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"Motherhood/Morality/Momentum: Alicia Ostriker and H.D." by Donna Krolik Hollenberg
Keep Lilith in a cage, curse Lilith in a Tree?
no; no barbaric hordes nor gods can yet prevail
against the law that drags the snail across the grass,
that turns the falcon from the course,
that drives the lion until he finds
the lioness within the cave;
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
but those prayers are worn threadbare;
there must be others, bright with vivid fire,
revolatilizing, luminous, life-bearing
H.D., “Vale Ave”
We keep pushing
Child, we keep dropping
And being part of mystery that is
Bigger than language
And changes the language
And bursts it apart
And grows up and
Wildly away out of it
Alicia Ostriker, “Lilith Says Where Trees Come From”
Alicia Ostriker began to write out of the experience of motherhood well before she read H.D. She was committed early to being a poet who would write about the body and completed “Once More out of Darkness,” a poem about pregnancy and birth, in 1965, a year after graduate school. In 1970 she began The Mother/Child Papers, galvanized by the experience of bearing a son during the Vietnam War. As she later wrote, considering the historical fact of recurring wars from the dual perspective of poet and mother:
Similarly, concern with motherhood in the context of war was central to H.D. During World War I, when she was establishing herself as a poet, H.D. had two traumatic pregnancies, the first ending in stillbirth, the second in the birth of her daughter, Perdita, in the setting of her own grave illness and the deaths of her brother and father. Everything she wrote later reacted to that trauma. She wanted to restore, through the power of imaginative vision, what had been lost in her own life and, indeed, in the life of Europe. In increasingly female-centered texts, she came to connect the “family romance” and female oppression with the warrior ethos in Western culture and, ultimately, to reappropriate the childbirth metaphor for women writers in the name of love and the hope of social reform (Hollenberg 1991). As Ostriker comments, claiming her as a precursor, “It is appropriate that H.D. is our first poet to imagine a female being in whom a biological life, a life of feeling, and a life of dedicated spirituality and artistic creation are not divided but one” (1983: 40).
The advantage of motherhood for a woman artist is that it puts her in immediate and inescapable contact with the sources of life, death, beauty, growth, corruption .... if she is a moralist it engages her in serious and useful work .... we can imagine what it would signify to all women and men, to live in a culture where childbirth and mothering occupied the kind of position that sex and romantic love have occupied in literature and art for the last hundred years, or the kind of position that warfare has occupied since literature began. (Ostriker 1983: 130-31)
In this essay I will explore the implications of motherhood as a moral force in the work of Alicia Ostriker within the context of her literary engagement with H.D. The experience of motherhood, which Ostriker describes as an “extraordinary sensation of transformation from being a private individual self to being a portion of something else,” informs her view of the woman poet’s role in culture and tradition in ways that parallel but diverge from H.D. (1983: 127). Ostriker’s reading of H.D., part of an immersion in women’s poetry begun during the height of the feminist movement, prepares her to write out of the (often transgressive) intellectual and emotional depth of her experience and gives her conceptual and formal means of doing so. H.D.’s religious heterodoxy and revisionist mythmaking are particularly instructive: her recovery of a repressed maternal principle in Western culture enables Ostriker’s comparable revision of androcentric Jewish myth. However, Ostriker’s poetry engages history more directly than H.D.’s. Most recently, she has written in a mode of post-Holocaust apostasy that contradicts H.D.’s commitment to a predetermined cosmic order and spiritual transcendence. Indeed, unlike H.D., for whom poetry is the expression of a sacred “inner world of defence” (Hollenberg 1997: 10) and childbearing a metaphor for salvation, the experience of motherhood is a source of Ostriker’s use of poetry as social protest, and she rejects the conversion of human life into the discourse of the sublime.
