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"'Rejoice, we have triumphed': Ostriker’s Poetics of Motion" by Wendy Galgan
Being able to move, and being constrained from moving, are powerful and important themes in women’s poetry. Walking and driving, for example, express agency, control over one’s own body and one’s own progress through the world. Stillness and stasis, which are often thought of as motion’s opposites, are really forms of motion that can be used to represent limitations, but can also indicate acceptance, peace or contemplation. These metaphors of motion, whether of agency or constraint, are important ones in all poetry, but are especially important for women writers, who all too often have found and continue to find that they are prevented from moving in both the literal and metaphorical senses.
Metaphors of motion do not mean the same thing to every poet. In fact, the same metaphor can mean different things to the same poet in different poems. What I am arguing is that the ability to move, to have agency (which includes the agency to stand still as well as go forward), is not taken for granted by women, and because of this female poets use metaphors of motion in powerful, profound ways.
In her 1982 collection A Woman Under the Surface, Alicia Ostriker uses a number of rich and interesting physical movements. Seven poems present a good introduction to, and overview of, the metaphors of motion in A Woman Under the Surface.
A Woman Under the Surface begins with a poem about stasis, stillness. “The Waiting Room” opens with a description of how the entire waiting area is designed to reassure, to keep the women who are waiting for their radiological appointments in the Atchley Pavilion (part of Columbia Presbyterian in New York) calm and still. Obviously, Ostriker echoes Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” especially in the physical constraints upon the speaker of the poem and her inward-turning gaze.
… The carpet is beige.
Beige walls, beige soundproofed ceilings, beige sofas surround us.
Geometric design of a room divider, wrought iron, to separate
The reception area from the waiting area.
To suggest, gently, that sterility means peace. (4-8)
The space of this poem is a feminine space; there are no men present where “[w]e ladies” (1) wait. While the women “[r]ange in age from the early thirties to the sixties” (3), what they have in common is class, represented by what they wear: “We are wearing our tweeds, our rings” (4). For these women, there is a double meaning to the sterility suggested by the waiting area: yes, it can mean peace, and reassurance that the hospital is a safe, clean place. But sterility could also suggest, especially to younger women with gynecological problems, the fear that they might not be able to bear children.
Outside, the day is brilliant, windy, and bittercold.
We have come through this weather, but now it does not exist.
We think of our breasts and cervixes.
We glance, shading our eyelids, at each other. (9-12)
The women’s motion, which propels them through the outside world, stops at the waiting room. Stillness allows them, even forces them, into self-contemplation (notice the focus on the female, with their worries about their breasts and cervixes). While they do look quickly at one another, there is no attempt — indeed, no desire — to make a connection.
Now the speaker of the poem moves from the collective “we” to her own thoughts, to what she is contemplating as she sits still in the beige-on-beige waiting room. “I am wondering,” she says, “what would be a fully human / Way to express our fears, these fears of the betrayal / Of our bodies” (13-15). The waiting, the turning inward imposed by stasis, helps those fears grow. Through the stillness of contemplation, the speaker has come to recognize that the very motionlessness she and the other “ladies in the Waiting Room” are experiencing (1) is an unnatural response to the fear each of them is feeling.
The phrase “mating of flesh” uses sexual imagery to illustrate the way in which the human person (soul, intellect) is wedded to the human body. Human beings depend upon their bodies’ loyalty; in other words, on its ability to move, and continue to move, both through the world (walking, running) and within itself (the heart pumping blood, the lungs moving oxygen). Each lady there — indeed, each human being — depends upon this “mating of flesh” for the continuation of life itself; the possibility this joining together may be put asunder by the body’s “betrayal” is extremely frightening:
... That without notice it [the body] may
Grow subversive seems intolerable, an uprising of house-slaves
Who have always belonged to the family and accomplished
Their tasks discreetly, ever since we were born. (17-20)
The heart has pumped, the lungs inflated and deflated, “discreetly” and unnoticed and unremarked for the speaker’s entire life. By likening the possibility of illness to a slave revolt, the speaker implies that this uprising, this illness, has festered beneath the body’s surface for years, the way cancer cells will until their replication begins to cause discernible symptoms.
The speaker — and, by implication, the other women in the waiting room — has suppressed the knowledge of the possibility of the body’s revolt, of the possibility her life could be stopped by the very vessel that contains it: “Perhaps we should dress less expensively / And not so well disguise the skeleton” (21-22). The very tweeds and rings these women wear give them a false sense of security. Clothes and jewelry hide the messiness, the truth of the body beneath (“disguise the skeleton”). Her repetition of “perhaps” shows the speaker isn’t sure what the answer is. She is struggling to find the “fully human” response: “Perhaps / We should sit more closely, ladies, to each other, / On couches arranged to form a circle, upholstered // Some vivid color. Perhaps we should sit on the floor” (22-25).
