Everywoman Her Own Theology: An Online Companion

"'from our insane sad fecund obscure mothers': (En)gendering the Sacred in Alicia Ostriker’s the volcano sequence" by Jill M. Neziri

In 1986, Alicia Ostriker published Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. This monumental book of feminist criticism traced the work of American women poets from 1650-1960 who both submitted to and subverted conventions of literature and gender. In the final chapter, Ostriker coined the term “revisionist mythology” in order to describe the practice whereby women poets transform deep-seated cultural notions by revising myths. Ostriker’s work in Stealing the Language was groundbreaking, and subsequent studies of feminist revisionism have time and again highlighted the foundational role of her criticism in this field. Equally important to revisionist mythology, yet less frequently cited, is Ostriker’s poetry wherein she engages in the very practices that she describes and analyzes in her prose. In the volcano sequence (2002), Ostriker crafts revisionist poetry as she engages and challenges the traditions of the American long poem, Jewish midrash and biblical countertexts. Locating the sacred in the feminized physical, Ostriker asserts that the divine can be experienced through the body. Thus, in the volcano sequence, she accomplishes what she herself identifies as the quintessential function of feminist revisionist poetry, “redefining both women and culture” (Stealing the Language 211) by creating a text that embraces and counters traditional Judaism as well as conventions of American and Jewish American literature. 

Published nearly twenty years before the volcano sequence, the final chapter of Stealing the Language offers a critical framework for Ostriker’s revisionist poetry. Ostriker insists that when women write “strongly as women,” they are attempting “to subvert and transform the life and literature they inherit” and that revisionist mythmaking is a major means by which they do so (211). In an oft-quoted passage, Ostriker details the potential impact such poetry can have:

whenever a poet employs a figure or story previously accepted and defined by a culture, the poet is using myth, and the potential is always present that the use will be revisionist: that is, the figure or tale will be appropriated for altered ends, the old vessel filled with new wine, initially satisfying the thirst of the individual poet but ultimately making cultural change possible. (213)

Analyzing a host of poems, Ostriker also argues that “knowledge throughout women’s mythmaking is achieved through personal, intuitive or subjective means” rather than through “prior authority” (235) and that as a result, feminist revisionist poetry is antiauthoritarian by nature, seeking to present images of women that are more “fluid than solid” (237). Throughout her career, Ostriker has continued to develop and refine this concept of revisionist mythology. Her own heritage has helped shape her focus, leading her to explore the relationship between women, the Bible and Judaism in both her poetry and prose.[1] While a more extended study might consider the evolution of Ostriker’s work on this topic, my focus remains upon the volcano sequence wherein Ostriker presents an antiauthoritarian poem that functions as a sacred text as it revises conceptions of women and the divine.

As a book-length poem that features a first-person speaker but that avoids continuous narrative, the volcano sequence reflects the pattern of the American long poem that began with Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself and continues to this day. [2]  Ostriker describes this form, arguing that “the twentieth century American long poem sequence, with its fracturing of narrative and of traditional meter, derives from Song of Myself the way all previous European epic derives from Homer” (“Body and Soul”). Reading Song of Myself, Ostriker labels the form “the meander,” and identifies it as a “loosely meditative sequence, metrically open, structurally non-linear, essentially non-narrative though it can contain narrative bits the way a fruitcake contains raisins, and featuring an ‘I,’ a self, that is not contained between its hat and boots” (“Body and Soul”). Like the meander, the volcano sequence features a first-person speaker who refuses to be confined to any one position. In fact, in a prayer-like moment, Ostriker insists that readers recognize the multiplicity of voices channeled through her. Addressing “Whoever is speaking or will speak in these pages,” she announces that she “welcome[s]” them and prays, “Let me be your vehicle. Let me be the mouth of your tunnel. Or the split in the earth” (4). This appeal is reminiscent of Ostriker’s earlier work in The Nakedness of the Fathers where she asks, “Who reads here? Who writes here?” and asserts that it is “a mixed multitude. It is not merely woman distinct from man” (8). Ostriker’s insistence upon multiplicity of voices in the volcano sequence allows her to work against the traditional patriarchal authority embedded in Judaism and to exemplify an equilibrium that moves beyond the mere inversion of power in favor of a new dynamic.[3] Describing the meander further, Ostriker notes that this form is “particularly hospitable to poems of radical spirituality” or poems that avoid “conventional religion in order to recover the sacred, & to locate the sacred in the physical world including the body” (“Body and Soul,” italics in original). In the volcano sequence, Ostriker uses the meander for such a project. However, rather than avoid conventional religion, she works within Jewish tradition, revising its conceptions of the sacred and replacing them with a concept of embodied spirituality.

Finally, the volcano sequence utilizes the meander form as Ostriker fractures narrative, engaging in self-reflection and continuously contemplating the poem’s structure (“Body and Soul”). At the beginning of the poem, Ostriker engages in this kind of reflection, delineating the ways she is “like a volcano” (3) and then abruptly switching gears to inform readers that “A woman looked at my poem” and asked “What is a volcano” (4)? An allusion to Dickinson’s “Volcanoes be in Sicily,” this line also undermines the speaker’s authority, draws readers’ attention to the constructed nature of the poem and reflects the continuous questioning of both self and God that occurs throughout the work. Later on, Ostriker interrupts a section of the poem that bemoans God’s absence to declare that “the secret shape of this book is a parachute/ all the lines leading to the person hanging there” (the volcano sequence 30). This image of the precariously suspended person emphasizes the necessity out of which the book is written, or as Ostriker puts it on the final page, the ways in which “the stories take you and fling you against a wall” and even make you go “right through the wall” (119).[4]