The first book that Ostriker wrote after reading H.D. was A Woman Under the Surface (1982), in which both the experience of motherhood and her engagement with H.D. are expressed subliminally. The moral imperative of the mother-child bond, that sense of the self’s transformation, is experienced at a primitive level. The book’s title is taken from the poem “The Exchange,” which records the fear of and desire for chthonic female power, which is transgressive in a world limited by stifling gender roles and male domination. The poet imagines changing places with a strong woman who swims “below the surface” of the water. If she “dives down,”: this double might climb into the boat she inhabits with her children, strangle and dispose of them, take her car, drive to her home, and confront her husband. When he answers the doorbell and sees “this magnificent naked woman, bits of sunlight / Glittering on her pubic fur,” past insults will be avenged while she swims coolly “out of reach” (Ostriker 1982: 7). In other poems, the feeling of being part of a larger whole informs the poet’s concern for the well-being of other women, particularly those on the social margins. For example, there is a poem in the voice of a “crazy lady” who insists on being embraced, another about “three women” who have been neglected or misled by men, and one that recounts a daughter’s nightmare invasion by the bedraggled specter of her mother. Particularly reminiscent of H.D., still other poems engage in revisionist mythmaking; that is, mythmaking that alters existing myths for the purposes of cultural reform. For example, there is a poem sequence, based on the myth of Eros and Psyche, that questions the inevitability of female masochism embedded in Apuleius’s version of that myth.
Further, in this book Ostriker internalized the shape of H.D.’s mature poetic stanza, the formal correlative of her radical stance as a visionary modernist in a world shattered by war: two or three nonmetrical lines that nevertheless are gracefully cadenced, suggesting traces of primal order. As H.D. put it in her early novel, Paint It Today, anticipating the limpid stanza form she would create in Trilogy: “Large, epic pictures bored her, though she struggled through them. She wanted the songs that cut like a swallow wing the high, untainted ether, not the tragic legions of set lines that fell like black armies with terrific force and mechanical set action, paralyzing, or broke like a black sea to baffle and to crush” (1992 b: 12). Like H.D., Ostriker became adept at this stanza form and at the subtle use of off-rhyme as well as of other kinds of interior sound linkages. In this book, poems about the liberation of her dream life are reminiscent of H.D. in sound as well as theme. Consider these lines from the opening and closing of Ostriker's “The Diver”:
Though grounded in experience and thus in loss, they are buoyant and fluid. Like the following lines by H.D., they invite us to trust our own inner lives, suggesting that resilience and spiritual regeneration lie there, not in outside authority:
Giving the self to water, a diver
Lifts from stone, sails through the air,
Hits, goes under.
Now, she remembers everything, this cold
Sweet privacy, the instantaneous
Loss of her name. She remembers that drowning
Is a possibility, like not drowning. (I982: 63)
let us go down to the sea,
Ostriker’s reading of H.D. is directly acknowledged in her next book of poems, The Imaginary Lover (1986), in which the epigraph, from Trilogy, expresses a desire for spiritual wholeness and autonomy that Ostriker shares:
gather dry sea-weed,
let us light a new fire
and in the fragrance
of burnt salt and sea-incense
chant new paeans to the new Sun
of regeneration. (1973: 26)
Both poets locate the impediments to that wholeness in the dualities authorized by culture and tradition. Among these is a socially constructed contradiction between creativity and procreativity, motherhood and authorship. In fact, a “quest for autonomous self-definition” is central to the women’s poetry movement that Ostriker describes in her groundbreaking book of literary criticism, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, published the same year. Not surprisingly, many of Ostriker’s observations about the work of her predecessors and contemporaries apply to her own poetry as well. In fact, the main categories she ascribes to this poetry movement—the ways in which women write about the body and nature, the meanings of anger and violence in one’s work, the “imperative of intimacy” that marks the expression of female desire, revisionist mythmaking as attempts at self and cultural reform—are exemplified in The Imaginary Lover.
Chasm, schism in consciousness
must be bridged over;
we are each householder,
each with a treasure. (H.D. 1973: 49)
This book is divided into four sections, all of which contain poems that could be placed in the categories above. What distinguishes Ostriker’s work, however, are qualities of sensuality, humor, courage, exuberance, and a range that extends from the natural into the political and metaphysical. Ostriker enters into the political realm (defined broadly to include management of the family and the self) in many poems throughout the book. There are poems about the politics of creative expression, the politics of marriage, the politics of parenthood, particularly as children grow up and away, as well as the politics of historical events. Some cover several of these subjects simultaneously. Among my favorites is “Surviving,” a ten-part sequence about a subject also central to H.D., who prays, after having survived the Blitz in London, “we pause to give / thanks that we rise again from death and live” (1973: 110). H.D.’s prayer follows her vision of a Lady whose precise and unconventional definition—culminating in a revised Nativity—signals spiritual renewal and growth. Like Trilogy, “Surviving” responds to the violence and displacement that mark our century and spotlights a revised conception of motherhood. However, unlike H.D., who wrote under the direct stress of wartime bombardment, Ostriker writes from the postwar perspective of those who feel that “to survive is to be ashamed” (1986a: 44). This survival guilt is worse for women, she claims, for it becomes fused with histories of biological vulnerability and social subordination. Continuing H.D.’s urgent opening questions, “what saved us? what for?” (1973: 4), Ostriker asks, “Who can urge us to pull ourselves onward? / How can the broken mothers teach us?” (1986a: 44).
