This page is referenced by:
"'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:
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. 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.
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)
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.  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. 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).
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. 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.
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. 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:
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.
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)
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:
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.
Do not think I fail to remember
You were right there
when we danced
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.
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:
Although the section ends here, the implication is that God is located in this physical manifestation of the feminine.
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)
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:
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).
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)
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.
 See Green Age (1989), Feminist Revision and the Bible (1993) and The Nakedness of the Fathers (1994).
 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.
 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.
 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.)
 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).
 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.
 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.
 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).
 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)
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.
“The Crack in Everything: Metaphor and Love in the Poetry of Alicia Ostriker” by Terry Lucas
Alicia Ostriker champions metaphor, not only as one of many poetic tropes, but also as the mother nexus to which her figurative language adheres. She weighs in with Aristotle, for whom metaphor is “the intuitive perception of similarity in dissimilars” and “the one thing that cannot be learned from others” (1479). But, for Ostriker, metaphor is more: “It is a sign of love, it is what language uses to show that the world is full of connections” (“Eros and Metaphor”). These ideas are never more enacted in her work than in The Crack in Everything, and never more epitomized than in the poem “The Figure of Metaphor,” which serves as a primer for the entire collection (55).
The poem’s opening stanzas are replete with rhizomes of metaphor—linguistic connectors to other images and ideas that may bypass a cursory inspection. These lateral roots quietly, yet persistently, spread underground as tentacles of new growth, which erupt later in the poem and throughout the work.
The “trip,” the “vans,” “Athens,” the “olives,” and the “octopus” are all buds on “the world’s uncanny oneness.” Ostriker continues to construct her conceit.
"The Figure of Metaphor"
What a trip, the morning I first saw it
Printed on sides of vans in downtown Athens,
METAPHOROS. Invented here, a local product
Like olives and octopus, what cannot
Be taught, says Aristotle, what genius
Has to discover, the world’s uncanny oneness.
In unlike lands it patches parts together,
Bears its own future fruit, a pregnant mother,
And there it is, the first fruit of the spadework done thus far: the figure of metaphor itself rising within the poem as a metaphor—a metaphor for metaphor itself. The gods are to Greek civilization what metaphor is to poetry. You no more have poetry without metaphor than Ancient Greece without the pantheon. But Ostriker is not content to merely state her case and support it with worthy examples (although she does that quite well in the ensuing stanzas, imploring Persephone, Poseidon, Odysseus, Eros, Zeus, and Pan, to name a few). She relentlessly broadens her connections not only by using metaphor, but also by writing with what Peter Campion calls a metaphorical sense.
Demonstrates when we mount Acropolis
Up footsore steps, jostled and shoved by more
Hasty sightseers, its deep antiquity—
Pericles built these piles to Athens’ glory,
Her gleam, so that her democratic harbor
Might welcome tourists from all Asia Minor
Afloat with awe and obols. The idea
Flew; the town boomed as a cultural center,
Meaning a place where one robs foreigners;
Where, conquered by force of arms, one may
Instruct the vulgar victor to surrender
His brutish manners, and by arts and letters
Perceive the gods as motive’s metaphors…
One such larger shape of being is embedded in stanzas 7-8.
By “metaphorical sense” I mean a type of inventiveness that can appear even when metaphor seems absent. It’s not merely a knack for crafting comparisons without “like” or “as,” but the ability to establish far-reaching connections, as well as disjunctions, in consciousness . . . to examine and re-examine motifs [that] begin to constellate a whole climate of thought and feeling as amplitudinous as any symbol system. Metaphorical sense always implies the vision of a larger shape of being. (228-229)
Poseidon greets the viewer with an arm
Unimpeachably awesome, a mature
Male torso, an unconquerable gaze
Designed to make Odysseus look both ways
Before a crossing—Ocean as a man
I study carefully all afternoon
From every gorgeous storm-reflecting angle
Until ejected by museum guards…
Wedged in between the objective limestone realities of the statues of Poseidon and Odysseus, the poet has grown stalks of subjective history nurtured from the canon. In “an arm / Unimpeachably awesome, a mature / Male torso…I study carefully all afternoon / From every gorgeous storm-reflecting angle,” we hear echos of Whitman’s “that lot of me and all so luscious” (49) and “no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones” (43)—the same lines, among others, that a thirteen-year-old Alicia Ostriker devoured and later would metabolize into her own poetry (Dancing 26-27).
