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"Alicia Ostriker: The Thief, The Volcano, and a Fistful of God" by Janlori Goldman
Let me speak it to you in a whisper
I am like a volcano
That has blown itself
Out of the water
And so begins the volcano sequence,[i] Alicia Ostriker’s tenth book of poetry, in which she continues her lifelong adventure with re-imagining the sacred, rejuvenating our imaginations as she brings us into intimate contact with the most familiar and—as she shows us—misconstrued texts. Ostriker speaks to us in anything but a whisper; her poetry is ecstatic prayer even when it is hushed and interior. Early on in this book Ostriker introduces a woman to ask, What is a volcano? What makes you like a volcano? as if to bring us into the dialogue as a witness, maybe even to make transparent that she, the poet, is interrogating the audacious speaker who opens the poem. The speaker’s reply:
the volcano is a crack in the earth
the volcano is a bulge over a crack
a fault line runs under it
something terrible happens
and the magma
thick and magnificent rage
so what if afterward
everything is dead.
Only Ostriker could have written this—certainly no one else has. Subtly she takes us from “I am like a volcano” to a few stanzas later where the speaker and volcano merge, the poet inviting us to travel with her as she morphs from being like something, to being that thing itself, that once-island from which lava later poured, righteously / destroying all / in its path. I begin here to bring Ostriker up close in the hot, magnificent beauty of her poetry before panning back out to a few of the animating themes of her writing: feminism, the act of writing poetry, and the striving to know, embody and quarrel with the divine, or god. Woven together here are a few salient, overlapping fabrics in Ostriker’s work, illuminated by four of her books: Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America (1986); the volcano sequence (2002); For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book (2007); and her recent and most direct poetic address, Waiting for Light (2017).
The first fabric unfurled here is Ostriker’s early determination to raise out of submersion and isolation the growing body of poetry by women in the later half of the 20th century. In Stealing the Language,[ii] Ostriker broke new ground and laid her own fertile soil on top of it with this foundational text. In Stealing, she presses in to portray contemporary women poets, standing hip to hip with their literary ancestors, shaping "the oppressor’s" language to their own experiences, desires and bodies, creating a female language, a true "mother tongue." In the mid-1980’s, Ostriker is expressing in prose what her earlier poems have already manifested: “Myths are the sanctuaries of language where our meanings for ‘male’ and ‘female’ are stored; to write them from a female point of view is to discover new possibilities for meaning” (11). Through this feminist reshaping of stories and language, Ostriker identifies a "revisionist mythmaking" with the power to "transform the self and culture," exactly the magic Ostriker enacts in her writing.
Stealing begins with Ostriker going back to her poetic grandmothers, to the 17th century and Anne Bradstreet, with whom she opens the book: I am obnoxious to each carping tongue / Who says my hand a needle better fits. Ostriker’s vision is that women’s poetry was being shoved to the side as not addressing universal (read: male) themes, dismissed for being private and self-absorbed. She counters with Carolyn Kizer’s moving assertion that women are the custodians of the world’s best-kept secret: / Merely the private lives of one-half of humanity (6). Throughout their lives, women poets learn to wear the mask, to remove the mask, to rethink gender as conceived in the sanctuaries of language.