In the body of the poem, Ostriker answers these questions and tests the assumption behind the second one. Unlike H.D., who employs techniques of trance and verbal alchemy (repetition, etymology, phonic overlap), attempting to transcend the historical moment to effect spiritual transformation, Ostriker writes a series of meditations that draw on cultural and personal history. Set in an art gallery, half of the poems are about the artist Paula Modersohn-Becker, who died after complications in childbirth, and half are about Ostriker’s own mother, whose domestic duties defeated her artistic aspirations. In the fourth section, a surrealist dreamscape, the tragedy of Modersohn-Becker’s short life and the wry comedy of her mother’s long one become fused in the mind of the poet-onlooker, enabling her to proceed beyond guilt or self-pity. Having realized that despite her premature death, Modersohn-Becker’s last paintings were “survivors / Without malice,” the poet imagines herself going up in an elevator, into which her mother steps, “carrying her shopping bags” and “talking, talking” (Ostriker 1986a: 47). What follows is a tragicomic immigrant litany: details of her mother’s heroism and self-sacrifice on behalf of her family:
Did I ever tell you
I fought the doctors and nurses
The very day you were born. They said
“You'll stick a bottle in her mouth”
But I nursed you, I showed
Them. And did I tell you
When I was hungry because your father
Didn’t have a job, I used to feed you
That expensive beef puree, spoonful by spoonful
(Ostriker 1986a: 48)
The poet’s response to this litany and to her mother’s stories about the blighted youth of her grandmother, with their further suggestion of collective guilt, is renewed resolution. After all, risk and the “promise of cruelty” and “impoverishment” are conditions of life common also to artists. But they did not prevent Keats from writing “The Eve of St. Agnes” or Hart Crane The Bridge. With this realization, the poet remembers her mother’s inspiring qualities: her playfulness in the public swimming pool, the way the other kids flocked around her, her courage, and her songs:
This memory enables her to break the hold of histories and theories of women’s weakness and tears that are “maps to nowhere” (Ostriker 1986a: 50). At the end, calling-upon “Mother my poet” to help her to understand more fully “the duty / Proper to the survivor,” she concludes, “Tell me it is not merely the duty of grief” (Ostriker 1986a: 51).
You get even the smallest ones to duck
Heads under water, bubbling and giggling
Don't be afraid! Breathe out like this! Then we all sing.
(Ostriker 1986a: 50)
Several poems in this book are inspired by the words of past writers to whom Ostriker feels connected. “An Army of Lovers” opens with an epigraph from H.D. on the secret kinship of pacifist artists during wartime censorship. They pass each other on the pavement, “remote, speechless,” but they are “nameless initiates, / born of one mother” (H.D. 1973: 21). She compares their shared concern with that of contemporary women poets who write prayers for peace, hoping to counter the ongoing linked realities of war and sexual violence. Other poems begin with epigraphs or lines by Ezra Pound, June Jordan, Fitzgerald/ Hemingway, Franz Kafka, and Emily Dickinson. The poem inspired by Dickinson, which begins with Dickinson’s “After great pain a formal feeling comes,” takes off from that proposition to explore its opposite. The result is a poetics of exuberance and hope that depends upon the achievement of community and is founded in the responsibility of motherhood:
The poet’s associations fly from the intense happiness of Catullus and Lesbia, engrossed in each other, to her own pleasure after teaching a successful seminar on Blake’s Four Zoas, in which her students make new discoveries and come “closer together.” “Scrubbing perception’s doors,” she calls this, and then she imagines, as a final triumph, having patiently charmed her young son out of a temper tantrum.
If that is the case, then after great happiness
Should a feeling come that is somehow informal?