With a masterful hand (and eye and ear), Ostriker nurtures images toward nuanced vistas that, although wide, do not exhaust possibilities, but rather are true samples of a landscape whose elements can be utilized for good or ill. Thus, Poseidon’s “unimpeachably awesome arm,” morphs into repressive government in “The Eighth & Thirteenth” (The Crack 29), his “unconquerable gaze” into imperialism in “The Russian Army Goes Into Baku” (27), and his look[ing] both ways reminds one of Whitman’s elusive play (with “I” and “the other I” and “you”) in “I believe in you, my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you, / And you must not be abased to the other” (Dancing 27). As blossoms forth from the best poets, all of this (and more) rises from the ground of Ostriker’s metaphorical sense.
Although most of the time Ostriker does not “tell us,” but prefers to “show us,” she ends the poem by singing out the very word that, for her, is metaphor’s goal.
What sweetness and light? Now moth wings dive
For streetlamps as we make for our hotel,
As up the boulevard a vehicle
Stamped METAPHOROS beeps at us; we wave;
As from each jukebox tenors croon of love.
If love, for Ostriker, is the destination of metaphor, the journey must take its traveler through everything—all experiences and endeavors of all forms of existence—with the purpose of discovering inherent connections, language offering itself as a catalyst for the reader to become one with “the other” and, standing apart, to be defined by it as well. In The Crack In Everything, Ostriker works through a plethora of material, shining her searchlights of elucidation, and aiming her stage lights of entertainment onto characters as disparate as a campus security guard unlocking a professor’s office door, dogs chasing sticks on a beach, a child in a high chair rejecting a spoonful of spinach, a transparent, boneless jellyfish, and a glassful of zinnias on a kitchen table—all with a therapeutic dose of humor, often walking stately up to the poem’s podium, and then dancing offstage in the final lines. She focuses in on details as small as subatomic neutrinos, and pans out to views as capacious as “our cerulean globe spin[ning] through its void” (74). She reaches as far back as ancient Rome and Greece, even back before them to isolated, wandering tribes that preceded the Old Testament nation of Israel, while still vividly recalling last “Saturday night” where “every adolescent body hot / Enough to sweat it out on the dancefloor // Is a laboratory” (34). And, as Whitman celebrated all that was America, Ostriker celebrates all that is human, non-human, sacred, profane, full of flaws, warts and all—the cracked existence that belongs to everyone—not in spite of its imperfections, but precisely because of them. Like the rivers of lava that lap the planet at the borders of its tectonic plates, these cracks connect us, and give us life. Ostriker’s celebration and lament are wound inseparably together in “Marie at Tea” (5).