Just as she works within the context of American literature through her use of the meander, Ostriker also draws upon Jewish tradition as she engages in midrash throughout the volcano sequence.[5] In the first of several sections entitled “Psalm,” Ostriker practices midrash by rewriting biblical narrative. Declining to directly engage with Psalms and instead choosing to create her own, she refuses to be “lyric any more” and to “play the harp/ for [God’s] pleasure” (the volcano sequence 13). She rejects all forms of traditional psalms, declining both to “make a joyful noise” and to “lament” (13). Instead, Ostriker insists on asserting her anger toward God and announces “you hurt me/ I hate you” (13). Because of this blatant hostility toward God and refusal to mirror the biblical psalms, Ostriker herself labels this particular section of the volcano sequence “an antipsalm,” since it presents, in contrast to the biblical psalms, a “resistance to a God who deals cruelly with us and still demands our praise” (For the Love of God 72-3). Nevertheless, this portion of the poem not only illustrates Ostriker’s familiarity with the biblical psalms, but also functions as midrash since Ostriker provides her own interpretation of Psalms and of the God they depict. Yet the final line of this antipsalm reveals a soft spot in Ostriker’s rebellion. After telling God “I will never love you again,” she hedges and adds, “unless you ask me” (13). In For the Love of God, Ostriker insists that this line indicates that she “wants to stop resisting” (73). Similarly, it also foreshadows the ways in which the speaker will eventually move closer to God, following this initial rejection.

As a result of the wrestling with God that Ostriker engages in throughout the volcano sequence, she transitions to another form of midrash, reflecting upon the meaning of scripture, particularly the psalms, and offering her revisions of these texts in a manner that does not reject the original as whole-heartedly as the first “psalm” does. In the penultimate section of the text entitled “the volcano and the covenant,” Ostriker presents her midrash on Psalm 37, which she calls “psalm 37: the meek shall inherit the earth” (90). In the Bible, Psalm 37 depicts the fate of sinners and the rewards of the just. The psalm urges the just man to be patient and upright and assures him that God will “bring forth thy righteousness as the light” and will bring down his enemies in due time (The King James Version, Psalm 37:6). Ostriker offers a colloquial version of the first few verses: “try not to be angry/ at the meanness of men, they fade like grass/ in October, nothing of them remains” (90). While Ostriker paraphrases the original “Like the grass they wither quickly,” she also intensifies the image by suggesting not that “they wilt away” but that “nothing of them remains.” Yet her revisions to the second verse are even more significant. Ostriker changes the biblical third person, which urges readers to “Trust in the Lord,” to the first person so that God speaks directly to readers: “trust in me to give you what you need/ leave it to me, I will vindicate you/ and give you whatever you need” (90). In contrast to the original, which assures readers of God’s presence and fidelity through the impersonal command to “Trust in the Lord and do good,” this revision renders God immediately present; the promise is made directly rather than indirectly. Therefore, when Ostriker next undermines this intimacy, the effect is all the more powerful. She suggests that “the meek believed these promises” but that they were empty, nothing more than “deep whiffs of opium” (90). Although the words were “very beautiful,” they were actually “contrafactual” (90). This emotionally detached commentary points to Ostriker’s blatant disappointment with God. Clearly, she does not believe that God has fulfilled the “Covenant” for which this section is named.[6]

Ostriker’s midrashic work with Psalms develops even further in the final portion of the volcano sequence, “the space of this dialogue,” where she depicts herself as experiencing a connection with God that is rooted in her body. In the first portion of this final cycle of psalms, Ostriker addresses God directly and begins by describing her separation from God. She says that she has “impure periods” when she “cannot touch” God (103). Here, her diction alludes to biblical ordinances against menstruating women, which deem them unclean and incapable of engaging with the sacred. Ostriker refuses to accept this, and she beckons God through her body, inviting God to “come” and telling God that “you are at my fingertips my womb” (103). This image undermines the traditional Judaic notion of women’s impurity by asserting that an experience of the sacred can occur through female physicality or the womb rather than on a disembodied spiritual plane. Notably though, Ostriker combines a non-gendered body part with a decidedly female one, and thus she creates an embodied spirituality that is open to both men and women. The other psalms in this section reinforce the notion of embodied spirituality. In the second psalm, Ostriker again addresses God directly, depicting her return to God after her periods of anger as a sort of cleansing in which she comes “wet from the bath” (104). Here, her language points not to a ritual washing but instead to an embodied, sexualized experience as she comes back “throbbing through the change/ from absence to presence” (105). The following psalm stresses physicality and sexuality even more strongly. Ostriker reveals herself in what would be considered an immodest manner for a religious Jewish woman, with her head “uncovered to [her] naked hair” (105). Her body becomes the focal point as she zeroes in on its aging imperfections and notes that she “lacks teeth, lacks a breast” and that she is “an animal of flesh” (105). Yet this focus on the carnal is the very element that brings Ostriker closer to experiencing the sacred; she asserts that God understands her physicality since God “formed” her “in the womb” and “made” her “desires” (105). In the closing line, Ostriker moves toward an intimate, eroticized connection with God, awaiting God “in a bed of pleasure” (105). Clearly, Ostriker’s psalms diverge from the biblical Psalms not only in their diction and imagery but also in their conceptions of spirituality. Ostriker revises traditional Judaic conceptions of women’s relation to the divine and of the means of relating to the sacred.[7] Rewriting those Jewish traditions that deem women unclean, Ostriker insists that women, as embodied, sexual beings, can indeed come to know the sacred.

