The Cold War
The Cold War
Kathleen Ossip
Sarabande Books, 2011
The Negative Space Ideas Create
Andrew Najberg

As one might intuit from the title, Kathleen Ossip’s collection The Cold War is a book of fundamental oppositions.  However, unlike the ideological stand-off from which the collection takes its name, the scope of Ossip’s subject matter cannot be reduced to simple political terms.  Though political tones lace throughout the collection, sometimes overt and other times subtle, the reader quickly hears the echo of complex questions of the composition of the self underneath every line.  After all, who are people really:  the self they perceive in the moment, the sum of their experiences, or the self as seen by others?  Are they the self they could describe in historical, political categories or the self the denizens of those categories would describe them as?  By reflex, one might say people are the combination of all of these, but Ossip’s collection offers a fascinating alternative.

The opening poem, “The Human Mind,” barrages the reader with conflicts of the self from the start as the speaker begins, “In those days, we had an acceptance of others that didn’t rest/ on their achievements.”  Immediately, the identity of the “others” divides into action and interior, and the speaker into past and present.  The critical tone sets the speaker apart from the group that once shared the voiced world view.  Furthermore, when the second stanza describes an individual who is “One minute serving you drinks from a tray, the next-/ Poverty, daisycutters, deodorizers with the best shapes ever,” the actions of the self divide into moment-by-moment identities.  Ossip’s speaker might answer her own question, “How is an individual built,” by saying, “On the theories of the past” in the next lines of the stanza, but the full stanza offers the reader an image of the waiter much more complex:  these are not reconcilable differences.  The server and the daisycutter may share the same body, but not the same self; one submits with humility, the other dominates with impunity.  They are different people in the context of their presents.  In other words, we see a self divided into fragments that cannot be summed up as a whole, but rather must be composed in the space between those fragments. 

In this way, we also start to see the elegant violence throughout the language of Ossip’s collection.  Like the historical Cold War, this violence is not necessarily overt, but rather a language of wrenching struggles within the space of identity.  While “American History” offers a speaker who wishes to know “How to make volcanic passions permissible,” the speaker of “The Status Seekers” “studied the difference between antennae/ and aerial, commercial and ad, channel and station,” only to conclude “Sometimes it was hard to figure out how to be sincere.”  On the one hand, the quest for sincerity echoes the passionate drive in “American History,” but the study of semantics marks a cerebral pursuit, not one of the heart.  Accuracy is not always honest when it comes to the self, so the speaker finds him/herself “distressed,/ our hearts peeling.”  Similarly, in “American History,” we see a speaker pursue questions that contradict the nature of their desire:  who that seeks “volcanic passions” would wonder whether such passions are “permissible?” 

These semantic struggles pervade the collection, perhaps at their most poignant in “Romantic Depot,” when the distinction “’Success and failure’ are/ not quite the same as ‘dead and gone’” concludes “The world tore itself up at dawn,” simultaneously marrying and divorcing form and content.  All four words, success, failure, dead, and gone, share the commonality of endings but the parallel between the binaries of “success and failure” and “dead and gone” otherwise seems imposed, indicating a perceptual conflict rather than one of an objective “real” world.  However, the rhyme of “gone” and “dawn” (the second and fourth lines of a four line stanza) reinforces the link by calling attention to the intentionality of the wording and emphasizes the validity of the truth of the viewer.  Thus, readers must divide their imaginations into two versions of the truth in a fashion evocative of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man:  we see the likely course of “real” events but have more evidence of the events perceived.   In this way, objective truth becomes speculation, imagination appears proved, but neither feels totally true.  This unsettling effect is reinforced by the exquisitely oxymoronic title that combines passionate ideals with the sterility of a “depot.”

Structural elements further reinforce these identity questions.  For example, it is difficult not to flip back a couple pages after reading the poem “The Status Seekers” when discovering the following poem is entitled “The Status Seekers” to make sure that one did not mistake the prior title.  This causes the reader to question their memory, dividing the readers’ self-perception:  the reader reading and the reader who just read.  Furthermore, the titular overlap establishes two identities for the poem’s speaker.  One must both read the poems separately and against each other, a process complicated by the fact that the second “The Status Seekers” includes many lines of stage-like dialogue involving primarily two characters named “Bud” and “Joy” with intrusions by other speakers such as Aristotle and Francis Bacon.  These elements result in a profusion of identities, each with their own set of values and priorities, that obliterates the concept of status in terms of social competition because there is no definable standard against which one could measure one’s self.   When the structure of the poem becomes dominated by the stage-play formatting, the reader must question their conceptualization of the poem itself.  We see it as both poem and play, and, therefore, neither.

Ultimately, this is the true power and mystery of Ossip’s collection.  In the ambiguously titled (given such questions of form) “document,” Ossip writes, “The more you know about a doorway, the more you know how hard it is to use,” and we hear an echo of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  We see that the questions of semantics versus essence and definition versus identity are all in truth one and the same.   However, Ossip doesn’t simply parrot Heisenberg and tell us that to know one in a binary is to lose the other.  Instead, what unifies the oppositions that flood The Cold War is that neither side of the binaries ever existed to begin with.  Ossip not only defines identity as determined by both self and observer, she defines the individual identity as a categorical term composed of contradictory but simultaneous viewpoints.  Put another way, self-perception is an impression of a shattered mirror seen through someone else’s eyes.  By The Cold War’s close, the closer we get to the images the farther we feel from the scene, the more we understand the speakers, the less we feel like we know them.  In this way, Ossip brings us straight to the heart of the concept of a “Cold War” – it is not contact but space that defines it, the same vacuum that defines the self.

Andrew Najberg

Andrew Najberg is the author of the chapbook of poems Easy to Lose and teaches at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.  His individual poems have appeared in North American Review, Louisville Review, Nashville Review, Yemassee, Artful Dodge, and various other journals and anthologies.