You remember the extremes
There is no such thing as ordinary
My heart aches, literally, and a drowsy
So I wonder if I will die soon
Sometimes I am so tired
I want to
You remember the extremes
The poem proceeds with dark narratives wrapped around unbearable feelings. The first tells of the death of her spouse’s father—how she and her husband rode a train to London, where they listened to a Joan Baez record of “The Great Silkie,” how “he threw / His head in [her] lap and sobbed, [she] / Never saw him weep again although / [She had] sobbed and yowled countless times / On his chest his lap his shoulder” (lines 19-23). The scene abruptly switches to the poet giving birth for the first time, her husband in the labor room helping her breathe, reading a childbirth textbook that frightened him so much with the five hundred pages of possible complications that he wanted to tell the doctor “if he had a choice / To let the baby go and save his wife.” “I have always felt,” she writes, “This to be touching” (lines 39-42). Finally she recalls a conversation over lunch, begging him to quit “fooling around” with a young girl, only to have him refuse (lines 43-47). She concludes:
The extreme things
Not the normal
A day at the races
A night at the opera
Everything slightly cracked
Then afterward you say:
We’re married this long
Because we are both too stubborn
To admit we made a mistake,
Which is a good line
And a workable disguise
The truth is that you do not know the truth
The kernel of death
Life wraps itself around
Like chamois cloth
Around a diamond
Cold at the center
Precious no doubt because
Inhumanly old, that
Is my idea of
Love, of marriage, the
The narratives of impermanence in Marie at Tea arc from Section I into multiple vignettes of death and dying in The Book of Life (39) (the title of both Section II and its only poem), with “This is the year your mother finally / Went blind, stamping and screaming I can see / Perfectly well and This is your fault,” (lines 19-21), “It is the year your favorite uncle died, / He who taught you your first Jewish jokes / And called America hopeless, politicians / In bed with profiteers,” (lines 24-26), “The year your daughter left for Oregon / To escape you, while you cramp over with dread / Of crowded arteries that could / Any time worsen—” (lines 29-31), “We know the myth of the artist dying young / Consumptive, crazy, / The lyric poet melting back / Like a jack-in-the-pulpit in April woods,” (lines 44-47), and “We know too the myth of our self-destructiveness / The slide into a needle, the cave of fur, / The singer burned alive like his smashed guitar,” (lines 51-53).
The problem, says Ostriker, is not knowing which story is ours, “which script applies to us,” (line 65). And then, of course, it is not death itself that is dreaded, but what leads to it: “When we think, not of death / But of the decay before it—before us— / I ask you at high noon, who doesn’t flinch?” (v, lines 1-3). This last passage proleptically envisions the aftermath of life-threatening disease in Section III in the poem “After Illness” (50). Listen in on the poet’s wrestling conversation with herself over the dilemma of how to spend time in bed recovering, and listen to how her inner dialogue blurs the distinctions between disease and love and writing, as she attempts to answer the question: “What does my inner mind have on its mind?”
If I say, I’ll use this solitude
To discover my true feeling about my mastectomy,
To do the mourning I’ve been postponing,
Or if I think, I’ll surrender myself
To the adoration I feel for X,
Which I prudently control when he’s nearby,
Then that’s not it!
Whatever I can consciously intend
By definition isn’t it!
Hush. Quiet the mind. Leap motionless.
The Tao that can be spoken
Is not the true Tao.
Perhaps I must surrender
The need to write, to metabolize experience
Into poems. Come on, my guides,
Presences, do you think that’s impossible?
Do you think it is desirable?
I’m not going to decide this by myself.
Look, I’m just going to turn
over on my back, on the blanket, nothing
between here and the sky,
What I want
Is to listen, what I want
Is to follow instructions.
Again, Ostriker moves beyond the simple use of metaphor to a vision created from her metaphorical sense. This is supported by the use of craft, exemplified in the following enjambments where, in both instances, the second lines serve to take the first ones in new directions, and to subvert our expectations about what will appear in the third: “I’ll use this solitude…to do the mourning I’ve been postponing // Or if I think I’ll surrender myself / To the adoration I feel for X,” (lines 1,3, 4-5), and “Perhaps I must surrender / The need to write, to metabolize experience / Into poems” (lines 13-15a). The result is that mourning (over physical disease) is tied to the attraction of another person, and both are tied to the act of writing.