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. (Ostriker 1986a: 57)
Ostriker’s sense of art as personal liberation, as well as a powerful socially constitutive force, also informs “Everywoman Her Own Theology,” a poem that foreshadows her most recent work on feminist revisions of the Bible. Here she critiques the inhumanity of abstract, dualistic belief systems in which believers construct themselves in violent opposition to “infidels.” Instead she imagines “something sacred” that wants to “materialize, / Folding its silver wings, / In a kitchen, and bump its chest against mine” (Ostriker 1986a: 65). This domestication of the sacred is continued in her next volume, Green Age (1989), in which the personal-as-political-as-sacred marks key sequences in each of the book’s three parts. In “A Birthday Suite,” dedicated to her daughter Eve, Ostriker dramatizes the intense yearnings for relationships defined by mutuality and interpenetration that, she says, characterize the poetry of many women writing today (Cook 1992). Stemming from the intensity of the mother-child bond, this blurring of boundaries between self and other is not without conflict and pain during the phase of separation, but it is also mutually empowering. As Ostriker’s “Happy Birthday” wish to her daughter concludes: “On your mark, get set, / / We give birth to each other. Welcome. Welcome” (Ostriker 1989: 21). In her sequence “A Meditation in Seven Days” (in Green Age) Ostriker extends this desire for mutuality and equality to the traditional Jewish concept of a male God, imagining instead “the meanings of femaleness in Jewish tradition” (see the previous chapter in this volume). This poem’s assumption, “that we may find in the text of the Bible and throughout Jewish tradition faint traces of a Canaanite goddess or goddesses whose worship was forbidden with the advent of monotheism,” is based in the scholarship of feminist theologians who have likewise challenged the androcentrism of mainstream religious ideas (Ostriker 1989: 73). It is also based in her reading of H.D. As she points out in her essay in this volume, “in what poetry, save H.D.’s, could I have found the Lady whose potential power is our own?” In the last step of this poem, the poet’s recognition of this (suppressed) female presence in Jewish lore and life foreshadows the feminist revision of biblical myth in her later work.
As this sequence in Green Age promises, Ostriker engages her Jewish heritage more fully in the two books that follow: Feminist Revision and the Bible (1993) and The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions (1994). In both of these books, her allusions to H.D. strengthen a revisionary impulse rooted in the experience of the mother-child bond. In the first, a series of three “lectures” (the last in the form of a poem sequence), Ostriker directly cites H.D. as a major influence on religious poets in our time because she is “the most seriously engaged in spiritual quest” and “the most radically transgressive.” As Ostriker explains, H.D.’s “explicit goal is to recover, in a moment of apocalyptic revelation, as the blasting open of cities in war becomes the blasting open of intellectual and spiritual paradigms, at the heart of the worship of the Father and Son, an older worship of the Mother” (1993: 79). Following this example, Ostriker points out several types of biblical revisionism in contemporary poetry by women since the sixties. These include many poems that angrily indict God the Father, that regard the “religion of patriarchy” as “a projection of masculine ego, masculine will to power, masculine death-worship,” as well as “a tremendous outpouring of comedy, shameless sexuality, an insistence on sensual immediacy and the details belonging to the flesh as holy” (Ostriker 1993: 81). There is also much poetry connected with the women’s spirituality movement that “avoids and evades biblical texts,” drawing instead on pagan, Native American, African, and Hindu traditions. Common to all these types are the following “motifs and motivations”: “the return of immanence and nature, the reconnection of body and spirit, the rejection of dogma and the embrace of syncretism, and an insistence on the unmediated personal experience of the divine” (Ostriker 1993: 83). Ostriker concludes this discussion by citing the poetry of Lucille Clifton, an African-American poet whose religious syncretism is like H.D.’s but whose vernacular style is bolder. In one of her earliest poems, Ostriker points out, Clifton “defines an outrageous female holiness” in a tone that “fuses celebration, defiance, and humorous sympathy” (1993: 83)
In “The Lilith Poems,” the poem sequence that follows this discussion, Ostriker employs this mode and tone herself. These six poems imagine the legendary Jewish outcast, Adam’s first wife who refused to lie beneath him, as a black woman who composes a vigorous, syncretic “New Song” (Ostriker 1993: 98). Stronger, bolder, sexier than Eve, Lilith is the latter’s cleaning lady by day, but at night she steps out in “high heels,” “jumps the fence” of Paradise, and dares to defy Adam. As she says, “Nobody gives me orders / Now or ever” (Ostriker 1993: 94). Moreover, she “deconstructs scripture,” finds a “mother / Tongue” within this “curse, discourse,” and inspires her conventional sister with courage (Ostriker 1993: 95). In fact, the last is her most important function. Sympathetic to the concern for her children that keeps Eve obedient, Lilith brings forward her own “ancient angers”—the hundred babies she bears every day that are condemned to “die by nightfall” (Ostriker 1993: 96). In their memory she teaches Eve a lesson about “changing the language” (Ostriker 1993: 97). In “Lilith Says Where Trees Come From,” from which I quote more fully in the second epigraph above, she cites the weeds “pushing / Busting with lust” as an example of the resiliency and potential of the life force outside the dubious protection of the garden enclosure. Ostriker’s use of black vernacular as well as open form in these poems is doubly appropriate. Not only does it fit the sense of otherness she feels as a woman within Judaism (“I am and am not a Jew,” she writes in The Nakedness of the Fathers), it also deliberately breaks down barriers between self and other, a central tenet of her poetics and moral stance.