But how can we perform the essential act of giving birth to ourselves, Ostriker wonders, to developing an autonomous identity when we have been so long defined and written of in patriarchal language? Enter Adrienne Rich, whose poem “Diving into the Wreck” remains one of the great feminist poems of archaeology, discovery, and rebirth, lamenting that she carries a book of myths in which our names do not appear. But the words are purposes, / The words are maps. Ostriker says we are making our own language, making it mean what we want and what we need it to mean. And through poetry, we can shape the containers to hold this new language. Again, she offers Rich’s words from “Diving” in which during her exploration, the poet finds something more permanent: the wreck and not the story of the wreck the thing itself and not the myth (212). How can one not hear Lucille Clifton join this conversation through "The Death of Fred Clifton," in which she writes, “there was all around not the / shapes of things / but oh, at last, the things / themselves.”[iii]
As we dive with Ostriker (hands clasped with the myriad of other women poets) through this wreck of history, we experience her discovery of the submerged self, we open our eyes underwater to see that the "I" is a "we." Re-telling the great myths and stories that once formed—and still often do—the canon of undergraduate education, became the project of many women poets in the 1970s and 1980s. Here’s Margaret Atwood giving Circe a disgusted, somewhat matronizing voice as she says to Odysseus: “Don’t you ever get tired of killing?...Don’t you get tired of saying Onward?” This is luscious justice, a long-awaited snarky comeuppance that makes you laugh at its cheekiness and freshness, but which we hear as unmistakably radical. Atwood, after all, is aiming this curled lip of dialogue at the architects and captains of the Vietnam War. Women poets of this era, Ostriker makes clear, took on the big themes, and for their own purposes and in their words, often gave the great mythological and biblical characters new voice. In this way, it was the women writers who challenged male authority by wearing the mantel of The Big Story, but queering their characters. In fact, isn’t that the doubled tongue of Emily Dickinson in our ears, writing against her contemporary Walt Whitman’s Everyman chant, in her poem: “I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you—Nobody—too?” As Audre Lorde wrote, “If we don’t name ourselves we are nothing” (59).
Ostriker is well aware that reclaiming language is not just about making myths and biblical stories our own; it is also about the re-telling, making visible the hidden, saying the unsayable. Such truth telling was critical to taboo busting in the 1970’s, to coming out of the closet for lesbians and gays, for beginning the healing process for survivors of incest and physical abuse. Ostriker highlights Anne Sexton’s poem “Briar Rose Sleeping Beauty” from Transformations: my father drunkenly bent over the bed, circling the abyss like a shark, my father thick upon me like some sleeping jellyfish (233). Ostriker might agree that only with Sexton’s poem could Marie Howe have written “Attic,” a praise poem to her brother who would come to her room to comfort her after hearing “the springs of my bed when my father sits down,” then later the door close as the father left. But it is signature Ostriker to note that women poets were celebrating and making visible their own sexuality and erotics, citing—to highlight just a few—Judy Grahn’s A Woman is Talking to Death, which Ostriker describes as “a long work which connects female eroticism with the need to combat racism, misogyny, and class oppression,” and Muriel Rukeyser’s poem for German artist Kathe Kollwitz: My lifetime listens to yours. And this is precisely what Ostriker does in Stealing; she listens to women creating a new language, dreaming of a common language in which we re-define ourselves in our own images, and thus make a new place for ourselves in the world. How fortunate we are that Ostriker listens with her pen.
Reading Ostriker’s poetry, one feels the poetic mothers, sisters, grandmothers are always with her. We hear Audre Lorde in Ostriker’s mastectomy poems, and Adrienne Rich and Margaret Atwood in “Women under the Surface.” And Rukyser seems to be sitting right next to her, an abiding, urgent presence, urging her on: What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open. In Ostriker’s poetry and prose, nothing is more vivid than her desire to excavate truth, especially with all its jagged and irreconcilable contradictions, and split open the world as we know it. To put poetry to work in the service of unmasking secrets, of revealing the thin pink line that is the mastectomy’s scar, to show us that there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. Infused through it all is fearlessness to experience and feel, as if she is Circe moving in her own Onward that leads not to aggression and bull-headedness but to exploring the wretched and glorious spectrum of existence. Ostriker knows the importance of following a poem about Somalia with a poem about disco dancing. That is resilience! As if it must be her mantra, she quotes Blake: the road of excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom.
