The book of poems I’d like to talk a bit about today is by Alicia Ostriker. It’s called The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems 1979-2011. It came out last November from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Ostriker’s written 14 books of poems as well as several books on the Bible. I’ve read some of her essays on individual books of the Bible—they’re wonderfully insightful and learned.
I first got to know her and her work through her early book called Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. She may have been the first woman writer to carefully look at the difference in the way women and men write poetry. That book for me was a little like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique—both of them made me say to myself, “Oh yeah! That’s it! That’s what I was sensing and didn’t know how to say it.” But that’s another subject. Ostriker was one of the outside readers for my tenure and promotion process at the University of Delaware. Another connection.
She begins the preface to this new book with two questions: “What is it to be a Jewish poet? What is it to be a Jewish woman poet?” She goes on later to say, “I write in particular as a third-generation Jew whose grandparents and parents were Marxists and thought religion was the opiate of the masses. She says, “Like many Jews, in and out of the synagogue, I wrestle with sacred tradition like Jacob wrestling the angel. The poems gathered here were born of this wrestling, which can never be over.”
I want to read you this amazing poem from the first section of the book. The powerful intimacy in the poem reaches out into the whole world. We are all married to each other, for better or worse, is what she says here.
“The Marriage Nocturne”
Stopped at a corner, near midnight, I watch
A young man and young woman quarreling
Under the streetlamp. What I can see is gestures.
He leans forward, he scowls, raises his hand.
She has been taking it but now she stands
Up to him, throwing her chin and chest out.
The stoplight purples their two leather jackets.
Both of them are not shouting, theatrical.
Shut up, bitch, or, Go to hell, loser,
And between them, in a stroller,
Sits their pale bundled baby, a piece of candy.
Earlier this evening I was listening
To the poet Amichai, whose language seemed
To grow like Jonah’s gourd in a dry place,
From pure humility, or perhaps from yearning
For another world, land, city
Of Jerusalem, while embracing this one,
As a man dreams of the never-obtainable mistress,
Flowery, perfumed, girlish
(But hasn’t she somehow been promised to him?)
And meanwhile has and holds the stony wife
Whom the Lord gives him for a long reproach.
I can imagine, when such a husband touches
Such a wife, hating it, in tears,
And helpless lust, and the survivor’s shame,
That her eyes gaze back at him like walls
Where you can still see the marks of the shelling.
We make beauty of bitterness. Woman and man,
Arab and Jew, we have arrived at that
Dubious skill. Still, when one of these children,
Having moved like a dancer, smashes the other
One in the face, and the baby swivels its periscope
Neck to look, I will not see it:
The light changes. Fifteen miles down the road,
That will be lined by luminous spring trees,
My husband reads in bed, sleepy and naked;
I am not crying. I step on the gas. I am driving
Home to my marriage, my comfort, through this wounded
World that we cannot heal, that is our bride.
That’s the struggle she talks about in her preface, that never ends, that is religious and personal. In this book are three poems—I’ll read one of them to you—called “Psalm,” in which the speaker as an old woman, one who’s had a mastectomy, as a matter of fact, is talking to what we understand is God. Like all of Ostriker’s poems, these are deeply intimate.
My head is uncovered to my naked hair
I am dressed immodestly
my old body lacks teeth, lacks a breast
still cherishes itself
I eat what I want I am
an animal of flesh
as you know for you formed me in the womb
and made my desires what they are
I am waiting for you
in a bed of pleasure
The poems Ostriker chose for this volume are diverse and alert and angry and loving. She uses the Jewish ritual days such as Passover and Yom Kippur as a lens to see and try to understand how we behave toward each other, both personally and politically. She says in the introduction: “Reading the news is an addiction: a rush followed by despair.” And as I know from reading Stealing the Language, which as I mentioned is her seminal book on the poetry of women, she is always in tension with the Jewish heritage. The first poem in a series called “A Meditation in Seven Days” begins this way:
If your mother is a Jew, you are a Jew
—here is the unpredictable
Residue, but of what archaic power
Why the chain of this nation matrilineal
When the Holy One, the One
Who created heaven and earth
Is utterly, violently masculine, with his chosen
Fathers and judges, his kings
And priests . . . .
Ostriker lives in Princeton, New Jersey. She’s been married to the astrophysicist, Jeremiah Ostriker, for over 50 years. She’s been at the hub of poetry in her generation. She’s known a lot of poets. I thought you might like to hear a poem about Allen Ginsburg, who as you know is the central figure in the Beat movement in twentieth century poetry. I’ll end with that one. It’s typical of the way she’s able to see clearly but always with love and humor.
“Elegy for Allen”
That was a break
In the fiber of things
When Ginsberg died
Because I still have students
Wanting to be Beats
And even some
Wanting to be Buddhists
Why not, but when
That brilliant Jew poet took
The train for the next world
Temporarily went with him.
Not that he ever attained
He was so nervous
And somehow ailing,
The neurotic utopian
Prophetic fairy side
Of the guy never
To those Asian things
And too much ginseng
Makes a man feeble-like.
You would be there
At a party and he’d say
Excuse me I have to follow
That young man, you’d think
Fine but why are you obliged
To announce it, why not
Just do it.
The greatest Jewish poet
After Celan and Amichai.
I cry, grieving, and
B—says better not try
To sell him as a rabbi
Though what else is he
For heaven’s sake
Beads and bells
And dreams of peace
Fleda Brown is a literary scholar and published author. As a scholar, she founded and directed the Poets in the Schools Program at the University of Delaware English Department for more than 12 years. As an author, she has published extensively, and her books, essays, and individual poems have won many awards. Her tenth collection of poems, The Woods Are On Fire: New and Selected Poems, was chosen by Ted Kooser for his Contemporary Poetry Series from the University of Nebraska Press in 2017. Her collection of memoir-essays, Driving With Dvorak, was published in 2010 by the University of Nebraska Press. Her memoir with Sydney Lea, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets: Two Lives, came out in 2018 from Green Mountain Press. She has co-edited two books, most recently On the Mason-Dixon Line: An Anthology of Contemporary Delaware Writers.