For H.D. as well, as exemplified in the above epigraph from her poem “Vale Ave,” the powerful, subversive law of Eros is associated with Lilith (and Lucifer) and not Eve (and Adam). That is, a felt connection with a marginalized woman opens a path to the redemptive power of communal memory. Significantly, in her case, the paradigmatic “other” woman is a Semite. Think, first, of the psychological connection between Raymonde Ransome, the neurasthenic heroine of the central story in Palimpsest who has repressed her husband’s betrayal during the war, and Ermentrude Solomon, “the Hampstead Jewess ... in a world of conscious pain” (H.D. 1968: 111). In the course of this story, Raymonde acclaims her Jewish guest as follows:
Twenty-five years later, after another, more terrible war, H.D. would write a major poetic lamentation primarily in the voice of another deserted woman: Helen in Egypt. In this masterpiece of palimpsestic thinking, she staged Helen’s response to Achilles’ anger as a hysterical “racial conversion” within the context of maternity (Edmunds 1994: 120). After Achilles blames Helen for the death of his legions, his “children,” she becomes “what his accusations made me, / Isis, forever with that Child, / the Hawk Horus” (H.D. 1961: 23).
For Ermy was beautiful (there was no getting round it) with the beauty of some unearthed Queen Nefertiti. She was beautiful with a glamour that belongs only to antiquity and racially Ermy was a direct blood inheritor of all the things that she, Raymonde, was attuned to. Egypt, the Syrian desert. Raymonde sensed around the brow of the tall Jewess (almost visibly) a band of dark exquisite wine-purple hyacinths. She was shocked by a sudden transference of all her values. Ermy was not of today, not even of yesterday, but of always and forever. (H.D. 1968: 126)
Although Helen’s is the dominant consciousness in Helen in Egypt, several other characters also speak: her three lovers, Achilles, Paris, and Theseus, as well as the eidolon of Thetis. Indeed, many critics, including Ostriker, have read the poem as a psychic journey, within a psychotherapeutic context, in which Helen recovers and works through traumatic communal memories engendered in time of war. As Eileen Gregory has written, claiming Euripidean tragedy as a subtext and stressing its communal aspect: “Helen in Egypt may be understood as an extended and greatly amplified choros sequence, in H.D.’s distinct invention of that form” (1997: 222). Helen is presented to us as the paradigmatic surviving woman. Moreover, as Adalaide Morris has pointed our, H.D.’s extraordinary use of sound in this poem is itself a style of thought. In Morris’s words, sound here is “a mode of primary attention, an orientation, a concentration” connected “more to the Mother / Daughter dyad than to Father ... a preoedipal ghostland or dreamland, at once sensuous and dematerialized, erotic and disembodied” (1997: 45,47). These readings remind us that mourning as a communal enterprise has garnered extensive attention as a female discourse, perhaps because of the intensity of maternal loss. As Maeera Shreiber has written, “Throughout antiquity, in both Greek and Middle Eastern culture, the lament as a standard feature of ritual life belonged largely to the women who gathered to lead the community in the rites of grief” (quoted in Prins and Shreiber 1997: 303).
In the aftermath of war, the linked journeys of Helen and Achilles take place within the context of profound philosophical questioning about the relation of illusion to reality, of dream to waking, of memory to desire, of man and woman to God. Such questions also pervade Ostriker’s book-length poem, The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions (1994). As innovative as H.D.’s in its mixture of genres (prose narrative, lyric poetry, autobiography, quotation from scripture and other writers), it, too, is the culmination of a lifetime study of ancient texts. Although I cannot do justice to its full scope here, I want to point out some of its confluences with H.D. around the themes of motherhood and morality and to suggest some differences. These differences enable Ostriker to move from lamentation encoded in myth, H.D.’s sense of art as covert resistance to the atrocities of history, to a sense of art as overt protest, in and of history.