Instead of sitting still, sitting separately, sitting alone with their fears, the women could find some comfort from being closer together, by having those potentially rebellious bodies in proximity to each other on couches instead of chairs that separate them into individuals. For what is more human than the desire to be close to another person? Instead of the calming beige of stasis, “vivid colors” would decorate those couches, colors that echo the vitality and chaos of a life lived in motion, lived fully in the world. Or they could move from the chairs and sit together on the floor, take back at least a little of their agency by rejecting the stillness and separation imposed upon them by the individual chairs and sitting together in a way that predates history: a circle.
What if they do move? If they do gather together and reject the stasis and inward-focus of each person sitting in her own, very separate, chair? “They might have music for us. A woman dancer / Might perform, in the center of the circle” (26-27). Both music and dance express human emotions, those feelings that make us, “fully human,” and just as the notes move up and down and scale, so too does the dancer’s body move through the space of the dance. Here, then, the possibility of another type of movement appears, not by the waiting woman but by a (female) dancer. But to make that movement meaningful, to avoid the beige stillness imposed upon those who wait, that dancer would have to do something shocking: “What would she do? / Would she pretend to rip the breasts from her body?” (27-28).
Just as we are presented with that jarring image, the speaker says, “From behind a wall, we hear a woman’s voice / Screaming. It simply screams” (29-30). Here, then, is the “fully human” response to the body’s betrayal, a response that is louder, more shocking than Aunt Consuelo’s cry in Bishop’s poem (“Suddenly, from inside, / came an oh! of pain” (36-37)). Where for Bishop the cry is a particular, personal one (the speaker knows who makes the sound, and says, “I wasn’t at all surprised; / even then I knew she was / a foolish, timid woman (40-42)), in Ostriker’s poem the scream is universal, wordless, sound without sense. Note that it is not “a” scream; it is screaming, indicating something continuous and uncontrollable. The “soundproofed ceilings” (5) do not prevent the screaming from being heard in the waiting room. Someone is in physical pain, or given that the women are waiting for tests, perhaps someone is in emotional pain, the pain of a dreaded diagnosis. That “fully human” pain is directly expressed in a “fully human” response, a scream that reaches the women in the waiting room.
One woman in particular, the “[o]ne person / In the waiting room” who “has turned around” (30-31) is the only woman who expresses her surprise through physical motion. The rest of the women, we assume, keep their gazes averted and their bodies still, suppressing the natural reaction to turn toward pain. The woman’s “false / Sooty eyelashes have opened wide” (31-31) at the sound of the screams; her shocked gaze is an outward manifestation of how each woman in the room must feel: startled and afraid.
A few minutes later the screaming has stopped
And the woman in false eyelashes (I see she is very
Pretty, with black long hair, white blouse with bright
Tropical design on sleeves) has lit a cigarette. (33-36)
There is nowhere the women can go. They are held in stasis in the waiting room, left to contemplate the possibility of their own most-feared diagnosis, as the screaming continues. That screaming is not short — it goes on for a “few minutes” before stopping. The pretty woman lights a cigarette, perhaps to calm her nerves; ironically, here the woman sits, waiting for tests to see if she has cancer, doing something that causes cancer.
Ostriker ends the poem with this final image of the pretty woman lighting a cigarette. All the women in the waiting room are still in stasis, still waiting. After the woman’s slight motion of turning around and widening her eyes, she too settles back into her chair, settles back into the inward contemplation that the waiting room imposes upon these women. The lack of movement by the women in this poem suggests that they are at the mercy of their (possible) diagnoses. The stasis imposed upon them by the waiting room is a milder version of the ways in which a cancer diagnosis would constrain them, would focus all their attention upon a body that is ill and that must stay still much of the time. And, of course, this lack of movement reflects the women’s fear of the ultimate motionlessness, death.
In “After the Shipwreck,” the second poem in the collection, the stasis of “The Waiting Room” shifts to an odd ‘stasis within motion’ of survivors on a life raft. The raft is floating, moving without purpose, while the survivors are held captive on it: “Lost, drifting, on the current, as the sun pours down / Like syrup, drifting into afternoon” (1-2).
With a tip of the cap to Whitman (in both the reference to his “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking” and the use of his cataloging technique), Ostriker presents another layer of movement, a kind of ‘motion within stasis,’ as the survivors stranded on the raft begin to organize their meager supplies:
The raft endlessly rocks, tips, and we say to each other:
Here is where we will store the rope, the dried meat, the knife,
The medical kit, the biscuits, and the cup
We will divide the water fairly and honestly. (3-6)
The agency they have, the little bit of movement they can make, is to organize these supplies. As they arrange the rope, the biscuits and other provisions, civilization still exists (at least for the moment) in their assertion that they will make a fair and honest distribution of water.
Civilization, in the form of hope, also exists when “[s]omebody raises a voice and says: Listen, we know there is land / Somewhere, in some direction. We must know it” (8-9). The double meaning behind raising your voice (to raise up your voice to the Lord in prayer, and a voice raised in anger or as a means of establishing authority) applies here, as the person speaking is offering a type of prayer (in the “We must know it”) while also seeking to keep up the spirits of the survivors. The raising of the voice calls (in both meanings of the word) for a response from the listeners. The survivors are being enjoined to ‘lift up’ spiritually at the same time they are being commanded to ‘bow down’ to the authority of the speaker. These two movements, one spiritual and one societal, produce a push-pull effect upon the listeners.