Before the poem can arrive at this moment, however, it first unfolds as a form of resistance to and interrogation of traditional Judaism. In this sense, Ostriker also engages in the tradition of the biblical countertext, a term which she employs in For the Love of God.  Ostriker labels “antidoctrinal books like Job and Ecclesiastes, and woman-centered books like Ruth, Esther and the Song of Songs” (19) biblical countertexts or books that deviate “from particular dominant biblical concepts and motifs, thereby enriching and deepening the Bible as a whole” (5). Granted, Ostriker uses the term “countertext” to refer to sacred books located within the Bible. However, as Maeera Shrieber argues, Jewish American poets often “draw on biblical and rabbinic traditions, sometimes to radically new interpretive ends, in order to make their meaning” (4). Clearly, Ostriker follows this trend as she practices midrash in her revisions of Psalms. Additionally, she does so in regard to the notion of the countertext as she creates her own sacred text in the volcano sequence. Whereas the books that Ostriker labels countertexts in For the Love of God are set against the larger backdrop of the Bible, the volcano sequence is set against traditional Judaism and thus functions as a countertext because of the ways in which it creates an embodied form of spirituality, centered upon the female body.

As a countertext, the volcano sequence deviates from traditional Judaism by focusing on and connecting the feminine to the sacred. From its outset, the volcano sequence is characterized by heavily feminized imagery, such as the volcano itself. Ostriker states that she is “like a volcano,” which is “a crack in the earth” and “a bulge over a crack” (3-4). These images, suggestive of a vagina, are coupled with images of menstruation in the form of “lava” and “magma” (3-4). Additionally, the volcano functions as an allusion to Ostriker’s earlier work in Stealing the Language, where she discusses violence in women’s poetry and declares such poems a “volcanic return of the repressed” (127). Indeed, the image of the volcano embodies these very sentiments of “repressed anger and its consequences,” which in part motivate the poem (For the Love of God x). This anger places the volcano sequence in line with the kind of re-vision that Adrienne Rich describes in her 1971 essay “When We Dead Awaken,” where she terms defines “re-vision” as “the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction” (35). Rich argues that “we need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us” (35). Additionally, she links acts of feminist re-vision to “the female fatigue of suppressed anger” (43). In the volcano sequence, the volcano functions as a metaphor for the erupting necessity for feminist re-vision as well as for the suppressed rage that motivates this need. Once dormant but now ready to erupt, the volcano also suggests that the suppressed and forgotten feminine elements of Judaism will resurface.

Instead of waiting passively for this to occur though, the volcano sequence works to recover what was lost and in doing so, creates a revised conception of the sacred. Following the image of the volcano, the poem continues to focus upon the feminine. Ostriker presents images suggestive of female fertility and connects them to the sacred. In section II of the poem, “the red thread,” the image of the red thread appears multiple times and symbolizes a connection between the speaker and the sacred as the thread “travels between earth and heaven / vibrates through starless void” (19). The red thread has many manifestations: it is a charm, which “the barren wife wraps…around a stone / seven times” as she yearns for a son; it is a belt, which “a priest drapes…across / his comfortable belly”; it is also an umbilical cord, which “a surgeon / clamps…and snips” (19). While all three of these images are initially given equal weight, this final image of the umbilical cord is the only one that Ostriker returns to later in the poem. In a section entitled “the red thread again,” Ostriker describes the red thread as her “entrails drawn / shamelessly from [her] body” (27). As it stretches “from earth / to heaven from heaven / to earth,” this red thread suggests that humanity is connected to God as a newborn is to its mother, not its father. Later in the poem, the red thread reappears again when Ostriker alludes to the story of Rahab:

only the harlot
hangs the red thread
from her window
and is saved
with all her family
everyone else dies by the edge of the sword (48)

This harlot, Rahab, is a biblical figure from Joshua 2 who hides two Jewish spies from the king of Jericho and then helps them escape down a rope hung out of her window. In return for her favor, the men promise to spare her and her family when they return to invade Jericho and tell her to hang a scarlet cord in the window as a reminder of their oath. Here, as earlier in the volcano sequence, the red thread is connected both to femininity and to life-giving, even sacred power. However, the red thread also takes on a new layer of meaning since it protects the harlot, the most unclean of women. Highlighting the latent significance of this biblical tale, Ostriker undermines traditional Jewish notions of who receives God’s favor; rather than rejecting her because of her body, God saves the harlot, both in Ostriker’s poem and in Joshua 2.[8]

Ostriker deepens this connection between the feminine and the sacred in the section of the poem entitled “blood.” Here, the speaker references the biblically endorsed “shame” that is associated with blood “when its river floods from a woman’s body” (37). However, she quickly undermines this idea, noting that “The tangy scent of it is a stimulant. Simple people know this. Children dare each other to taste it” (37). Arguably, Ostriker’s insistence that blood is appealing to the most innocent members of the human race functions as an antidoctrinal assertion, bolstering the idea of the volcano sequence as a countertext. When the speaker of the poem declares that “we are connected to earth by our menstrual blood,” she is contradicting biblical and Jewish traditions that label women’s menstrual blood unclean (37). Thus, in effect, the volcano sequence suggests that “sacred writ is intrinsically no more absolute in its authority than other writing. For its authority is always socially constituted, yet always attempts to represent itself as divine” (Feminist Revision and the Bible 61).

Finally, Ostriker foregrounds women’s bodies in the volcano sequence as she explores images of birthing that range from a woman who “squats in the field” and “bleeds” into the earth to a woman who lies on a “rubber pad” in the hospital and bleeds through her “green cotton/ nightgown” (39-40). Through these images, Ostriker highlights the life-giving function of women and suggests that creation is primarily a female faculty. Furthermore, she creates her own countertext that in part forms an answer to the question with which she begins Feminist Revision and the Bible: “How can we—how do we—deal with that ur-text of patriarchy, that particular set of canonized tales from which our theory and practice of canonicity derives…the Book of Books which we call the Bible?” (27). As she inscribes women’s bodies upon the sacred, Ostriker subverts the “patriarchy and patriarchal discourse” embedded in Judaism and the Bible and ultimately replaces these with the life-giving functions of the female body (Stealing the Language 95).