But craft alone cannot achieve, in the mind of Ostriker, that which connects “the blanket, nothing / Between here and the sky,” the ineffable “wordless hush” seemingly for which her poems are striving. “That which can be consciously intended” (the poet’s desire to mourn for her mastectomy, her desire for an inappropriate lover, and—am I too presumptuous to assert?—the indirect comparison of simile), does not adequately express the “inner mind.” Like the lover who seeks completion, satisfaction is impossible “by one[self].” What is needed is the voice of the beloved (“I’m not going to decide this by myself”): “What I want / Is to listen, what I want / Is to follow instructions.” And those instructions in Ostriker’s vision are from language itself—a language that arises not from her own thinking—those “eighteen-wheelers / On the brain’s interstate highways,” those “eels / In the neural nets,” but from a place even she cannot quite articulate, a place of unnamed “guides” and “presences.” This language, created inside her own body, almost of its own accord by the consumption of the language of other poets, is what will tie together the experience of the imminent loss of one’s own flesh and the loss of a love affair that might never happen—and both of these with all loss and all gain.
“After Illness” is an ideational, as well as a prosodic, precursor to the climax of The Crack in Everything: “The Mastectomy Poems” (85). The series is a master class in metaphor, the substance of its language being at once gorgeous, erotic, ambiguous, tragic and comedic, and the substance of its ideas being as significant as any dealt with by any poet of any era: death and its attendant physical and emotional pain. The poem around which the others adhere is “Mastectomy” (88).
for Alison Estabrook
I shook your hand before I went.
Your nod was brief, your manner confident,
A ship’s captain, and there I lay, a chart
Of the bay, no reefs, no shoals.
While I admired your boyish freckles,
Your soft green gown with the oval neck,
The drug sent me away, like the unemployed.
I swam and supped with the fish, while you
Cut carefully in, I mean
I assume you were careful,
They say it took you an hour or so.
The metaphors in this passage, as well as in others, serve both to unite the things compared and to provide a distance, a separation between them. This process is not a neat or tidy one—just as in the case of lovers, the goal is to lose identity and to further define it.
Comparing the surgeon to a ship’s captain, and the body of her patient to “a chart / Of the bay, no reefs, no shoals,” sheds light on both “the thing[s] to be described,” the metaphrands—in this instance, the surgeon, the patient—and “the thing[s] used to elucidate it [them],” the metaphiers —the captain, the chart (Jaynes 48). This surgeon (like a ship’s captain who has navigated numerous bodies of water) is as experienced in performing surgery on the patient as the captain is charting her course through the bay. But notice how the unspoken images of the surgeon and the waiting body of the patient lend meaning to the work of the ship captain, who surgically navigates through the open body of water lying before her. This unspoken gesture, this holding back, is what adds to the eroticism of the passage that would be spoiled with simile. The further details of “no reef, no shoals” provides more interest as we approach the images: this body, this procedure, is uncomplicated, straightforward—an additional reason for the “manner confident.” In addition, the choice of “bay” as the body of water rather than ocean or river or lake (each of which would give a different slant to the roles of captain, chart, physician, patient), connotes a place one returns to: home, hearth, safe-haven—the consummate locus of nurture.
Ostriker continues this “hustling of metaphor” to explore the elements of erotic fusion and separation (“Eros and Metaphor”). Line 7 (“The drug sent me away, like the unemployed.”), ostensibly provides distance, while lines 8-9a (“I swam and supped with the fish, while you / Cut carefully in…”), bring a return of intimacy. A closer look reveals that, like a fractal, which exhibits the same design properties regardless of size, when smaller units of these lines are examined, poles both of repulsion and attraction are present. While the drug sends the narrator away to another location, it is not a place devoid of interaction with other life forms. And while there is opportunity for, and actual participation in, swimming and supping, the speaker is still separate from them, evidenced by a language falling short of the complete metaphor of “I was a fish,” falling back, rather, to an implied simile of “I [was] with the fish.”
In the final stanza, by incorporating direct address in the context of dream, the poet realizes a complete blurring of being one with, yet separate from, the beloved.
Was I succulent? Was I juicy?
Flesh is grass, yet I dreamed you displayed me
In pleated paper like a candied fruit.
I thought you sliced me like green honeydew,
Or like a pomegranate full of seeds,
Tart as Persephone’s, those electric dots
That kept that girl in hell,
Those jelly pips that made her queen of death.