This effect is short-lived, however, for while “there is the landfall, cerulean mountain-range” (10) for a moment, in the next line the speaker reveals that landfall is “[o]n the horizon: there in our minds” (11), dashing the momentary hope of the survivors and removing the assumed authority of the person who raised his voice. The people on the life-raft are reminded of the direness of their situation; the reminder seems particularly cruel because of that momentary hope raised by the imagined landfall,
. . .Then nothing
But the beauty of ocean,
Numberless waves like living, hysterical heads,
The sun increasingly magnificent,
A sunset wind hitting us. (11-15)
The vision, the hope, fades quickly. The survivors are motionless, while nature (but not any visible living creatures) is in motion around them. The vista upon which they gaze, with the rolling waves, the sun moving down toward the horizon, and the wind coming at them across the water, is beautiful, yes, but all that motion makes it deadly, too.
. . . As the spray begins
To coat us with salt, we stop talking. We try to remember. (15-16)
The final image is of survivors sitting still as the ocean spray begins to cover them (they wouldn’t be coated with salt if they moved). Even talking ceases. As with the women in “The Waiting Room,” this forcible stillness causes them to look inward, attempting to find their own memories of land, of hope, and of home.
One way to read “After the Shipwreck” is as a metaphor for trying to put life back together again after a tragedy (whether personal or communal). The politeness, the attempt to be very fair with the distribution of supplies represent the ways in which, let us say, a couple who has experienced a rancorous split then attempts to piece together some sort of civil give-and-take in the sad aftermath. Yet things cannot be the same, and what was there before (the landfall, the mountain range) is only a memory, one which becomes increasingly difficult to recall. Caught in stasis, coated with salt (memories), they stop talking; all the forward motion of their life together has ended, and the best they can do is “try to remember” what they used to have.
With this reading in mind, we can see that “Storm,” which appears later in the collection, is a companion piece, in a way, to “After the Shipwreck.” Where the latter started with the stillness of those becalmed after a storm, ”Storm” gives us violent and deadly motion.
If “After the Shipwreck” is about the aftermath of tragedy, then “Storm” depicts the tragedy itself, the terrible feeling of being out of control when everything seems to be in motion around you yet you have no control whatsoever over that motion — or even the agency to control how and when you yourself move.
The sky became the color of a bruise.
We hid from it, as you would, we rose up and up
On the vomited wave. (1-3)
There were portents which they tried to ignore, until finally the violent, ugly motion of the wave took over; they could no longer control their own motion, rising “up and up” while “[t]he winds hurtled us, slammed us, constantly” (4). The “we” of the poem have lost total control, and have no choice but to try to survive the buffeting of the storm.
Where the women of “The Waiting Room” remain studiously separate from each other in their stillness, the storm’s violent motion throws the “we” of “Storm” together, again and again. “We tore each other’s clothing; fell, wrestled, / Clung and screamed. We were ready to die, / Or murder, anything, packed in like slaves” (5-7). The “fully human” closeness the speaker of “The Waiting Room” imagined has become a terrifying tumble of bodies, their motion not indicative of agency, of choice, but instead of pure animal instinct — kill or be killed — while the horror of being tossed around is compounded by how close everyone is. Despite having clung to each other, they also want to get away from each other.
Unlike the vessel in “After the Shipwreck,” this boat does not break up. It is horrible in the hold of the ship, and unlike those still alive “After the Shipwreck,” these survivors do not have to try to remember; what they went through is still clear in their mind:
We remember the furry stink, the pandemonium,
The dipping in blackness.
But the dead were outside, drowned and weltering.
Hundreds of packs of picture cards
Flung from some high window into a river,
Waterlogged, bloated, sunk. Unbreathable rottenness
Climbed the strings of rain like ivy, until we
Scraped, grated, stopped. (8-15)
With “But the dead were outside,” the speaker indicates that no matter how bad it was inside the ship, it was worse outside. The dead bodies were “weltering,” rising and falling along with the movement of the water (a horrific parody of how those in the ship were tossed “up and up” by the “vomited wave”), all agency gone, their motion dictated solely by the water, first as it tosses them about tumultuously, then as it soaks into first their clothes and then their bodies, pulling them below the waterline and sending up the smell of rotting flesh.
In the midst of all this horror, the violent motion of the ship on the waves is stopped just as violently when they run aground (“until we / Scraped, grated, stopped”) beneath “[a] shocking sky, motionless and blinding” (16). All is at a standstill.
Again, unlike the survivors in “After the Shipwreck,” those who lived through this “Storm” will keep the memory of what happened with them.