In addition to focusing upon the feminine, Ostriker also replaces disembodied conceptions of divinity with embodied experiences of the sacred, thus adding an additional layer to her countertext. This embrace of embodiment begins when Ostriker positions the body as one of God’s great works; since “each part” of the body “perform[s] multiple parts,” she concludes that the body must be God’s “poem” (10). Clearly, at this early moment in the poem, Ostriker is already asserting the role of embodiment and physicality in the sacred. However, she has not yet arrived at any sort of understanding with God. Thus, rather than declare God’s pleasure in the physical, she instead tentatively asks, “and is it true you treasure us” (10).

Although Ostriker’s question points to her uncertainty regarding God’s attitude toward creation, she clearly desires a relationship with God, and she depicts this through images of embodiment. Ostriker imagines a relationship with the divine, figured as a dance, and she insists that this kind of bond is not new but rather was part of Judaism in its earliest forms and has been eroded by patriarchy. She tells God:

Do not think I fail to remember

You were right there
clasping me
when we danced
without words
fear (15)

The absence of divine commandments as well as scripture in the form of “words” or “fear” indicates that this intimate relationship occurred prior to the development of biblical law, and hence the injunctions that deem women unclean. That is, Ostriker depicts a relationship with God characterized by the presence of bodies and the absence of text. Now, however, as a result of the Bible’s socially constituted power, a great distance exists between her and God. Nonetheless, she recalls a time before this separation, in which she experienced the sacred through this sensual dance.

As the poem progresses, Ostriker struggles to understand God’s identity, ultimately realizing that she must move away from doctrinal conceptions of the divine in order to forge a personal relationship with God on her own, which occurs through her body, particularly her sexuality. Ostriker suggests that God is “the sex in [her] art” and that “whatever wants to faint under long kisses, whatever grapples / flesh to flesh, the nipple that reaches, the tongue that spills” relates to God (92). By drawing this connection between God and sexuality, Ostriker revises the traditional disembodied conception of the divine, replacing it with a close, intimate depiction of the sacred, which occurs through the body rather than through transcendence. This embodied encounter with God demonstrates a key principal of Jewish feminism, as delineated by Judith Plaskow, who argues that even in liberal Judaism, “public prayer is based on a separation of sexuality and the sacred” (191). In contrast, Ostriker depicts herself as connecting with God through sexual experience. Thus, she participates in what Plaskow defines as a “minority strand of feminist writing,” which has “considerable power not only to challenge traditional dualisms but also to generate alternatives to the energy/control paradigm of sexuality” (195).

This coupling of the body with spiritual experience is reinforced throughout much of the volcano sequence. In “seasonal,” Ostriker glorifies physical experience of the sacred over disembodied, spiritual experience. She revels in the physical pleasures of life as “the full sun” shines on her and “the gilded leaves// rush past” (107). She concludes that “in the spirit world they can never/ experience pleasure the way flesh can” (107), pleasures which include “the body making love/ the body nursing a child// the body fighting/ playing basketball” (107). Notably, Ostriker includes experiences (aside from nursing) that are not unique to women, thus affirming her assertion in The Nakedness of the Fathers that she is not simply seeking to replace a male dominated tradition with a female one but is instead attempting to break down these binaries. Following “seasonal,” “mikvah” also emphasizes the role of the body in sacred experience. This section depicts three women engaged in a ritual bath or mikvah. Notably, in Jewish tradition, a mikvah is a pool of water used in ritual purification, specifically to cleanse a woman after she has finished menstruating so that she can resume relations with her husband (“Mikvah”). The poem focuses upon the ritual immersion into the mikvah. Ostriker, along with three other women, undress and “climb into the hot tub” (108). As they enter the water, they are “clasping hands praying.” They “immerse further/ then [they] emerge breathe again.” It is then that God comes to “join” them. Notably, this occurs without much fanfare. God simply arrives as they are sitting in the tub with their “wet hair” (108); yet after God’s arrival, they are transformed, climbing out of the tub “like showered robins,” renewed and refreshed. Thus, Ostriker begins “mikvah” with a familiar Jewish ritual, which is traditionally connected to women’s impurity. However, she ultimately revises the ritual so that it instead focuses upon the sanctity of women’s bodies. By bringing God into the mikvah with the naked women, Ostriker demonstrates the purity of their bodies, which exists prior to their completion of the bath, and she suggests that the body is closely connected to sacred experience.

Finally, in addition to asserting a connection between the body and the sacred, Ostriker also seeks to understand God’s true nature. Notably, Ostriker finds a precedent in Jewish literature for what essentially constitutes an interrogation of God (For the Love of God 134). In particular, the Book of Job, a biblical countertext according to Ostriker, participates in an unrelenting pattern of “intimacy and resistance,” which Ostriker mirrors in the volcano sequence (For the Love of God 120). In both texts, the speakers’ seek to understand God’s character, and they look to the physical world for answers. In the volcano sequence, “the unmasking” is filled with images of the physical world, from “the brown tar of your cities” to “dried blood in the newsprint” to “ beery ballparks” (8). As Ostriker catalogues these images of a dirty, violent city, she seems to sense God’s hand in it: “I want you to appear/ to me and to all peoples in your true form/ of ruthless radiance” (8). The phrase “ruthless radiance”, which is also the title of the first large section of the poem, suggests that God is filled with contradictions. When one juxtaposes the page that follows “the unmasking” with the descriptions of the cruel world contained therein, it becomes even clearer what this contradictory nature consists of.

