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"Voices of Horror, Voices of Hope: Experiencing the Poetry of Alicia Ostriker" by Katherine Hastings
But love is a good idea, we think, why on earth not.
From "What is Needed After Food," — Alicia Ostriker
On a cool, silver Northern California morning I sit in my favorite café experiencing one of those rare moments of perfection. Aromatic leaves brew in a handsome and sturdy ceramic pot until I lift it high enough, tilt it just so, to send a hot stream of tea into the delicate cup without losing a drop. Having heard Alicia Ostriker read her work the night before, I contemplate how her poetry is like this—muscular, graceful, and right-on in hitting her target—the emotional center of her readers.
I am a poet who, for the past 5 and 7 years respectively, has hosted both a poetry-focused radio program called WordTemple on Santa Rosa, California's NPR affiliate KRCB, and a live poetry series by the same name. Despite the time-consuming work involved with the preparation and production of these endeavors, they have been largely selfish undertakings as I've had the luxury of sitting in front of many poets of my choice listening to them read. On July 14, 2012, one of the most powerful readings took place at the WordTemple Poetry Series when Alicia Ostriker read from her new collection, The Book of Life—Selected Jewish Poems, 1973-2011. It may have been the first time in the history of the series that a reading was held during the summer months. People travel, have barbecues, have other places and things to see and do. But when Ostriker told me she could come to Sonoma County in July, there was no option for me but to set the gears in motion.
In my introduction of Ostriker that night, I pointed out that even though her Book of Seventy won the National Jewish Book Award and even though her latest collection is titled The Book of Life—Selected Jewish Poems, 1979-2011, you neither have to be Jewish nor a believer in God to appreciate the full power of her work. Whether you relate most strongly to the Holocaust or to some other human tragedy, Ostriker's own revelations on the ability of her fellow human beings to act out their most cruel and destructive sicknesses or come forth heroically to raise our meaning on this planet offer both terror and hope throughout her work. The audience agreed readily, and then went on to experience this: Ostriker is not only one of America's finest poets, she is also one of the finest readers of poetry, presenting her work as it calls and deserves to be presented. This fact allowed everyone to move freely through emotion after emotion, never missing a beat, or the white-hot silences between the beats. From the bittersweet "Elegy for Allen," an homage to Allen Ginsberg,
He was so nervous
And somehow ailing,
The neurotic utopian
Prophetic fairy side
Of the guy never
to the absolutely crushing "The Eighth and Thirteenth," a poem inspired by Shostakovich's Eighth and Thirteenth symphonies that takes us into the deepest, darkest horrors of the Holocaust (Like ravens / Who know when meat is in the offing / Oboes form a ring), the reactions of the audience were instant and audible. And how unsettling it was to sit there feeling—all at once—elated at the enormous power of her work, and desperate with the deep grief this poem insists upon. The ultimate stanza, the final four lines, are so chilling that if Ostriker had ended the evening with this poem, the audience might still be sitting in stunned silence.
The words never again
Clashing against the words
Again and again —
History, the poem pounds into us, repeats itself. This is just a single example of why Ostriker is called one of America's "premier visionary poets." In short, her work does what poetry is meant to do: it makes us feel, even when we'd rather not and, in its silences, asks what we should do about it.
Most of my symphonies are tombstones, said Shostakovich. "We make beauty of bitterness," says Ostriker in her poem "The Marriage Nocturne." Yes.
Katherine Hastings is Sonoma County poet laureate emerita (2014-2016) and the author of three collections of poems, Shakespeare & Stein Walk Into a Bar (2016), Nighthawks (2014), and Cloud Fire (2012), and several other chapbooks. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, anthologies, and other publications including The Book of Forms—A Handbook of Poetics, Verde Que Te Quiero Verde: Poems after Federico Garcia Lorca, the Comstock Review, Parthenon West Review, Rattle, Beatitude Golden Anniversary, Ambush Review, Calyx, and many others. She is also the host of WordTemple on NPR affiliate KRCB FM and curator of the WordTemple Poetry Series in Sonoma County, CA. Her Small Change Series of WordTemple Press has published beat poet David Meltzer, San Francisco poet laureate emerita devorah major, and many others, as well as the anthology What Redwoods Know—Poems from California State Parks (all proceeds benefited California State parks). Her editorial work include her poet laureate project Digging Our Poetic Roots: Poems from Sonoma County and Know Me Here: An Anthology of Poetry by Women (WordTemple Press, 2017).