We will never forget this adventure,
Neither the scars not the anger,
Nor fresh air mingled with steam,
Nor airy colors. (18-21)
Whatever disaster this shipwreck is the metaphor for (either communal, or personal), the “adventure” was not wholly negative. Yes, there are scars, there was anger, but there was also fresh air, and there were airy colors. There was beauty as well as hurt, gladness as well as heartbreak. In “Storm,” those aboard ship survive by this very ability to remember (rather than having to try to remember): “It is because of this thought / And cross-thought, our capacity / For it, that we were saved” (22-23). There was a tragedy, and perhaps things have changed permanently (as in the dissolution of a marriage), but what has endured is the survivors’ ability to remember both the good and the bad of the journey they were taking together. Their forward motion may have ended violently, and they may very well end up moving forward separately, but they will take the memory of their adventure with them.
Yet, for a moment, the speaker’s “us” remain together, standing still, while “all the living beings” (24)
Fan out, away
From us, across
The lumped, cratered skin of our earth,
Faint, fainter, trails of an explosion. (25-28)
Note it is not the “us” who move, but the other living beings beginning to make their way across a ruined landscape. The disaster, the “explosion,” is over, and the living beings moving away are the fading trails of that disaster. For at least a few moments more, the speaker and whomever else constitute her “us” remain unmoving, not the motionlessness of one who is constrained, but rather the stillness of those taking a moment to contemplate, to remember, and to honor what came before. Compare this type of stillness with the constraints upon motion found in “The Waiting Room” and “After the Shipwreck,” and you see that within stillness can be found strength and agency, provided that stillness is by choice and not imposed by outside forces.
With “The Exchange,” we move from the violence of the ocean to the violence (or at least the dream of violence) that lives in the human heart. In this poem, Ostriker plays with the idea she would explore later in Stealing the Language: that dual or mirror images found in women’s poetry “register the condition of marginality: nonexistence, invisibility, muteness, blurredness, deformity” (10). In this poem, the speaker creates a dual image of herself, and yes, that image is mute, but in her speechlessness is great power.
The poem begins with the speaker as observer, a woman who is “watching a woman swim below the surface / Of the canal” (1-2). Here, the speaker is sitting still, being rowed in a boat, while the woman in the water has the agency to move through swimming.
This woman is, in some ways, the traditional Other, her description couched in familiar mermaid imagery: “Her powerful body shimmering, / Opalescent, her black hair wavering / Like weeds” (2-4). She appears to be in her natural element. “She does not need to breathe. She faces // Upward, keeping abreast of our rented canoe” (4-5). With her hair “like weeds” and with no need to breath, she is a powerful force of nature. While she looks up at the speaker, the speaker must face downward to see her. Although the reader would assume that this woman is merely a reflection of the speaker, her body is described as “shimmering,” which implies she is naked. The speaker, in a boat, in public, with her children, is clothed. Power and agency appear to belong to the woman in motion beneath the water, the woman who swims without needing to breathe.
After the disquieting image of the woman under the surface, the scene appears to be presented as an idyll:
Sweet, thick, white, the blossoms of the locust trees
Cast their fragrance. A redwing blackbird flies
Across the sluggish water. My children paddle.” (6-8)
Yet if we read carefully, we find this isn’t quite the beautiful nature scene it first appears to be. Yes, the scent of the locust blossoms is sweet, but it is also “thick,” perhaps unpleasant. This unpleasantness may extend to the river itself, for its water is sluggish (barely moving), not clear and fast flowing. The stanza ends with the image of the children paddling the boat, leaving the woman just sitting as they move through the water; not only is the woman sitting still in the boat, she does not even control the way in which the boat is moving. Thus the “children paddling the boat” becomes a metaphor for the ways in which the speaker feels her children are controlling her life, constraining her from moving in ways she might prefer to what is demanded of her as a mother (and, we learn later in the poem, as a wife).
At the start of the third stanza, however, is a turn. The speaker imagines herself reclaiming agency by changing places with the woman in the water. “If I dive down, if she climbs into the boat, / Wet, wordless, she will strangle my children / And throw their limp bodies into the stream” (9-11). Thus the way the speaker feels controlled by her children erupts into a homicidal rage, or at least the fantasy of a homicidal rage.
If, as Ostriker claims in Stealing the Language, “the secret desire encoded in women’s anger poems is a desire to imagine precisely what cannot be imagined within the poems themselves” (163), she has exploded that secret desire here with her fantasy of prolicide. Obviously, she does not wish her children murdered, but the maternal anger reflected in this image of her speaker’s Other strangling children does, indeed, “imagine precisely” what normally could not be “imagined within the poems themselves.”
That this is a fantasy is further emphasized by the “If/if” construction, which means the murder of the children is possible only if the speaker allows it. She must act first in the construct, must exercise her agency to choose to act; the water-woman then follows suit.