Ostriker presents a small section, which seems to begin in medias res: “then// after that it snowed.” In this section, the dirt and violence of “the unmasking” give way to images of the sky’s “blue scintillance” and “a cardinal/ a red-capped woodpecker// and some finches” at Ostriker’s bird feeder (9). These peaceful members of the physical world present a stark contrast to the unpleasant images on the previous page. Ostriker addresses God directly: “Now you are smirking at me/ See how simple it really is// to receive a blessing” (9). Here, her perception of God seems to have shifted. While God is “smirking,” perhaps indicating the ironic contrasts between the two scenes, Ostriker is able to perceive God in the quiet, natural setting, and she deems this a blessing. The physical world seems to demonstrate God’s radiance, whereas in “the unmasking,” the same world points to God’s ruthlessness. Taken together, these two sections highlight God’s seeming incongruities, which haunt Ostriker throughout the poem.

This image of a God who is at times gentle, at times absent and at other times ruthless, is not unique to Ostriker’s work. In an article entitled “Feminist Judaism: Past and Future,” Rachel Adler contextualizes this perception of God as related to feminist studies of Judaism. As a feminist scholar of Judaism, she identifies one of her primary interests as exploring “how we would talk about the presence or absence of God if we did not shift the focus away from the concrete human experiences of grief and pain and how the questions we asked might be different” (484). Rather than “making elaborate theological arguments to justify God,” Adler wants to know what would happen if “we bore witness to agony and grief in all their unendurable concreteness and listened for revelations there” (484). By highlighting grief, Adler alludes to a particularly feminist concern since the tradition of the lament belongs to women. Additionally, though Adler does not mention it, the lament has associations with the Shekhinah, who since the destruction of the Temple and her exile, “descends night after night…and sees that Her dwelling-house and Her couch are ruined and soiled…And She wanders up and down, wails and laments, and weeps bitterly” (Schwartz 56). Adler juxtaposes the feminized lamenter, “picking her way through a broken rubble of unbearably vivid happenings and sensations” with the masculinized theologian, “speaking a language full of abstractions” (487). Ultimately, she wants to know “how we will speak to and of” a God who is not always “Lover” and is sometimes “the attacking bear bereft of her cubs, the lioness in our path, the terrifying, the arbitrary, the inexplicable” (488).

As the volcano sequence progresses, Ostriker builds on the image of God’s complex nature and in doing so, presents her own answers to Adler’s inquiries. Alluding to Ralph Ellison’s “optic white” paint, Ostriker posits the image of “the spot of black paint/ in the gallon of white” which “makes it whiter” (50). This image helps her to understand who God is; “the evil impulse” functions like the drop of black paint to help point to “greater wilder holiness” (50). This section of the poem ends as Ostriker announces that “we are that mixed animal/ you are that mixed god” (55). Here, the theme of God’s ruthless radiance resurfaces once more, but this time, the stakes are even higher as Ostriker calls to mind the idea that humankind is created in God’s image. Notably, Ostriker reverses the order, placing humans before God and suggesting that God’s nature is reflected in our own. Because we are characterized by “the bread of hate” as much as we are by love, God must be as well since “we are your image” (51).

While Ostriker thoroughly explores God’s “wrath” and “mercy” (51), she also expresses a deep concern with God’s maleness, a point that she addresses in The Nakedness of the Fathers, and which also hearkens back to “Everywoman Her Own Theology.” In The Nakedness of the Fathers, Ostriker posits several versions of the creation story. These include the ideas that “God was originally a female who gave birth to a male companion” as well as the notion that God was “originally a compound being, simultaneously male and female” (29-30). Though Ostriker does not choose one story over the other, she does state that “the only improbable story is that God was originally male” (32). This patriarchal view of God, which inheres in Judaism, resurfaces in the volcano sequence as Ostriker wrestles with the Jewish God. In “the red thread” section, she presents the patriarchal vision: “secretly, someone called he is behind it all/ the absent mathematician/ the endless one” (21). However, she quickly undermines this in the following line: “or so they say.” Ostriker categorizes this version of God not only as patriarchal but also as disembodied. This version of God belongs to those “who believe in logic and reason/ a world of equations where nothing is wasted” (21). Although she concedes that “it may be as they suppose,” she offers a revision that focuses upon the embodied and tangible. Instead of the male mathematician who exists invisibly and secretly, she finds “in the foreground” the troubled mother figure. Here, the mother replaces the male God, but notably, she too is far from perfect as Ostriker deems her the “mistress of futility,” an embodied being, “seething through cycles of fat and thin” and “nervously sorting changeless debris” (22). This appearance of the mother figure, who comes to play a critical role in the volcano sequence, also marks the poem as participating in a Jewish American tradition since a “prominent” feature of such poetry is the “decentered story mediated by the scattered and scattering Mother” (Shrieber 14).

This image of the troubled mother, which comes to replace the silent mathematician, forms a crucial part of the volcano sequence and further undergirds the antidoctrinal assertions of the poem that place it in the category of a countertext. In the first of many sections entitled “mother,” Ostriker contemplates the commandment to honor one’s father and mother. She wonders “what if it commanded only that/ honor your mother” (11). This question quickly leads her to recognize an impulse in girls to not honor their mothers but to “flee her” while also “despising” her (11). Ostriker suggests that this hatred is connected to the “unasked for// gift of life” that the mother gives her children who “fall from her space into the world” (11). the volcano sequence depicts this distance between mother and daughter as Ostriker acknowledges that there is “an ocean between” her and her mother (20) and tells her mother, “I do not love you enough” (20). Additionally, the images of the mother point to Ostriker’s repulsion, as she describes her as “toothless” as well as filled with “stinking incontinence” (22). Indeed, the mother-daughter relationship in the volcano sequence is deeply disturbed. However, the structure of the poem suggests that Ostriker nevertheless desires a closer relationship with her, as she does with God, since she repeatedly positions the mother as listener of the poem (“mother you have spent/ a lifetime reading only// to learn what words cannot accomplish” (59); “then mother when I call you say/ you tried going out…” (60)). This desire for a relationship manifests itself clearly in a moment of poignant intimacy when she pleads, “mom, reach into/ your barrel of scum-coated blessings./ find me one” (22).