First, more overtly than H.D. in Helen in Egypt, Ostriker begins with a mother’s perspective. Citing H.D. as a model, she says her biblical (re)visions began when she asked some questions about the Book of Job. Specifically, how would Job’s wife feel “about having the ten children who had been casually slain in order to test her husband’s devotion to God, replaced by ten new children?” (Ostriker 1994: xi). This question leads her to engage in a feminist version of the Jewish tradition of midrash (probing, searching); that is, “the eliciting from biblical verses meanings beyond the literal ... according to their contemporary relevance” (Seltzer 1980: 267). She organizes her book around this feminist agenda, interleaving biblical interpretation with autobiography and poetry. After an introductory section, “Entering the Tents,” Ostriker proceeds through sections titled “As in Myth: The Garden,” “Myth into Legend: The Fathers I,” “Legend into History: The Fathers II,” and finally, “Though She Delay: The Return of the Mothers.” Like H.D. in Tribute to Freud, Ostriker engages in a daring revision of “the family romance,” a revision centered on the development of female identity (instead of male) and the insight that the “power of the dream is the power of the biological family” (1994: 117). Like H.D., in “The Fathers I” she demystifies the biblical patriarchs, connecting them with her own ancestors: “Father Abraham is neither king, general, prophet, or priest, but an obscure shepherd whose newly circumcised loins produce in old age a particular seed, representing a particular idea” (Ostriker 1994: 50). Like H.D., this connection makes possible a recognition that the patriarchal religious impulse, God-the-Father, covers up the Goddess, suppresses the mother. However, at the end of this section, Ostriker’s plot differs from H.D.’s when “The Sisters,” Leah and Rachel, refuse to compete for men’s approval by bearing more children whose deaths they then obediently lament. Instead, Rachel alone steals her father’s “household idols,” and the poet employs the story of Joseph to write an “Interpretation of Dreams” that will result in a more radical symbolization of the divine:
At the end of the book this more radical symbolization culminates in a daring, “absurd” vision of the male deity. He is in “Intensive Care,” laboring to give birth to the memory of the goddess he has earlier swallowed, and this vision of him is followed by a prayer for the presence in the world of the Shekhinah (God’s female aspect) in which everyone participates:
Nonetheless the coat of many colors materializes at the moment of loss. A symbol of something else. A symbol of symbolism. The material object evoking the maternal subject: matter for pride and arrogance on the part of the naively exhibitionist child, matter for mutter on the part of his jealous brothers, patchwork of Israel’s sensuous love for Rachel-Joseph, fabric for another kind of story, a new velvet moment. (Ostriker 1994: 114)
He is trying to remember something, to remember something weighty but shapeless, something he swallowed, back there, as he calls it. Back there. He almost has it. Like a sort of fish. Like a minnow thrashing its tail in the midst of a whale. But presently the agony comes on him, seizes him, an iridescent foam roaring up the beach. (Ostriker 1994: 250)
Shekhinah shine your face on us
Shekhinah turn your countenance
To us and give us peace. (Ostriker 1994: 254)
Of course, in addressing the end of Ostriker’s book, I have omitted its longest section, which holds more examples of her differences from H.D. In “Legend into History,” Ostriker begins with a meditation on Moses’ childhood within ancient Egyptian culture. Feminized but over-refined in its embodiment of timelessness, this culture is built upon slavery, the crudest form of social injustice. Legend becomes Judeo-Christian history when Moses nurses his people through a project of liberation from this static worldview. Midrashim upon many biblical characters and events follow: Miriam, Aaron, Joshua, Ruth, Hannah, David, the covenant at Sinai, the Sabbath. The section concludes with “The Wisdom of Solomon” dramatized as a comic “summit” between Solomon and Sheba, who talk while making love. Solomon is wise, suggests Ostriker, because he is ready to take Sheba’s advice and permit women “to worship the goddesses of their choice upon the high places” (Ostriker 1994: 214). In fact, Solomon’s preference for vitality over the rule of preordained law is central to Ostriker’s midrashic method here, which is open and ongoing in substance as well as style. For midrash, according to Hartman and Budick, is “a life in literature or in scripture that is experienced in the shuttle space between the interpreter and the text” (1986: xi). That life, expressed in the moving autobiographical passages that recall specifics of family history, leads us to Ostriker’s main difference from H.D.