After killing the speaker’s children, the water-woman will move on. “Skin dripping, she will take my car, drive home” (12). Notice it is the woman’s skin that is dripping, not water dripping from her clothes. So, again, while we tend to read the water-woman as the speaker’s reflection, she is not a true reflection; rather, she is the speaker’s Other (where the speaker is clothed, the water-woman is naked; where the speaker would never hurt her children, the water-woman would kill them). The speaker does, however, say that the water-woman will “drive home.” Not “drive to my home” or “drive to our home,” but “drive home,” an indication that the water-woman is part of the speaker in some way, and that her agency may also be the speaker’s (in other words, what the water-woman can do, the speaker would be capable of doing, also).
The speaker reverts back to the me/her split in the next stanza, saying, “When my husband answers the door and sees / This magnificent naked woman” (13-14), so just as the water-woman would, according to the speaker, kill “my children,” she would also confront “my husband.” When she arrives at the speaker’s house, the water-woman will either knock on the door or ring the bell, tacitly requesting permission to enter, a permission that the husband would grant when he opens the door. And as that husband looks at this woman with “bits of sunlight / Glittering in her pubic fur” (14-15) he will see a being more akin to an animal (that “public fur”) than a human woman. And as she stands there, “her muscular / Arm will surround his neck, once for each insult // Endured” (15-17).
This is an odd, disturbing image. Does it mean that the water-woman will choke him a number of times, will strangle and then release, strangle and then release? Or is her arm long enough, sinuous enough (like a water-snake, perhaps) to wrap around and around his neck. Whichever is the case, as she kills him, he will see the wildness of her animal nature as she strangles him to death.
He will see the blackbird in her eye,
Her drying mouth incapable of speech,
And I, having exchanged with her, will swim
Away, in the cool water, out of reach. (17-20)
Unlike the previous four stanzas, this final one is in iambic pentameter, with an end rhyme in the second and fourth line. The effect of this shift is that the reader slows down, sensing the change if not consciously noting it, and feels the poem drawing to a close. This poetic motion mirrors the solemnity of what the speaker has imagined, an exchange that leaves her watery Other dying on land (or so one imagines from the water-woman’s “drying mouth”), while the speaker herself, having taken on the mantle of the mermaid, regains agency through her ability to swim away, motion that puts her “out of reach.”
The question does remain, out of whose reach? Her children and her husband would be dead after this exchange, so whom must she evade? Perhaps it is her Other, the dying water-woman, from whom the speaker would wish to escape. For once the water-woman switched places with the speaker, she lost all agency. The killing of the children, the strangling of the husband, are all manifestations of the speaker’s desires; the water-woman, who had complete agency when she was free to swim under the surface, would lose all control over her own life the moment she switched places with the speaker. So, in some ways, she would become as powerless, as motionless, as the speaker is at the start of the poem. The only way to regain her freedom would be to enact another exchange, which the speaker, having experienced freedom in the river, is unwilling to do.
“Fisherman” is the next poem in the collection after “The Exchange.” Here we have another river, this time with a fisherman above water and trout below. As with the speaker of “The Exchange” who fantasizes switching places with the water-woman, this poem also posits a fantasy by asking us to
Imagine a fisherman in summer deep
Enough to have drowned all other seasons — (1-2)
This is “a” fisherman, undifferentiated, about whom we learn very little. He is a (masculine) presence who, like the speaker in “The Exchange,” is in a boat on the water.
His river flows between banks of ash and hickory,
Blackberries ripen, cobwebs form in the shrubs,
Bluejays grow drowsy. (3-5)
Note it is “his” river; somehow, through the physical action of fishing, he has claimed the river as his own. Here, though, the river is flowing, not sluggish, and where the locust blossoms “cast their fragrance” (7) in “The Exchange,” here the trees are still while the river flows by them. The shrubs are so still there are cobwebs in them, and the bluejay is motionless (unlike the redwing blackbird in “The Exchange,” who is in flight).
This somnolent scene continues, with a fisherman who has “escaped his relatives” (6) now floating on the river, where “[a]ll above water is gauze, hotly in touch, dry light” (7). He is “[l]iving in his dream (5) where his ability to move allowed him to escape his relatives. His dream is coming true at the moment of the poem, unlike the speaker in “The Exchange” whose fantasy depends upon the “If/if” coming true. Yet, is the fisherman’s dream coming true, for isn’t it really a dream-within-a-dream, or, more precisely, a dream within the world the speaker asks us to imagine?
The beauty of the afternoon is like a “late Monet, a Bach / Chorale, a woman peeling oranges” (8-9). He dreams a gauzy, light-filled space in nature that is also mildly erotic (the woman peeling oranges). All around him is caught in this dream; or, rather, all but the fish, for “[o]nly the cold trout must elude the dream” (10). Like the speaker of “The Exchange” who swims in the cool water to avoid being ‘captured’ by her Other, the trout must work to evade being caught by the fisherman.
Under his boat in the brown flood, pure muscle,
They glide along as if he does not exist,
Like courteous phrases in a dead language.
Their glassy eyes look past each other, hopeless. (11-14)
First, it seems the fish have the most agency. They swim through the river, ignoring the fly he is casting. But the last line of the couplet shows them as “hopeless” (in an image reminiscent of the way the women in “The Waiting Room” look past each other).
