersweet. Although I have never had the misfortune of being raised by divorced parents, oftentimes in my childhood I too used my imagination to make light of dark times. In that way I see myself in your neighbor’s daughter, bright-eyed and perhaps too quick to see the magic in a world far from forgiving or fantastical. I do, however, have a few questions. How did you come to know about these, your neighbor’s daughter’s imaginative qualities? Did she tell you or was it her parent(s), your neighbor? Had you come across her one afternoon perhaps sat outside her home in poor attempt to escape from earshot of arguing? And did she tell you: is she the noble princess or, Mrs. Ostriker, are you? Is the noble princess her mother? Or the athletic consort?
Without complete clarity on these matters it’s a little tough to make any concrete suppositions on the theme of the poem. But, with the same kind of childlike wonder displayed by your neighbor’s daughter, in my mind I imagine all the answers to my questions in the form of a story. And the theme of that story is “kindness.” The picture I received after reading your poem was one of solace in conversation, solace in playing pretend with someone you trust. I had the picture of you speaking to a young girl dressed up as a fairy princess or something like it as she, slightly preoccupied with toys and magic wand in hand, tried to explain to you the city she created despite naming it something she cannot pronounce. I truly believe when staring straight in the face of a turbulent trial such as sickness, moving away, or even divorce, finding someone kind is the brightest ray of sunshine one can happen upon. And by telling the world of your neighbor’s daughter’s small utopia I believe you value kindness just as much as I do. And for that, on behalf of fairy princesses everywhere, I thank you.
With Faith, Trust and Pixie Dust,
Thank you so much for your letter about my poem "Utopian." I'm glad that you called it "bittersweet" because that is how it seemed to me, and I'm gad you were able to see yourself in the imaginary picture of my neighbor's daughter even though your own circumstances are different from hers--specifically, your own parents were never divorced. Part of what we poets attempt to do is create worlds in which many readers can, however mysteriously, find themselves.
Your questions are good ones. You ask how i came to know "my neighbor's daughter." The fact is, she's the daughter of an old friend who was visiting me and told me about her daughter's creativity as a dollmaker and builder of miniature toy structures. Yes, my friend and her husband are long divorced, but her love and admiration of her daughter was so infectious, that I found myself imagining what her daughter might be fantasizing if she were much younger than she really is. And so she is a kind of compound of my friend, and me, and herself, and we were all little girls once, so the fantasy is a compound of fairy-tale little-girl-princess fantasies and wishful thinking about a protected society in which there are no lies and no divorces, which implies no unhappiness.
As you probably already know, a utopia is an imagined place or state of things in which everything is good. The word was coined by Sir Thomas More in his book Utopia (1516), and is taken from the Greek ou-topos, which means noplace, or nowhere. But you don't have to know that, to realize that the city in my poem is a fantasy, a place we can imagine but not reach. I think this is what makes the poem bittersweet.
I do value kindness, as you have guessed, and I value imagination, fairy princesses, and pixie dust.
I trust that you have a stash of that pixie dust somewhere in your vicinity, and that you will use it wisely.