Doctor, you knifed, chopped and divided it
Like a watermelon’s ruby flesh
Flushed a little, serious
About your line of work
Scooped up the risk in the ducts
Scooped up the ducts
Dug out the blubber,
Spooned it off and away, nipple and all.
Eliminated the odds, nipped out
Those almost insignificant grains that might
Or might not have lain dormant forever.
The address is at once as if to a lover (“Was I succulent? Was I juicy?”) and to a professional performing her art (“Doctor, you knifed, chopped and divided it . . . serious / about your line of work”). Again, each of these lines (as well as others), connotes the effect opposite to its denotation. The imploring lover’s request for validation is in itself an admission of separation. And the knife that chops and divides also connects, cleaving the doctor to the patient forever, even as it separates flesh from flesh.
In the opening line to the next stanza, as well as in the lines that follow, we can once again hear Whitman.
The “you” of the doctor, the epigraphed Alison Estabrook, and the “you” of the reader—even the “you” of Whitman and the “candied fruit” of the body—are blurred in the same way that Whitman played with the relationship of parts to whole. And that is the point, metaphorically: language is enacting the inquiry into the questions of what a person is in relation to her body and its parts—even the diseased or missing ones.
Flesh is grass, yet I dreamed you displayed me
In pleated paper like a candied fruit,
This is poetry at its highest function: to express love of language and life by shining the light of metaphor on both, discovering their connections—the chief ones in this volume residing in the ubiquitous flaws of existence. The poems in Section IV widen these cracks exposed in the other sections of the book. Here, Ostriker reopens the seams, the hidden zippers in fabrics that cover us and, artfully (even with humor), undresses one reality in order to reveal another—and to be revealed by both. A brief look at the most significant satellite poems in this section is in order, beginning with “The Bridge” (85).
You never think it will happen to you,
What happens every day to other women.
Then as you sit paging a magazine,
Its beauties lying idly in your lap,
Waiting to be routinely waved good-bye
Until next year, the mammogram technician
Says Sorry, we need to do this again,
And you have already become a statistic,
Citizen of a country where the air,
Water, your estrogen, have just saluted
Their target cells, planted their Judas kiss
Inside the Jerusalem of the breast.
Here on the film what looks like specks of dust
Is calcium deposits.
Go put your clothes on in a shabby booth
Whose curtain reaches halfway to the floor.
Try saying fear. Now feel
Your tongue as it cleaves to the roof of your mouth.
What a horrifically splendid image is this “country where the air, / Water, your estrogen, have just saluted / Their target cells, planted their Judas kiss / Inside the Jerusalem of the breast.” Contrast it with the following, two stanzas later, after having read medical articles and made decisions, the narrator, riding toward the hospital with her husband, is presented with a choice of routes:
Given a choice of tunnel or bridge
Into Manhattan, the granite crust
On its black platter of rivers, we prefer
Elevation to depth, vista to crawling
The title of this poem works on many levels. Not only is the poet stating metaphorically that the preference is to openly connect this experience with others rather than to bury it, she is also obliquely referring to figurative language, behind which she does not hide pain, but openly shows it, along with other attendant emotions. The language spans in the open sky; the cancer tunnels beneath the skin in secret. The language points beyond itself to connect life with life; the cancer points only to itself, cutting off life. The language rises on “wings” like the “planes taking off over the marsh,” while the cancer “exhales her poisons.” Ostriker calls out this language directly in “Healing,” a later poem in The Mastectomy Poems (96):
A day that is less than zero
Icicles fat as legs of deer
Hang in a row from the porch roof
A hand without a mitten
Grabs and breaks one off—
A brandished javelin
Made of sheer
To which the palm sticks
As the shock of cold
Instantly shoots through the arm
To the heart—
I need a language like that,
A recognizable enemy, a clarity—
I do my exercises faithfully,
My other arm lifts,
I apply vitamin E,
White udder cream
To the howl
I make vow after vow.