It is the way the fisherman wishes. He casts
His line again and again in the heavy heat. (15-16)
This final couplet shows that the fisherman’s motion, casting his line, exhibits the real agency. The fish cannot look at each other for there is no hope for them; implied in that “hopeless” is the idea that some of the trout will be caught, will be dragged up from the cool river into the day’s “heavy heat.” The fisherman defies that heat (for, if this is his dream, isn’t the heat part of that dream?) and continues to cast his fly. While the river and the fish move as rivers and fish do, it is the fisherman whose motion has the most purpose and exhibits the most control over what happens in the warm, drowsy afternoon. Here, the person in the landscape has the most agency. In fact, in some ways the fisherman has more agency than the reader herself, for it is his dream that we are asked to imagine, and his dream that is ‘played out’ as he repeatedly casts his line into the water.
The use of physical motion in poetry is an assertion of agency, of control over one’s life and one’s circumstances. Walking, perhaps more than any other type of poetic metaphor of motion, represents this agency.
There is a strong and natural connection between walking and poetry, and there is a long tradition of ‘walk poems’ by both men and women (Cf. William Wordsworth, Robert Frost, Rainer Maria Rilke, Elizabeth Bishop, Marilyn Hacker, Nikki Giovanni, Jane Kenyon). The meter of the poem often echoes the rhythm of footfalls, or the poem’s structure mirrors the speaker’s walks (as, for example, the long lines of Walk Whitman mirrored the long walks he took through Brooklyn and New York).
She who walks is in charge of where she goes, how she goes there, how fast she goes there, and how long she stays there. Walking is a way of establishing oneself, of becoming part of the landscape though which one moves, even a way of defining one’s life. As Marilyn Hacker writes in her “April Interval” sequence from Going Back to the River, “Wherever I surface I reinvent / some version of the Daily Walk to Town” (1-2).
Walking may be a way of attempting to ‘move through’ sadness or grief (Cf. Jane Kenyon’s “Walking Alone in Late Winter”), a form of domestic journey where the speaker walks in familiar places while attempting to come to terms with whatever sorrow or loss she is experiencing. Ostriker’s “A Woman Walking in the Suburbs” is just such a work.
A melancholy poem, “A Woman Walking in the Suburbs” comprises four stanzas, alternating octets and couplets. The two longer stanzas describe the woman and her walk, echoing her long, slow progress through the suburban streets (like Whitman’s long lines). The two couplets are about “the man” who has left her.
Although this is a walk poem, it opens in “October stillness” with “the last leaves hang[ing] / Golden on the trees” (1-2) and for the speaker this stillness is something to be desired, to be emulated. For a month, she has “strained” (3) to change, “to become / Luminous and transparent as the leaves” (3-4) but, having “failed” she instead “grew thicker” (5). Only now, as autumn is heading into winter, only after she has “relinquished” (6) her struggle, does she find herself gaining the luminosity and transparency she had been seeking. At the end of the octet that is the first stanza, the speaker declares, “My breathing and needs decrease, / I am quite tranquil. I feel the light fly through me” (7-8). It is in ceasing to struggle, in embracing the stillness, that the speaker is finally able to find the equilibrium she sought.
Yet she is still not still; she is, instead, walking. This is because the tranquility she achieved came “too late” for her “to show the man” (9) for whom it appears she wished to enact these changes. This nameless man has left her: “He has tumbled away, an engine down its track” (10). Thus the man embodies mechanical motion, circumscribed by the path, the “track,” down which he moved away from the speaker, leaving her to wander on foot throughout the suburban streets.
Only in the third stanza do we find that she is not alone in her walk; “a slip of a child” is with her (11). This child, never gendered, is “coming along” (11) with the speaker, “holding [her] fingers” (12) rather than her hand, which is less secure, and which may indicate that the child is very small, too small to reach up and fully hold the speaker’s hand.
As they walk, the child kicks the leaves, exposing “the dark gray damp spots under them” (13). The speaker says, “We see” those spots, and she and the child see “what a peaceful / Afternoon it seems to be” (13-15). Through the motion of kicking the leaves, the child has uncovered what was hidden, and what was hidden is dank and unlovely. This idea of hidden things is repeated when the speaker says the afternoon “seems” to be peaceful; she, however, knows that what lies beneath the surface of what they are seeing is anything but. She herself, walking with the child, may appear on the outside to be peaceful, yet inside she is mourning the loss of “the man.”
The woman and child are nearly, but not completely, alone in the “October stillness.” They “see the swing set in the children’s playground” (16), but there appear to be no children on the swings, and she does not take the child to play on them; the swings, like the afternoon itself, are still. There is “another lonely woman walking a dog” (17), and here is where the speaker alludes again to what is hidden inside of her, projecting her own loneliness (“another lonely woman”) onto someone else. All we can really know about the woman is that she is walking her dog; whether she is lonely or not is hidden from us.