The second thread taken up here is Ostriker’s undertaking in the volcano sequence to locate the Divine in my own life and in the life of my society.[iv] In these poems, the “I” of the volcano is a female force, setting course to and presiding over a re-imagined ancient cycle of destruction and creation, of a world in which “the God who disguises himself as World” is “unmasked,” of Jewish prayers that accompany menstruation, of the private and excruciating task of fulfilling the commandment to “honor your mother” (what is enough / nothing is enough) (11, 20). Ostriker’s “I” calls out to God, was it you who wanted freedom / was it me, and suggests, not quite in this language but with this tone, that we should look at god slant or else go mad with fiery blindness, a not-seeing that leads us to persecute and kill in the name of god. But this poet keeps looking, searching for the Divine, calling out where are you damn you / beloved where are you. Writing through the contradiction and paradox is Ostriker’s creed, to hold in the same metered breath the yearning to put down the heavy burden—I cannot wait to put it down—and “to put it down is forbidden” (89). And isn’t this the divining principle that strikes Ostriker’s pen, to name the unbearable weight of history for those who are oppressed and degraded, and to say that it is in the writing it down that we may be released and freed. But she can’t stop herself from signaling the danger in such truth telling, the wrath that may strike the inscribing hand that struggles to speak in her own words.
As in so many of Ostriker’s poems, but particularly here, we hear familiar Jewish prayers dropped into unlikely places, as in “the volcano and the covenant.” The phrase words of the mouth and meditations of the heart is reclaimed from the conclusion of the daily Jewish prayers in which one beseeches god for health, for forgiveness, for understanding. She brings forward into these poems the rhythmic, incantatory language from Jewish prayer—the temptation to steal the language is irresistible and is not committed as conscious plagiarism but as the consequence of the ancestral phrases moving in the blood, the words appearing on the page. The closing lines of Gerald Stern’s Grapefruit comes to mind: Blessed art Thou, / Lord of the falling leaf, Lord of the rhubarb, / Lord of the roving cat, Lord of the cloud. / Blessed art Thou oh grapefruit King of the universe, / Blessed art Thou my sink, oh Blessed art Thou / Thou milkweed Queen of the sky, burster of seeds, / Who bringeth forth juice from the earth.[v] Ostriker, like Stern, is a poet of praise and ecstasy, acknowledging a divine presence moving through her as she writes: Whoever is speaking or will speak in these pages, I welcome you…Let me be the mouth of your tunnel (12).
Ostriker’s Jewishness, her humanism and vulnerability, are rooted in every eruption and tamping down of this sequence. She writes against and into our received myths and biblical stories. She travels easily from high formal diction to language so plain as to disarm with its innocence: I will learn / to say hello to say ball / to say go up (118). With all her words, Ostriker is up to something rich and complex, above all to use language and let yourself be the medium through which the language moves, so that, in her words, when she writes sometimes the stories take you and fling you against a wall / sometimes you go right through the wall. She walks through such terrifying places that make us shake with each reading, it is the mother’s fault / we fall from her space into the world / …what a pity she does not eat us / and be done with it (11). It is impossible to read this and not conjure Goya’s wild-eyed Saturn, gnashing on the body of his son. The volcano sequence is a radiant wrestling with god, with being, with the Divine, with the self, a love letter to the One who is never asked to turn the faucet off: you are the hope of my heart /…the sex in my art…. whatever wants to faint under long kisses, whatever grapples / flesh to flesh, the nipple that reaches, the tongue that spills.
And this brings us to the third and inexorable thread, more a sheltering tallis or prayer shawl than solitary ribbon: Ostriker’s For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book,[vi] a stunning, lush re-telling of essential biblical texts, an ongoing theft of language in the service of opening us to hold complexity and contradiction, to embrace sexuality and freedom, to see that our humanity is in the questioning, not the dogma. In this book it is clear that Ostriker’s North Star in this prose is peace. Here she not only takes on the canon—The Song of Songs, The Book of Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Jonah and Job—she makes it fiercely personal. I interpret the Bible while it interprets me, she reflected in the 1990’s, and later applied it here. We read Ostriker in a two-way conversation with these texts, we witness a transference of spiritual and feminist energy. When Ostriker says the Bible is an open book, she not only means in the egalitarian sense of anyone may read it, she also means that the Bible encourages “awakening” and “being more alive.” Her aim is to re-read the Bible for us and with us to set her vision of openness and awakening against the more rigid, narrow interpretations that are used to justify our world’s cultural and military wars. To counter such single-purposed rhetoric, she reminds us of King Solomon’s prayer to God on dedicating a temple: Behold, the heavens of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded (3).[vii] In language that conjures her shaking the page on which this quote appears, Ostriker says, Here is a sentence I should like to see inscribed on the forehead of every literalist and fundamentalist on earth—Jewish, Christian, Muslim—everyone who has the arrogance to believe that we as human beings, specks of dust that are in the cosmos, have plumbed the depth of God’s meaning…[T]he petty structures of our intellects, theologies, and dogmas can never contain God (3-4).