The mother-daughter relationship in the volcano sequence also pertains to Ostriker’s quest for the Shekhinah, whom Ostriker presents as God’s lost or submerged female element, and thus, an alternative to the singularly male God of traditional Judaism. Although she does not flesh out her theological position on the Shekhinah completely, a section of the poem suggests that “god the father swallowed god the mother,/ the process required millennia/ you swallowed her down the hatch” (88). Notably, Ostriker does not believe that this caused the Shekhinah to completely disappear. Rather, she finds remnants of this lost female element, and she seeks to trace them.[9]

Paralleling the relationship between mother and daughter, Ostriker’s relationship with the Shekhinah is highly problematic. In a section of “the red thread” entitled “the shekhinah as exile,” Ostriker calls the Shekhinah the “hidden one” (25) and expresses a desire for a relationship with her, pleading for her to “instruct” and “speak” (25). However, the Shekhinah is both exiled and submerged, an image derived both from the kabbalistic tradition, where the Shekhinah is seen dwelling in exile with the Jewish people, as well as from the tradition of the Jewish Renewal Movement, which adapts this image of the exiled Shekhinah in order to “frame gender issues” (Weissler 61-2).  Ostriker acknowledges this exile or denial of the Shekhinah by those such as “the Sanhedrin of the loud speakers/ who have no ear for your voice” (25), and she pleads with the Shekhinah to recognize that she is not amongst those but rather is one “who thirst[s] for your new/ instructions, source of life” (25). Ostriker also recognizes how patriarchal tradition in Judaism makes it difficult to have a relationship with the Shekhinah and contributes to the troubled mother-daughter relationship. In “earth: the shekhinah as amnesiac,” she addresses the Shekhinah directly. However, the Shekhinah seems to have forgotten who she is herself, and Ostriker must plead with her, “come on, surely by now you remember who you are/ you’re my mother my sisters my daughter/ you’re me.” Conversely, patriarchal traditions in Judiasm have made it difficult for Ostriker to even imagine the Shekhinah, and so she declares “we will have to struggle so hard/ to birth you/ this time// the brain like a cervix” (38). Here, Ostriker again works against binaries as she draws a connection between cognition and the female body, both of which she hopes will lead her to a sacred encounter.

As the volcano sequence progresses, the mother-daughter relationship and the absent Shekhinah become intimately connected. Ostriker recalls the blotting out of the Shekhinah as they “chopped her groves down/ nailed her shrines shut/ forgot the words to her songs” (63). She attributes this smothering of the Shekhinah to patriarchy, announcing that “the men did it but the women/ cooperated as usual” (63). Thus, the mothers’ complicity in patriarchy and their roles as indoctrinators of the daughters become apparent. The mothers receive the “blame”; Ostriker declares, “we scream at our mothers/where is she? what have you/ done with her?” (63). Additionally, in “the shekhinah as mute,” Ostriker depicts the ways in which the mothers are useless in resurrecting the Shekhinah. They cannot “tell us” nor can they “take our hands and show us” the way to the submerged feminine element in the divine. Instead, Ostriker describes how they continue to instruct the daughters in patriarchy, teaching “cooking clothing craftiness” and recalling “their own stories of power and shame” (64).

Amidst this pain and anger, Ostriker does offer glimpses of hope, which suggest that a relationship with the Shekhinah and even the mother is possible. Immediately following “the shekhinah as mute,” Ostriker presents a section in which she analyzes and interprets the gestures of a female goddess, who is clearly powerful and yet serene. This portion of the poem, which is italicized, visually signifies a break from the anguish and even hopelessness of the previous section. Here, Ostriker clearly sees the goddess figure, presumably the Shekhinah, and she tells readers “learn to recognize the gestures” (65). She then goes on to read the body language of the Shekhinah in order to decipher the signs of the sacred. She states that “when her hands cup her breasts/ she enjoys her sweet strength/ sap ascends the oak.” Also, when “dancing” she “causes/ the young to dance/ and to kiss.” When she is “cradling that infant boy/ sitting him on her lap/ smoothing the folds of her dress: this means pity” (65). Ostriker reads the Shekhinah in a variety of situations, all of which are markedly feminine and all of which are characterized by the presence of her physical body. Furthermore, she offers hope that though the Shekhinah might be rendered mute and the mothers unable to teach their daughters about her, she is nonetheless accessible and present if she is approached through the means of the female body. She explores this notion further as she creates her own story about God’s presence in the world:

and in the whiteness a speck
but god was not in the speck
then a soft wind
but god was not in the wind
then a breast and a great hand (98)

Although the section ends here, the implication is that God is located in this physical manifestation of the feminine.

In spite of the speaker’s anger toward the mother and the distance between herself and the mother/Shekhinah, Ostriker does provide hope for the rediscovery of the Shekhinah and the reconstruction of the mother-daughter relationship. In the final section, Ostriker encounters the “dark smile” of the Shekhinah as she looks deeply into herself or her “interior” (109). This brief glimpse of the feminine divine, located within the self, prompts the speaker to assume the voice of a prophet and announce:

When she comes it will not be from heaven, it will be up from the cunts and
it will be from our insane sad fecund obscure mothers
it will be from our fat scrawny pious wild ancestresses their claws
their fur and their rags (109)

Here, Ostriker sees the Shekhinah in the human mother, and she directly links feminine physicality and even weakness to the divine. In perceiving “the face of the Shekhinah,” Ostriker positions herself as directly experiencing “the presence or immanence of the Divine” (Schwartz 62). In this moment, the poem becomes the ultimate countertext and thus its own sacred text, rendering its own prophecy of God-made-flesh, which links incarnation with femininity. Thus, Ostriker offers an alternative to the conventional “spiritual tradition that impedes women from seeing themselves as part of the divine image” by locating the divine in the female body (Adler, Engendering Judaism xxiv).