The last line of the stanza states, “Westward, our red sun sets” (18). While little else is moving in the stillness of the afternoon, the sun is moving down toward the horizon as the day draws to a close. Note the “our” sun, which links the speaker and the child together as they move through the suburban streets and sets up the poem’s final couplet:
The man was my sun. The shining he cannot see now
Flows with all fairness. (19-20)
The man was not the sun for both her and the child; he was her sun, the light around which she revolved. She wished to shine for him, but her luminosity came too late. Now she is the one who shines, whose fair light flows through her and out of her, leaving her “tranquil” but lonely.
Could this light would be able to “fly through” her if the man were still with her? If he was her sun, and she revolved around him, then any luminosity she would produce would be a mere reflection of his light, the way the moon reflects the light of the sun. Only now that he has “rumbled away” and left her alone does her own light move through her; it “[f]lows with all fairness” because it is hers and not a reflection of the man’s light. In this way, she achieves, however transitory and however tinged with sadness, transcendence. By allowing herself to embrace stillness, yet continue to move through the world by walking, the speaker enables the light to continue to “fly through” her, to shine as it flows through her being, and this luminosity, this transcendence, continues even through the sadness she feels at the loss of “the man” for whom she wished to shine.
Transcendence does not always come from embracing stillness. In some poems, it is physical motion that can lead to enlightenment and change. Sometimes that motion is walking (as in Jean Garrigue’s “Moondial”), sometimes driving, sometimes riding a horse. Other times, this moving-through-the-world takes the form of running, as in the final Ostriker poem I will discuss, “The Runner.”
The reader moves through this poem the way the runner moves through the world; the poem enacts the run, just as the runner herself embodies movement, and we are along for the duration. Poems are not just about journeys, of course, they are journeys” (Wright 260), and here Ostriker allows her reader to experience the runner’s journey through the poem.
That journey, first and foremost, is one of physical difficulty:
Sweat glides on the forehead of the gasping runner
Who runs of necessity, who runs possibly for love,
For truth, for death, and her feet are sweltering. (1-3)
The poem starts with the word “sweat” which signifies the physical efforts of the runner as she moves through the world (as does the description of her as gasping). Yet the sweat “glides,” which introduces (however briefly) a feeling of effortlessness. It is more often a runner who is described as gliding, when her run is going easily and well, rather than sweat (which usually is described in terms such as dripping from, or standing out on, a person’s face).
Despite the difficulty of the motion, it is definite that the runner must run (“of necessity”) but the why is not clear. Three possibilities are presented, all non-concrete: love, truth, death. These three abstractions are bracketed by the down-to-earth details of the sweating, gasping runner at the start of the stanza and her sweltering feet at the end.
As with “After the Shipwreck” and “Storm,” something has happened, although the reader never learns quite what that something is. “Behind the runner lies a battlefield. / There, the dust falls” (4-5). Is the battlefield personal (an argument or some difficulty she faces) or a larger tragedy? If the dust falls there, is it the dust of an abandoned space? Or does it signify the end of the battle, the dust clearing? None of these questions is answered, for after this backward glance we are directed to turn our attention forward:
. . . Ahead the narrow road
Eats a plateau, leads into streets and buildings,
A beach, and the excavation of motherly ocean,
Everything under the arch of an innocent sky. (5-8)
The road, the path along which she moves, devours the height of the plateau; it doesn’t pass over or go around or climb, but rather eats the plateau. By extension, then, the runner herself, through her forward motion along that road, devours the plateau as well (for we do hear of runners who “eat up the miles” as they go). Once the plateau is eaten, the road enters a space of human habitation before ending up at the beach, a liminal space between the land (with the town) and the water. Here the motion of that water, the “motherly ocean,” is much calmer, and less overtly violent than the waters in “After the Shipwreck” and “Storm,” yet, if we read “the excavation of motherly ocean” to mean the way in which the water is eating away at the sand, then this gentle, reassuring tidal motion may end up just as destructive as the killing waves of the two other poems. This appears to be reinforced by the image of the “innocent sky,” which connotes either naïveté or a willing disregard for what is happening below its arch.
From the open vista of ocean and sky, in the third line of the same tercet in which that vista appears, we are immediately brought back to the physicality of the runner: “Sweat runnels between the breasts, evaporates” (9). This purely physical sensation is described as between the breasts. Why “the” and not “her” breasts? I would suggest that, rather than objectification or distancing, the use of “the” is meant to universalize the experience, to help the reader feel the physical manifestations of this runner’s labored motion. It draws the reader into the poem, and into the journey of the poem, by helping connect her directly to the runner through a shared experience.
Starting with the next tercet, the focus of the runner (and of the poem) begins to shift. Rather than the runner’s physicality, it is her mind, her internal experiences that we begin to share. The runner is granted a special insight, an ability to see “bright bone under brown landscape / Where one of us would see rocks, bushes, houses” (10-11). Does the bone represent a skeleton, something ugly that is beneath the landscape? Or is it something darker, something dead and long buried? Or — and this is the way I read the lines — is it merely that the runner is beginning to transcend everyday experience and to understand that there are things that lie beneath that experience. These things are not necessarily dark or scary; indeed, the bones beneath our skin are essential to our very being.