The Song of Songs opens this book, and Ostriker gleefully reacquaints us with the erotic, explicit verse, its full-on headiness and blunt physicality, in which the sacred and the secular merge. She pushes further to read one section as a woman’s yearning for inclusion and justice. She rejects the long-held rabbinic view that Song of Songs is a love poem between God and Israel, or the Christian belief that it is Christ’s love for the Church, and raises the possibility that it was written by a woman, as women were often singers and songwriters in that time, the 2nd century BCE. Ostriker is clear, this is no allegory, and in the Old Testament, sex is no sin (quoting Chana Bloch, 14). She reminds us of Rumi’s love poems, which also meld physical, spiritual and self-love—I thought I knew who I was, / but I was you. Body and spirit here are “indivisible,” and from this Ostriker sees the earliest claims to female sexual expression and freedom. There is no call to submission or obedience to authority, but a fluid, organic love of body, of desire, of the holiness that is called forth from all such connections and loves. It is heart wrenching to read Ostriker on The Song’s section in which a woman hears her lover knock at the door, hesitates, and when he leaves, she runs out after him only to be “smote” by the night watchmen. Is this the reality-check moment when we are ripped away from edenic love to be reminded of the price women ultimately pay? Ever hopeful, Ostriker reassures that the beloved still knocks. How long will it take us to answer fearlessly (33)?
The Book of Ruth follows, as it is the story of a more mature love—in contrast to the youthful and unrestrained “ravishment” of The Song—and imagines a more egalitarian future while not ripping out our traditional roots. Ostriker notes how unusual Ruth is as a women-centered tale, one possibly first told and passed down by women storytellers as a type of folktale. The widowed Ruth leaves her country to follow her mother-in-law Naomi, to whom she is loyal, and eventually marries a landowner who has allowed her to glean from the unharvested crops. Ruth’s free choice, not commanded by god, to follow Naomi is noted as unique by Ostriker, as is Ruth’s seduction of the landowner Boaz. Though I find this passage intriguing in the reading that Ruth is directing Boaz to “spread your robe over your handmaid,” I am less persuaded by Ostriker here, as Ruth is following the command of Naomi who is looking out for her own interests—Naomi’s land is redeemed, she is granted a grandson. In this tale, we trade patriarchy for authoritarian matriarchy. But Ostriker’s close re-reading and positioning of Ruth is vital for what she concludes, which is that in Ruth we witness an erasure of land and nationalist boundaries, a sharing of the earth through a common interest rather than a conquering by enemies.
In the chapter “Psalm and Anti-Psalm,” Ostriker writes movingly and personally about the psalms as embodying irreconcilable contradictions that may serve us in times of crisis, such as the attacks of September 11, 2001. The psalms are about a deep yearning for a connection with a divine Being, which also is the animating force of the volcano sequence. They are not rational; they are intense…(60) and [w]hen I read them through the lens of politics, I shudder at their magnificence (62). Contained here are sins of the tongue, which are punished with brutal, vengeful violence.
From Psalm 137, we read the most shocking prophecy of retribution: “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed…happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth they little ones against the stones” (66). About this Ostriker says: And there we have it, human history, the justification of every blood feud, very literal dashing of children’s heads against walls by conquering armies…The righteous, with God on their sides, joyously washing their feet in the blood of the wicked. Ostriker goes on to quote Osama bin Laden’s justification for the September 11, 2001 attacks, rhetoric that parallels the wrath in Psalm 137. Ostriker seems open to the possibility that the psalms present the capacity for cruelty in all of us, and that we must wrestle with who is guilty, and who are the enemies; we can read the psalms as presenting us with divine mirrors of that wrath and vengeance. But for Ostriker this is not enough. She is compelled to write against this bleak and terrifying God, in resistance to a God who deals cruelly with us and still demands our praise, but as she startlingly notes, maybe she is like the abused woman who calls the police on her abuser and then hides her bruises, refusing to press charges—as borne out by lines from one of her volcano sequence poems, apparently addressed to God/the divine/the beloved…I will not make a joyful / noise to you… / I will not kill for you / I will never love you again / unless you ask me.