However, the poem does not conclude with this prophecy of the Shekhinah’s return. Instead, Ostriker turns back to the mother-daughter relationship, which clearly must be remedied before the Shekhinah can become fully manifest. She describes how she is about to sell her mother’s house and goes to pick raspberries from the yard. The scene has a feeling of finality as she has “hired someone to cut it all down” so that “this is the last crop” the raspberry bushes will yield (111). In light of this looming closure on a piece of tangible history between daughter and mother, Ostriker acknowledges “I am your child” and she is “at last able to speak the sentence/ I love you” (111). Upon facing this moment of finality and loss, Ostriker can at last recognize her love for her mother. The growing intimacy between them expands even more when she watches her mother at a “physical examination” (112). On the doctor’s table, the mother removes her blouse, under which she wears “no brassiere” (112). At this moment, when Ostriker glimpses her mother’s “breasts/ with their brown aureolas,” a connection between mother and daughter arises. She announces that her “mouth waters” (112) as the old woman’s breasts conjure the intimacy of breastfeeding, and she is ignited with desire for her mother. In this culminating moment, Ostriker locates this desire for the mother as a primal drive that manifests itself through her body, not her disembodied intellect or spiritual acuity. Further, this experience is rooted not in a perfect female form but rather in an elderly, broken-down mother, seated on the cold medical exam table. Thus, Ostriker suggests that the sacred can be experienced through everyday physical existence and moreover, that the desire for the sacred is rooted in our imperfect physicality.

the volcano sequence stands out amidst Ostriker’s larger body of work as a monumental piece of feminist revisionist poetry. Working against the backdrops of her own poetry and scholarship as well as the traditions of Jewish poetry and the American long poem, Ostriker couples the meander form with the traditions of midrash and countertext in order to address the anger and alienation that result from the patriarchal structure of Judaism and also to come to terms with her desire to engage with the sacred and with her Jewish heritage. Grounding experiences of the sacred in the body, Ostriker focuses on the feminine not in order to replace the male God with a female one but in order to assert the suppressed female side of the traditional Jewish God. Ultimately, the volcano sequence functions as a countertext that both embraces and challenges Jewish traditions and theological concepts and thus as a sacred text that asserts the role of the feminine in Judaism and the role of embodiment in experiences of the sacred.


[1] See Green Age (1989), Feminist Revision and the Bible (1993) and The Nakedness of the Fathers (1994).
[2] Consisting of nine sections, each with several subsections, the volcano sequence is ordered chronologically, with each section containing poems written within a certain time period, usually not exceeding one or two months. Additionally, each section is titled, and the poems or subsections therein reflect a common theme and also connect to the larger, overarching ideas of the volcano sequence. All of the sections and subsections of the volcano sequence are closely related, and frequently, Ostriker circles back to ideas presented earlier in the text but examines them through a slightly different lens, or as she phrases it, “Meandering, they edge very slightly forward” (“Secular and Sacred” 194). For these reasons, the question of whether the volcano sequence is a book-length poem or a book-length sequence of individual poems is not easily resolved. For the purposes of this chapter, I will be reading the subsections of the volcano sequence as portions of a larger poem, examining them based upon thematic relationships rather than following the chronology and sequence of the text. My reasons for doing so are, in part, based upon the associations I perceive between the volcano sequence and the American long poem.
[3] Published in Ostriker’s 1986 collection, The Imaginary Lover, the poem “Everywoman Her Own Theology” foreshadows this call for multiple voices and hence the end of dualism. In the poem, Ostriker challenges the conventional notion of God as male while simultaneously refusing to replace God with a goddess. Instead, she calls for “at least one image of a god,/ Virile, beard optional, one of a goddess/ Nubile, breast size approximating mine” (The Little Space 97). The rest of the poem advances this request for balance as she seeks “one lion, one lamb” and calls for a spirituality based upon “An absolute endorsement of loving-kindness” rather than “Virtue and sin” (97). For more on Ostriker’s refutation of dualism in “Everywoman,” see Hollenberg.
[4] Ostriker’s discussion of the “meander” functions within critical conversations regarding the American long poem, which has received considerable attention in the past twenty years. In Unending Designs: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry (1991), Joseph M. Conte identifies two types of long poems, which he considers to be emblematic of postmodern approaches to the genre. These include the planned, “procedural” mode and the more “open,” serial mode, which similar to Ostriker’s meander, features a lack of narrative progression and thematic continuity (21). The relationship of the long poem to gender has also stimulated much debate. Noting that prior to the 1960’s, long poems by women were few and far between, feminist theorists have turned their attention to considering how the genre relates to gender. Susan Stanford Friedman argues that the male dominated tradition of the epic has alienated women but that since the 1960s, women have attempted to feminize the “phallic code” of the genre (17). Identifying four strategies by which they do so, Friedman points to acts of revision in regard to history, myth and the sacred. Additionally, Friedman notes the connections between women’s revisions of the long poem genre and poetic disruptions of narrative. While taking into account these various issues regarding the long poem, I find Ostriker’s description of the “meander” most useful for reading the volcano sequence because of the ways in which the poem combines a fractured narrative with a shifting first-person speaker and a revisionist approach to Judaism. (For more on the American long poem, see Conte, Friedman and Keller.)
[5] In an interview with Cynthia Hogue, Ostriker defines “traditional midrash” as “an ancient rabbinic genre” which “takes the compelling but compressed stories of the Bible and retells them, elaborating on them, filling in the gaps, making the stories spiritually and morally meaningful to the community in time present. Giving them a contemporary spin” (Innovative Women Poets 259). As detailed by the midrash scholar Jacob Neusner, the Hebrew term denotes “investigation” and thus “Midrash means investigation of the meaning of Scripture, hence interpretation” (Invitation to Midrash vii). In other words, the act of midrash pertains to “the process or hermeneutic of exegesis of Scripture” (Neusner, Midrash as Literature 4). Although traditionally restricted to Rabbis, midrash has evolved throughout the centuries and has different manifestations including midrashic activity within the Bible itself or “inter-biblical exegesis and commentary,” translations of the Bible, and the rewriting of the biblical narrative (Midrash as Literature 226).
[6] Notably, Ostriker’s repeated focus upon God’s absence, in this portion of the poem as well as in others, also places the volcano sequence within the larger tradition of Jewish American poetry. As Maeera Shreiber notes, Jewish American poetry is “inextricably bound up with the exilic condition,” dwelling upon the separation of the people from their God and “rather than holding out a promise of spiritual and material restoration,” focusing instead upon “the very conditions of estrangement” (2). Though Ostriker’s midrash on Psalm 37 does reveal the depths of her hurt, it nevertheless offers a vision of progress when compared to the first psalm of the volcano sequence, since at this later point in the text, Ostriker now uses the Psalms to express her discontent rather than rejecting them altogether. 
[7] Rather than offering revisions of particular biblical psalms, these constitute Ostriker’s own, original collection. One might argue that although they do not focus upon any particular psalm, these are nonetheless examples of midrash because they take the entire Book of Psalms as their starting point. However, as midrash scholar Gary G. Porton points out, for something to be considered midrash, it must have its “starting point in a fixed canonical text” and “this original verse” must be “explicitly cited or clearly alluded to” (226). While Ostriker’s Psalm 37 meets these requirements, these do not.
[8] Though the red thread often depicts a connection between the female body and the sacred, it is not strictly a positive image. At the end of section vi, the red thread is depicted not as a direct connection between humanity and God but instead as an unfilled promise. Thinking that following the red thread “bravely” would lead to revelation, Ostriker instead concludes that “it is impossible to unearth/ what the hard clay surface buries/ what time chooses to destroy” (72).
[9] Ostriker’s figuring of the Shekhinah as the lost “god the mother” finds its precedent in Jewish feminist literature, where the Shekhinah is often depicted as the suppressed female element of God or as a divine mother figure (See Adler and Weisler)