Now the runner’s moving-through-the-world takes on an added layer, for the physical discomfort of sweaty skin and hot feet is beginning to change into something else, something more powerful. She
Begins to feel how fire invades a body
From within, first the splinters
And crumpled paper, then the middle wood
And the great damp logs splendidly catching. (12-15)
Something is kindled within her as she runs. This burning is both painful and marvelous, the bright flare of the logs after the slow catching of the kindling and smaller pieces of wood. But it isn’t always thus:
Ah, but some moments! it is so like fireworks,
Hissing, exploding, flaring in darkness,
Or like a long kiss that she cannot stop, (16-18)
Rather than the slow kindling of the wood fire, there is a time when the pain/heat bursts within her like exploding fireworks. Or the way desire flares, burning uncontrollably during that “long kiss.”
“Ah it is heavy for her, every stride / Like pulling an iron railing / Uphill,” (19-21). The logs flaring, the fireworks exploding, are metaphors that make this blazing heat (this coming transcendence) seem too easy, too quick. There is still physical pain involved, a pain generated by continued forward motion, a pain that grows nearly unbearable and is difficult (although not quite impossible) for the runner to bear:
Uphill, ah Christ — we would have to imagine Jerusalem,
Dresden, a hurt this hard, like a screen of fire
Rising, continuous and intolerable
Until solid things melt. Then the runner is floating, (21-24)
This fire burns, as Jerusalem did in the siege, as Dresden did when it was carpet bombed (referring back to the battlefield?). The pain grows until the runner cannot stand it, until the heat is so high that “solid things” such as bones and rocks begin to melt. Then, suddenly, she is past the pain, past the burning. While the speaker in “A Woman Walking in the Suburbs” becomes luminous, with a gentle light flowing through her, the runner flares up, bursts into flame:
She becomes herself a torch, she is writing in fire
Rejoice, we have triumphed, rejoice,
We have triumphed, (25-27)
The runner now embodies radiant transcendence. She has moved beyond her own limitations, beyond the experience of her sweating, sore body, and opened herself up to the world. She has become the torch that allows her to write in fire, and what she writes is a message not only of her own transcendence, but of the transcendence of the “we.” For a moment, her message of hope, heralded by the Biblical injunction to “rejoice,” is for everyone.
Just as quickly, however, the moment of burning transcendence has passed, and “words” and “language / Must be useless / To the runner” (28-30). “Must be” can be read two ways. First, as an observation about something that is a given (as in, “that must hurt”). Second, as a universal truth: language is of no use to the person who has achieved, however briefly, a moment of transcendence because that transcendence can never be articulated. I would suggest that both readings inhere within the line, and that the runner is turning to words for the benefit of others, of the “we” who may not be aware of the possibility of their own transcendence.
Finally, the focus of the poem returns to where it began, on the runner herself. Her moment of transcendence was the point toward which the runner, the woman-in-motion, was progressing, and we were able, through the poem, to move with her. For one brief moment, one bright flare of the flame, the reader is one of the “we” who “have triumphed” along with the runner.
These poems from A Woman under the Surface use a range of metaphors of stillness and motion: walking and swimming, grief and transcendence, and provide an introduction to the ways in which Alicia Ostriker’s poetry uses physical movement to examine the experience of being a woman.
Whichever metaphor of motion a poet uses, freedom lies at the heart of her poem: the freedom to move about in the world, the freedom to act, the freedom to feel, the freedom to be. In each of these poems, Ostriker uses different forms of motion as potent metaphors for the challenges, restrictions and obstacles women face, as well as the opportunities women can make for themselves if they are able to find the courage to move.
Being able to move, being constrained from moving, and choosing when to be still are at the heart of women’s experiences, which makes them powerful metaphors when used in women’s poetry. These metaphors allow women to examine their own existence, to question the constraints that are put upon their lives (by family, society, even themselves), and to find ways in which they can regain agency within their own lives by learning to move. When women control their own motion, they grow stronger; if they grow strong enough they can then proclaim, “Rejoice, we have triumphed.”
Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems: 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983.
Garrigue, Jean. Selected Poems. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
Hacker, Marilyn. Going Back to the River. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
Ostriker, Alicia. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
– A Woman Under the Surface. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: The Death Bed Edition. Modern Library, 1993.
Wright, Charles. “The Poem as Journey.” The Southern Review 29.2 (1993): 259-73.
Wendy is a published poet and editor of Assisi: An Online Journal of Arts & Letters, and a reviewer of audiobooks for Library Journal. Currently, she is Associate Professor of English at Saint Joseph’s College, Maine, after having served as associate professor, department chair, and lecturer at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY. Her areas of interest include women’s poetry, war literature, gender studies, pop culture, and genre literature.
"'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)
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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.