In her midrash on Job, subtitled “A Meditation on Justice,” Ostriker reminds us of that pivotal question she asked in the preface: “How would Job’s wife feel about having the ten children who had been casually slain in order to test her husband’s devotion to God, replaced by ten new children?” (Ostriker 1994: xi). Her answer, an extrapolation from the one line Job’s wife speaks in the traditional story (“Curse God and die”), is a rejection of the folktale frame of that story, “where Job gets everything back and is richer than before” (Ostriker 1994: 234). It is an angry rejection from the viewpoint of a woman “whose killed children remain under the ground where she cannot touch them again” of any formulaic assumption of God’s justice (Ostriker 1994: 235). Indeed, thought about the plight of Job’s wife leads Ostriker to a series of autobiographical memories that conclude with the realization that “without rage, love is helpless” (1994: 238). She concludes that women aren’t yet angry enough, that maybe when we demand justice of God, he will respond: “After all, he is merely the laws of physics, the magnificent laws of physics, and then the adorable laws of biology. And finally, circuit by ticking circuit through the neural nets, the exquisite laws of conscience” (Ostriker 1994: 239).
Inconsolable grief and rage at the loss of specific human children; in this midrash Ostriker is far from the sublime world of H.D.’s “Winter Love.” In H.D.’s late poem, an elderly Helen, engaged in anamnesis, acknowledges her loss: “l’ile blanche is l’ile noir” (1972: 112). But this acknowledgment is the prelude to the birth of a mysterious poem-child “Euphorion,” “Esperance,” who “lives in the hope of something that will be, / / the past made perfect” (H.D. 1972: 112). Similarly, in “Hermetic Definition,” H.D. employs the childbirth metaphor to dramatize a poetic triumph over death: “the writing was the un-born, I the conception” (1972: 54). It is not that H.D. does not understand the laws of physics, or of biology, or of conscience. Rather, her persistent hermeticism has to do partly with temperament and education, that is, with her roots in the romantic heritage of literary modernism. Partly it reflects the indelible effect upon her of the two world wars through which she lived. The exaltation she expresses here, as in other examples of sublime discourse, “arises from terror, terror beheld and resisted” (Terence Des Pres, quoted in Wilson 1991: 39). It is an expression of fictive self-empowerment that camouflages deeper feelings of social powerlessness (Wilson 1991: 211). Innovative in its use of female experience, specifically motherhood, H.D.’s late work nevertheless reflects a belief in a predetermined cosmic order for which she yearns. In her words, “unaware, Spirit announces the Presence; / shivering overtakes us, / as of old, Samuel” (H.D. 1973: 3). Like apocalyptic prophets before her, H.D. transfers the concept of a cyclical pattern inaccessible to human understanding to “God’s providential plan for history” (Seltzer 1980: 161). Even in “Hermetic Definition,” where direct references to personal and contemporary history indicate a philosophical change, at the end she dresses herself in “nun-grey” to proclaim: “Night brings the Day” (H.D. 1972: 55). Were it not for the terseness of this final assertion, her recourse to the sublime would suggest complacency.
In contrast, Ostriker’s midrash about Job is prefaced with two epigraphs, the first from the biblical character himself, who prays to God from his ash heap, the second from Paul Celan, who speaks bitterly, ironically, angrily. Considering the ashes of the Holocaust, Celan decries God’s absence:
In fact, there are many references to the deaths of Jews in the Holocaust in The Nakedness of the Fathers and throughout Ostriker’s work. However, perhaps her most powerful poem on this subject, “The Eighth and the Thirteenth,” is from The Crack in Everything (1996). The numbers in the poem’s title refer to two symphonies by Dmitri Shostakovich about the atrocities of World War II. “Music about the worst / Horror history offers,” Ostriker writes (1996: 29). Part of the composer’s “War Triptych,” Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony reflects “the Russian ethos of 1943 ... a numb sorrow mixed with anger ... life revolved around the ever-present threat of death and destruction” (Blokker 1979: 95). His Thirteenth Symphony, composed in 1962, contains a setting for Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar” about the thousands of Jews massacred outside of Kiev in 1941 whose traces were later covered up by Soviet authorities. Both Yevtushenko’s poem and the symphony, scored for voices and orchestra, have a dual function of memorial and protest. As the composer explained in 1968, “Soviet music is a weapon in the ideological battle [against government repression]. Artists cannot stand as indifferent observers in this struggle” (Blokker 1979: 133). In her poem’s tribute to these symphonies, Ostriker shares this view of the dual social functions of art. She also shares the composer’s intensity, directness, and method of incorporating other voices. In one long verse column, uninterrupted until near the end, she blends her voice with the sound of these symphonies, with two substantial quotations from the composer’s memoir, and with a line quoted from a sister poet, Marina Tsvetaeva. Together with these others, she makes a claim for art that transforms pathos into ethos. She substitutes an ethics of human relationship within history for one that mystifies the divine.