The theme of intertwinement between disease and the search for a language to express it (“I need a language like that, / A recognizable enemy, a clarity” [lines 14-15]), is also pursued in “Wintering” (93).
i had expected more than this.
i had not expected to be
an ordinary woman.
It snows and stops, now it is January,
The houseplants need feeding,
The guests have gone. Today I’m half a boy,
Flat as something innocent, a clean
Plate, just needing a story.
A woman should be able to say
I’ve become an Amazon,
Warrior woman minus a breast,
The better to shoot arrow
After fierce arrow,
Or else I am that dancing Shiva
Carved in the living rock at Elephanta,
One-breasted male deity, but I don’t feel
Holy enough or mythic enough.
Taking courage, I told a man I’ve resolved
To be as sexy with one breast
As other people are with two
And he looked away.
But it is not in Ostriker’s longing for the language to express disease as her personal “crack” in the nature of things that makes “The Mastectomy Poems” the quintessence of this collection. It is the language that she creates with the writing of these poems that seduces us into a deeper relationship with our own flawed existence, and that can lead us to discover our own language as connection to it—enacting the very process that she is writing about—that makes this collection not only memorable, but emblematic of what each poet should be striving for in her own writing. While this is most realized in “Mastectomy,” it is well supported in other poems in this section.
In “Riddle: Post-Op” (87) Ostriker sets the tone for a riddle with these opening lines: “A-tisket a-tasket / I’m out of my casket / Into my hospital room” (87). She continues to describe a festive post-op experience with her family gathered around her, “children plump as chestnuts by the fire,” and “friends bob[ing] in/And out like apples.” But in lines 16-35, beneath this façade of heightened normality, and underneath her bandage, the patient is hiding something:
I’ve a secret, I’ve a riddle
That’s not a chestful of medals
Or a jeweled lapel pin
And not the trimly sewn
Breast pocket of a tailored business suit
It doesn’t need a hanky
It’s not the friendly slit of a zipper
Or a dolphin grin
Or a kind word from the heart
Not a twig from a dogwood tree
Not really a worm
Though you could have fooled me
It was not drawn with crayon
Brushed on with watercolor
Or red ink,
It makes a skinny stripe
That won’t come off with soap
A scarlet letter lacking a meaning
Guess what it is
In one two-word line, with perfect pitch, Ostriker sounds a bell that both celebrates (“a chestful of medals,” “a jeweled lapel pin,” “the friendly slip of a zipper,” “a dolphin grin,” “a kind word from the heart”), and denies (“not,” “doesn’t,” “won’t,” “lacking”), culminating in the word “nothing.” Nothing—yet everything. A crack in the bell that defines and refines the tone of life’s celebration—enhancing it, shading its meaning within a context of entropy that dissolves into mourning, and finally into nonexistence. The riddle is more than finding the solution to the question posed in the poem, finding out what’s hiding “underneath [those] squares of gauze.” The riddle is discovering meaning in connecting that scar with one’s children, one’s mate, one’s friends, in connecting the pain of mortality with dolphins, a dogwood tree, and, finally, with oneself, wearing “a feathery shawl” made of “snow,” that temporary (albeit beautiful) protection that nature provides, melting away in the heat of the grave. And the genius of the poem in not that each image metaphorically “stands” for something else, but that the entire poem is a metaphor for all beings who are only temporarily “out of [their] casket” until in the end “it’s [all] nothing.” Metaphorical sensibility once again underpins the text.
In “What Was Lost” the poet does utilize a more common use of metaphor in the final line to underscore the origin and purpose of flesh, and its ultimate destiny (90). The opening lines reflect what all children and adolescents believe: that they are indestructible.