Works Cited
Adler, Rachel. Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics.” Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1998.

---.  “Feminist Judaism: Past and Future.” Cross Currents. 51.4 (2002): 484-88.

Conte, Joseph M. Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry. Ithaca: Cornell University, 1991. Print.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. “When a ‘Long’ Poem is a ‘Big’ Poem: Self-Authorizing Strategies in Women’s Twentieth-Century ‘Long Poems.’”

Dwelling in Possibility: Women Poets and Critics on Poetry. Eds. Yopie Prins & Maeera Shreiber. Ithaca: Cornell University, 1997. 13-37.

Hollenberg, Donna Krolik. “Motherhood/Morality/Momentum: Alicia Ostriker and H.D.” H.D. and Poet’s After. Ed. Donna Krolik Hollenberg. Iowa
City: University of Iowa, 2000. 14-31. Print.

Keller, Lynn. Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems by Women. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1997.

The King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1976.

“Mikvah.” Judaism 101: A Glossary of Basic Jewish Terms and Concepts. Orthodox Union. 2010. 9 May 2011. Web.

Neusner, Jacob. Invitation to Midrash. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.

---. Midrash as Literature. Lanham: University Press of America, 1987.

Ostriker, Alicia Suskin. “Body and Soul: The Meandering Poem Sequence and Radical Spirituality.” Keynote Address. Women’s Poetry Conference. St. Francis College. Brooklyn, NY. April 5th, 2008.

---. Feminist Revision and the Bible. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1993.

---. For the Love of God: The Bible as Open Book. New Brunswick: Rutgers, 2007.

---. Green Age. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburg, 1989. Print.

---. Interview with Cynthia Hogue. Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews. Eds. Elisabeth A. Frost & Cynthia Hogue. Iowa City: University of Iowa, 2006. 251-61. Print.

---. The Little Space: Poems Selected and New 1968-1998. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1998.

---. The Nakedness of the Fathers. New Brunswick: Rutgers University, 1994.

---. “Secular and Sacred: Returning (to) the Repressed.” Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture. Eds. Stephen Paul Miller & Daniel Morris. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 2010. 184-98. Print.

---. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

---. the volcano sequence. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 2002.

Plaskow, Judith. Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective. San Francisco: Harper, 1990.

Porton, Gary G. “One Definition of Midrash.” Midrash as Literature. Jacob Neusner. Lanham: University Press of America, 1987. 225-29.

Rich, Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision.” On Lies, Secrets and Silence. New York: Norton, 1979. 33-50. Print.

Schwartz, Howard. Gates to the New City: A Treasury of Modern Jewish Tales. Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1991.

---. Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism. New York: Oxford, 2004. Print.

Shreiber, Maeera. Singing in a Strange Land: A Jewish American Poetics. Stanford: Stanford University, 2007.

Weissler, Chava. “Meanings of the Shekhinah in the ‘Jewish Renewal’ Movement.” NASHIM: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues. 10 (2005): 53-83.

Jill is an author, editor, educator, coach and national champion powerlifter. She is the co-editor of the anthology From the Brooklyn, and her work has appeared in From the Heart of Brooklyn Jacket and Editions Bibliotekos as well as other literary magazines. Jill received her Ph.D. in English from Fordham University in 2012, and has taught writing and literature at numerous institutions including Fordham, Ashford University, and most recently, Greenwood Lake Public Library. She lives in Orange County, NY with her husband and three children.

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