Everywoman Her Own Theology: An Online Companion

"Alicia Ostriker and Conjunto Music" by Wendy Barker

When Alicia Ostriker first came to San Antonio, where I teach, she had only one request: conjunto music. I had to ask my students where to go. We hit every club in town. That was after Alicia had visited our graduate poetry workshop, which met that night at Hill’s and Dale’s, an old ice house across the freeway from our campus where in the afternoon you can find most of our anthropology faculty and any number of Hell’s Angels. After we talked about poems around a couple of pulled-together barbeque tables, Alicia played pool with the guys.

At home the next morning, I was making omelets—“What I can do?” said Alicia, and in two minutes she was cutting up tomatoes and green peppers for our eggs. My women students had hung on her words as if they were life lines.

I’d done the same, hung on her words, that is, when I was a graduate student at UC Davis in the late seventies. My dissertation director Sandra Gilbert brought Alicia to our workshop, and I was struck by this modest woman who seemed as pleased to learn that we liked her poems as we were to feel her keen interest in us. And then later, at MLA’s over the years, she was always just as friendly. When Alicia became the dissertation director of a close friend, Martha Nell Smith, it felt we were part of a family of big and little sisters, that cosy.

But not just comfy, and never complacent. One of Alicia’s poems that has stayed with me for over twenty years is from Green Age, “A Young Woman, a Tree”—a poem that traces a life from youthful desire to “explode” like a flaming tree, to “burn like that” all the way to the maple’s long survival in the city, where it “draws
Its thoughts downward to its other crown,
The secret leafless system
That digs in dark
Its thick intelligent arms

And stubborn hands
Under the shops, the streets,
The subways, the granite,

The sewage pipes’
Cold slime,
As deep as that.
Alicia’s poems have continued to burn like that flaming tree—just as they dig far underneath the surface, unafraid of the slime. Street smart and straight-talking, they’re positively Whitmanesque in their embrace—their unabashed hug—of gritty life, of heavy breathing, sweaty experience. And yet they’re also Dickinsonian in their wit and “white heat.” Whether writing about childbirth in the midst of the Vietnam War or the pain of separating from one’s children as they grow to their own adulthood, whether writing about tumultuous real-life marriage or the comedies and tragedies of teaching, Alicia Ostriker’s poems are always grappling, wrestling, ferociously fixing an eye on the frightening, luminous center.

Her poems confront the biggest subjects (birth, death, the sacred) with humor, self-knowledge, and increasing wisdom. “Write for your own sake,” she says in a poem called “The Class”—“Write for the sake of the silenced. / Write what makes you afraid to write.” In her poems and her prose, Alicia tackles subjects fearlessly, often in the spirit of midrash. This is a writer who brings intellectual and spiritual ferocity to everything she does.

And passion. Another poem of Alicia’s that seems almost a credo is “Boil,” whose ending lines read:
Rules, laws, which we are seething to break
Though to rupture them might mean of course to die.

Or, possibly, 
To change: 

Boil, it’s what water
And everything else teaches.

How this writer has broken the rules! How she has changed over the years, and, in the process, changed so many of us! And yet—having stolen the language and made it hers, having stripped the fathers and danced naked along with them, Alicia Ostriker has remained as humble, as modest as she was when I first met her in the seventies, when we were both young women, young trees. 


Wendy is the Pearl LeWinn Endowed Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she has taught literature and creative writing courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels since 1982. Author of six books of poetry, Wendy won the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry in 2015 for her most recent collection, One Blackbird at a Time. Her previous works of poetry include Poems from Paradise, Way of Whiteness, Let the Ice Speak, and Winter Chickens. She is also the author of one novel, Nothing Between Us: The Berkeley Years, and four chapbooks. She is the recipient of an NEA fellowship, a Rockefeller residency fellowship at Bellagio, and the Writers’ League of Texas Book Award.

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