After several lines of a litany of praise to her breast, the poet returns to her childhood assumption, now shattered, and concludes: “How funny I thought goodness would protect it. / Jug of star fluid, breakable cup—” (lines 31-32). And in these two metaphors, Ostriker recreates in gorgeous language the crack in everything, for every element that we—and all that we know—are made from was forged in a star that exploded billions of years ago. And no matter how long lasting, each element in our collective bodies will eventually be reduced to one and the same element when our star swells and destroys all that it has made. Perhaps Ostriker was envisioning this bitter/sweet apocalyptic rebirth whenever she wrote these final lines:
What fed my daughters, my son
Trickles of bliss,
My right guess, my true information,
What my husband sucked on
For decades, so that I thought
Myself safe, I thought love
Protected the breast.
Each tree standing afire with solid citrus
Lanterns against the gleaming green,
Ready to be harvested and eaten.
Ostriker progresses through additional stages of mourning—denial and acceptance—in “Normal” (95) and “December 31” (92), which opens with these lines,
and closes with these:
I say this year no different
From any other, so we party, the poets
And physicists arrive bearing
Cheese, chile, sesame noodles,
Meats, mints, whatever—
No different, no
Different, and by 3 A.M. if
The son of my blood
And the wild student of my affection
Should choose to carry on…
…may they hear me
Mutter in sleep, sleep
Well and happy
In “Normal,” the poet draws upon imagery from the Genesis account of creation and the subsequent fall of mankind to rewrite the myth of how suffering and dying comes to us all:
And here the roots of metaphor, gathered from the ground of Biblical narratives, the literary canon, and intuitive sensibilities, those tubers that traveled through the digestive tract of Ostriker’s own work, come full circle to a snaking “silky scar” that the poet invites her readers to finger, to caress—to experience its antinomies first-hand before it fastens itself to their own chests.
Meanwhile a short piece of cosmic string
Uncoiled from the tenth dimension
Has fastened itself to my chest.
Ominous asp, it burns and stings,
Grimaces to show it has no idea
How it arrived here.
Would prefer to creep off.
Yet it is pink and smooth as gelatin.
It will not bite and can perhaps be tamed.
Want to pet it? It cannot hurt you.
Care to fingertip my silky scar?
This passage and this collection exemplify the reasons one must read in order to write well. And I have found no one better to read than Alicia Ostriker in order to discover what I didn’t know that I already knew. I can think of no better place to start reading her than in The Crack in Everything, and I have found no better poems to illustrate her metaphorical sense, her love, than in “The Mastectomy Poems.” In them, you will find both metaphor and love shining in and on all of the cracks—even yours—and you just might find your own healing metaphors, as well.
“Epilogue: Nevertheless” (99)
The bookbag on my back, I’m out the door.
Winter turns to spring
The way it does, and I buy dresses.
A year later, it gets to where
When they say How are you feeling,
With that anxious look on their faces,
And I start to tell them the latest
About my love life or my kids’ love lives,
Or my vacation or my writer’s block—
It actually takes me a while
To realize what they have in mind—
I’m fine, I say, I’m great, I’m clean.
The bookbag on my back, I have to run.
Echoing Whitman with a twist, Alicia Suskin Ostriker challenges us to catch her if we can—not in the metaphors she loves, but in our own, gleaned from our own reading and our own living. In The Crack in Everything, she has surely shown us how to find them.
Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Random House, 1966.
Campion, Peter. “Strangers.” Poetry. 195.3 (2009): 225-232.
Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
Ostriker, Alicia. “Eros and Metaphor.” The Healing Art of Writing: A Conference and Writing Workshop. Dominican University, San Rafael, Ca. 9 July 2012.
Ostriker, Alicia. Dancing at the Devil’s Party. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2003.
Ostriker, Alicia. The Crack in Everything. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: The Viking Press, 1959.
Terry Lucas’s two full-length poetry collections are Dharma Rain (Saint Julian Press, 2017) and In This Room (CW Books, 2016). His chapbook, If They Have Ears to Hear, was the 2012 winner of the Copperdome Chapbook Contest (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2013). He has recent or forthcoming work in Alaska Quarterly Review and Naugatuck River Review. Terry is a regular guest speaker in the Dominican University of California’s Low-Residency MFA Program, and a free-lance poetry coach.