Blessed art thou, No-one.
For thy sake we
thee. (1986: 231)
This aspect of Ostriker’s work, which extends the moral imperative of motherhood, acquires specificity when it is read in the context of Emmanuel Levinas’s account of “‘responsibility for the Other’ as ‘the primal and fundamental structure of subjectivity’” (quoted in Prins and Shreiber 1997: 313). In Ethics and Infinity, Levinas explains: “‘I understand responsibility as responsibility for the Other, thus as responsibility for what is not my deed, or for what does not even matter to me; or which precisely does matter to me, is met by me as face—the “face” meaning the fully vulnerable presence of the Other’” (quoted in Prins and Shreiber 1997: 313). Certainly Shostakovich exemplified this view in his life as a composer. A Christian, he faced ignominy and risked death in his opposition to the tyranny of Stalin. Moreover, in the Thirteenth Symphony, as well as in other works, he dearly identified himself with the Jewish dead against Soviet authority and world indifference, as did Tsvetaeva, who ultimately committed suicide. In the course of her poem, Ostriker gathers strength from the words of both of them.
Art destroys silence. I know that many will not agree with me
and will point out other, more noble aims of art. They’ll
talk about beauty, grace, and other high qualities. But you
won’t catch me with that bait . ...
Most of my symphonies are tombstones, said Shostakovich.
All poets are Jews, said Tsvetaeva. (1996: 31)
At the beginning, however, Ostriker is in a grimmer mood. Listening to public radio “in solitude” at night while sipping a glass of wine, she drinks the “somber” Eighth Symphony “to the vile lees” (1996: 29). As the composer draws out the “minor thirds, the brass tumbles overhead,” mixing in her mind with pictures of human indifference to destruction.
The specific historical context yields a powerful, ugly image of “divine” childbirth that contrasts sharply with H.D.’s euphoric images of hope:
Who know when meat is in the offing,
Oboes form a ring. An avalanche
Of iron violins. (Ostriker 1996: 29)
In this image, a marvel of compression, Ostriker performs a kind of reverse Adam/Messiah typology. Here Christ does not fulfill God’s promise of salvation after the fall. Instead, he is mapped onto Adam, out of whose side comes not Eve but dead babies. Thus she fuses the mystification of childbirth in Judea-Christian religious tradition with its suppression of women, and she invests both with the pain of human history. Indeed, for Ostriker, as for Shostakovich, the assault on theodicy presented in genocide and other imposed misery is best reflected in paradoxical, discordant music:
During the years of siege
Between bombardment, hunger,
And three subfreezing winters,
Three million dead were born
Out of Christ’s bloody side. Like icy
Fetuses. (Ostriker 1996: 29)
The words never again
Clashing against the words
Again and again
—That music. (Ostriker 1996: 31)
How would H. D. have regarded Ostriker’s more disillusioned poetic impetus? At the end of her life, H.D. was moving in this direction too. In End to Torment, her memoir of Ezra Pound, she also addresses, in retrospect, the compulsion and grandiosity of her own romantic quest in Helen in Egypt, which she often referred to as her “Cantos,” echoing Pound. Considering the imprisonment at Pisa of her old colleague and the motives of Eliot’s poetry as well, she wrote: “The prison actually of the Self was dramatized or materialized for our generation by Ezra’s incarceration” (H.D. 1979: 56). After that she reduced the scope of her poetry. There is a noticeable austerity in her late music, a greater resistance in her poetic line.
How would H.D. have greeted Alicia Ostriker’s accomplishment?
With appreciation and applause.
Donna Krolik Hollenberg is Professor Emeritus at the University of Connecticut. Her areas of specialities include Twentieth-Century British Literature, Twentieth-Century American Literature, Women’s Writing and Feminist Literary Theory, and Poetry. Her most recent work is published in Denise Levertov in Company: Essays by Her Students, Colleagues, and Fellow Writers (2018).