For the Love of God includes other chapters just as profound: about the author of Ecclesiastes she calls him “the first postmodern writer,” presenting a God who sustains a whole cohesion in contradictions of pathos and laughter, love and bitterness; of how the story of Jonah propels us to the inner and outer spaces of self and world, a text of sublime poetry and “God’s delicate joke” on this “Everyman” prophet who teaches us the that self-hatred and hatred sprout from the same root; and the “thought experiment” of Job in which no solution is presented to how to achieve justice, where this God is confronted with destroying both “the blameless and the wicked” and who is beseeched to bring “law and justice instead of accident and chaos,” yet in response God “reveals his magnificent amorality,” leaving us, the mortals, with the duty of moral choices and our “exquisite laws of conscience.” This brief synthesis of Ostriker’s wrestling with the Bible is important if we are to know that it is her fidelity to and identification with the texts that have come before that propel her to demonstrate against war and against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, that shapes her as mother and wife and poet and activist. From these ancient and fraught stories spring her dedication to tikkun olam, the Jewish commandment to heal the world. In Ostriker’s intimate and analytic engagement with these germinal tales, she breathes her own breath into the seemingly closed mouths of the texts.
The fourth and final thread woven in here is Ostriker’s most recent book of poems, Waiting for Light.[viii] She welcomes us in as if to sit at her kitchen table as she shares snapshots of her Upper West Side neighborhood in New York City. This book, more than any other, is a direct address, a deceptively plainspoken body of intimate observations about the people who work and live in her immediate environs. Ostriker is always one to grab hold of a cab driver’s phrase or to transcribe a moment between lovers that speaks of their decades-long, evolving conversations, but in these current poems we are invited in to a block party, introduced to all the local characters as experienced by the curious and compassionate poet. Like the poets that sang the song of New York City—Whitman, Lorca, Rich, Stern—Ostriker both celebrates and needles this grand city in “Manahatta,”—“you mothering harbor, you royal sewer, you finger inside the sky…” And then, with a sharp mid-sentence turn, the speaker is “looking for a toaster in the hardware store” (11). The title poem, dedicated and addressed to Frank O’Hara, suggests it is the streetlight the poet is waiting for, “for a signal permitting us to go…” (34). Ostriker teases: “We do not use this opportunity / to tune in to eternity.” But then, of course, she does:
Let me raise my eyes to the blue veil adrift
between and above the artifice of buildings
and at last I am slipping through a flaw in time…
This light the speaker is waiting for is not just the green, but the illumination of mysteries, an awakening, the light one might see as they are dying. Set in a dense cacophonous neighborhood of language, smells, and colors, these recent poems open window after window into the “light that stabs me with joy.” Bursting with life in all its garb the opening poem, “August Morning, Upper Broadway,” is both intimate and universal, referring to the “body of the beloved…a window through which we behold the blackness and vastness of space / pulsing with stars.” And in nearly the same gaze the poem telescopes out through a different window to capture the fruit seller on the corner, listlessly reading the paper. The poet invites: let us call this scene a window looking out / not at a paradise but as a paradise / might be, if we had eyes to see. Ostriker is the gold medalist of the hairpin turn, propelling us from fruit vendor to eden with no whiff of whiplash.
Ostriker slyly writes, “nobody believes in the kindness of New Yorkers” (12) but of course she does, and we see kindness after kindness vividly through her eyes, a truth that most New Yorkers already embody and exhibit in daily life. She implores us to turn our gaze with a semblance of simultaneity that an Ostriker poem is unique in containing, first look here and at once here; there is not one story, one window, one perspective, but multitudes. In these latest poems, Ostriker sustains the mutlivalent wizardry she brought to bear so brilliantly in The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog. (Readers may be happy to know the old woman and the dog make an appearance here in “Ghazal: O Clear Night,” 28.) Waiting for the Light is Ostriker’s continued insistence that we see from all angles, the cop and the homeless drunk on the street, the kid without ID in a bank trying to send money to family across an ocean. She gathers all their stories, listening in along the way to the taxi driver from Bangladesh. For many New Yorkers, the taxi is a place of anonymity, separation, a utilitarian (if somewhat luxurious) alternative to the subway, a thing one uses to get from one place to another. The only contact with the driver is to bellow a destination through a plexiglas divider. Not even fingers touch as money is exchanged through a security drawer or by a backseat credit card machine. But for Ostriker, entering a taxi is like stepping into storytime, a moment to spark experience and perception with a person so seemingly unlike you, to find the human thread that binds us. But don’t be lulled—Ostriker can stun with a phrase no one else dare utter, as she does in “How Fortunate the Boy,” a shock of a poem that recounts the last moments in a young boy’s life before he is pulled under the wheels of a taxi—he will never “suffer the disappointment / of being a man” (7).
These four Ostriker books reflect the marvel of her combined honesty, vulnerability, courage, and complexity, surface her ease with contradiction, her commitment to allowing the “overwhelming questions” to move through her onto the page. From her own beginnings, she has insisted that we step into and against the shoes that made the first prints, whether to steal the language of the patriarchy to make our own myths, or read more deeply and queerly into the Bible to find our own moral guideposts. From the Passover Hagaddah, Ostriker takes as a covenant that in every generation each of us is obligated to see ourselves as if we left Egypt. When Ostriker quotes, How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, and exclaims nothing in poetry so succinctly captures the trauma of exile, I hear her as the exile dredging a path through a land of crisis to a world in which "thought is free" and the spirit-channel is widened. To witness Ostriker write her way into and through the weeds, to witness her quiet forgiveness at the end of the volcano sequence—mother, I am sixty-two / at last able to speak the sentence / I love you—I say it / before getting into the car—and also her fierce desire for god, in “ruthless radiance,” to appear, is to enter the striving soul of this woman, is to be moved to re-imagine ourselves, to turn into the face of not-knowing, of despair, of rage, of silencing, of gorgeous complexity, and have something hopeful to say. It is Ostriker’s ceaseless engine of curiosity, empathy and insatiable desire to connect that makes her such a stellar and necessary poet for our times, for all times.
And now—as we first read a poem by reading it twice, so that the first line becomes the last, and the last line the first—let us conclude where we opened, with Ostriker’s words:
Let me speak it to you in a whisper
I am like a volcano
That has blown itself
Out of the water
[i] the volcano sequence, Alicia Suskin Ostriker, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002.[ii] Stealing the Language, A. Ostriker, Beacon Press, 1986.[iii] “The Death of Fred Clifton” from Next, 1987.[iv] from the preface to For the Love of God, Rutgers University Press, 2007, pp. ix-x.[v] Gerald Stern, This Time: New and Selected Poems, W.W. Norton, 1998.[vi] For the Love of God, Rutgers University Press, 2007.[vii] citing I Kings 8.27.[viii] Waiting for the Light, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017.
Janlori Goldman is a poet, teacher and activist. Bread from a Stranger’s Oven, her first full-length poetry collection, is published by White Pine Press in 2017. Her chapbook Akhmatova’s Egg was published by Toadlily Press. Gerald Stern chose her poem "At the Cubbyhole Bar" for the 2012 Raynes Prize. Goldman co-founded The Wide Shore: A Journal of Global Women’s Poetry, www.thewideshore.org. She worked with Paris Press on the first joint publication of Virginia Woolf's On Being Ill with her mother, Julia Stephen's Notes from Sick Rooms. She is a professor of human rights and public health in New York, works at the Center for Justice at Columbia University, and volunteers as a writing mentor at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She received an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Goldman’s poetry and readings are available at www.hugeshoes.org.