The Poet as Mensch
by Richard Silberg
The Volcano and After: Selected and New Poems, 2002-2019, by Alicia Suskin Ostriker, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2020, $30, 215 pages, hardcover, upittpress.org.
Shekhinah to Earthly Juices
GERMAN HAS A WORD for 'man', Mann; and for 'woman', Frau; but it also has the word Mensch, for which in English we have to go to the sentence-sagger 'human being'. Yiddish uses the same word to mean, also, someone of honor, of great respect. Doubtless this could apply to many other poets, as well, but I've always thought especially of Alicia Ostriker as a 'Mensch' in a blending of those two meanings. There's a seeming irony there, in that she's always thought of, indeed thinks of herself as a Jewish feminist, particularly in connection with her two prose books, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America, 1986, and The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions, 1994, in which she speculates on the Bible from the perspective of a Jewish woman atheist. She's also one of the first American women to write poetry about motherhood. But as I read her work, her feminism is neither an exaltation of women nor a denigration of men. It wrestles, instead, towards freedom, equality, so that a woman poet can be seen as piloting an individual soul and consciousness, unencumbered by patriarchal prejudices about how her language can or should fly. So that, instead of a woman being forced to put on a wig and sit meekly upstairs in the synagogue while the men pray and interpret the Torah below, as was the case in Orthodox Judaism, she be free to forge her own judgements on the meanings and significance of biblical writings.
Alicia Ostriker the Mensch, then, one of the most prolific, wide-ranging, and probingly honest poets in America. But, before turning to look at her new book of poems, I'd like to make a few more preliminary comments about clarity.
There's a lot of difficulty, of what could be called obscurity in American poetry, now and going back at least as far as Pound and T.S. Eliot. And that's by no means necessarily a negative. When the poem's language is approaching Zukovsky's upper limit of music and/or when it's being faithful to the flow of metaphor/imagination rather than the dictates of logic, grammar, the 'real world', the results are often striking, beautiful poetry. Ostriker, though, has much pressing to say about that so-called real world in her writing, and so she has no use for obscurity. As she says in her Preface, in connection with her The Book of Seventy, which is among the books selected from in this recent collection, "An extended gaze into the mirror of mortality yields a craving for clarity, austerity, transparency." Looked at from another angle, she has much to say about injustice, oppression, and pain in our lives. To say them, again, she needs the clarity that we'll see characterizes her writing throughout.
The first section of The Volcano and After is titled, logically enough, "the volcano sequence," and as she explains in the Preface, somewhere late in the middle of her life she began to receive a disturbing series of poems arguing with a "you" that was sometimes God and sometimes her mother. With two exceptions, which she doesn't specify, she tells us she's selected here the mother poems, a series I find both difficult and moving, wrestling between spiritual argument and the physical being of her aging, increasingly helpless mother, between rage and complaint on one hand, guilt and overpowering love on the other. Here's the ending of its first poem, "Prelude: Volcano":
When I was a child
I was an island
a small round bushy island
inside me were many
roots, rocks, ores,
flowings and crevasses wrinkled
pushing like joy, like fear's thin
fluids, like love's neediness
maybe too much
and somehow they all turned
to anger and for years
the lava poured and poured
in its path
Now, the beginning of the next, "Fugue: Mother":
Honor your mother
what if it commanded only that
honor your mother
against nature which
bids you flee her
honor while despising
while wrestling free
this unasked for
gift of life
Unasked for disappointing hateful life
it is the mother's fault
we fall from her space into the world
webs of organs helpless
So there we have, as it were, the case for the prosecution against the Mother/God. Yet, half a page further in the same poem, that mother has grown helpless in her own turn, and the speaker is saying:
…for fifty years
it has tortured me that I cannot save you from madness
and that I do not love you enough
what is enough
nothing is enough
And there are at least two more twists in this wrenching, surprising poem. Here's the end:
whether I wish it or not
it is you, isn't it
I must cherish
even if winter sleet assaults the windows
like urine, hisses too late, too late
I myself must decide it's not too late.
Mom, reach into
your barrel of scum-coated blessings.
Find me one.
The whole sequence moves towards love of her actual mother, weaving on its way, far too complexly for me to do any justice to, between the spiritual, biblical, philosophic and poems set in the physical world, in dialogue with another poet (Toi Derricotte), a dinner date with friends, doctors' offices, and more.
Before moving to the end of the sequence to a poem that takes my breath away, let me at least give the reader a taste of, let's call it her supernal writing. Here are two main sections of the poem "Theodicy: A Dialogue," a poem I'm going to guess is one of the keepers from her 'arguing with God' poems. It begins (the italics here and elsewhere are hers):
The spot of black paint
in the gallon of white
makes it whiter
so the evil impulse
is part of you
for a reason
greater wilder holiness
The poem ends:
you want us always to love the evil also
the death-wish also
the bread of hate
because we are your image
confess you prize
the cruel theater of it
it follows then
the love of suffering
the suffering of love
that too is a spectacle to you
or do you feel it too
God, do you
feel it too
Here are the two short sections ending the poem "Seasonal" (she's explained in her Preface that the Shekhinah is "God's Presence among us, or the female aspect of God"):
Just now coming downstairs after returning some books to a shelf and reading
a few pages of a friend's book, his piece on Jacob's wrestling, I was flooded
with love for this friend, and in my happiness halfway down the stairs I
thought to glance at my interior—there, very faintly, was the claw of the
shekhinah, pinching; there too was her dark smile.
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
By the end of the sequence, her mother is losing her eyesight, has been placed in a home where her loving daughter comes to visit, aid and comfort her. Two short poems conclude. Here's the one, "Physical Examination," that so grips me:
you sit on the examination table
white hair flying
telling your tale
I sit on the leatherette and chrome chair
over your shoulder I look at the degrees
the aluminum shelves
the kindly doctor moves his hand
you remove your cotton blouse
lay it aside you wear no brassiere
you reveal your breasts
with their brown aureolas
my mouth waters
What a final line! It's not presented as a metaphor but as fact, a sixtyish daughter seeing her senile mother's ancient breasts and salivating like a nursing infant. Amazing. So moving, suggestive, and to me, at least, utterly unheard of or imagined before seeing this poem.
Final short poem, "Memory":
first dream I remember
maybe I was three
wearing a little coat
you were pushing a baby carriage
down the block away from me
you were running
my mother my queen
I was trying to catch you
Following the volcano sequence, the next book selected from is No Heaven, which she refers to in the Preface as a "rebound" book, by which she means, as the book's title itself suggests, one bouncing away from heavenly to purely earthly concerns. It's a book that fans richly through our life in this teeming world, with a poem on birdcalls; inner city, 'pickup' basketball (bouncing for real), and varieties of love-making. "Running Out the Clock" anxiously savoring her life with her husband, begins:
When we started living together we used to sit at a wooden table
side by side studying, touching each other between the legs,
remember, and in a sense we have gone on doing that.
We carry each other's minds everywhere for safekeeping,
our bodies bear traces of each other's bodies,
surface and depth, when you are absent I sleep on your side of the bed.
You made me laugh, I made you be serious, we taught each other
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might
and many other pieces of wisdom,
Thereby hung a tale, our tales, our tails, we worked our asses off
and played as hard as we could, not to waste the time that on earth
was given us…
The poem goes on through childrearing and careers that for each are nearing retirement. Its title is a metaphor for what they're doing in their aging years, "as if we could stop the other team from beating us." It ends:
We are almost ready. Whether we sit at table or lie warmly in bed,
what we feel in our old bones is a little afraid,
a little set for adventure, getting ready to go.
Let me interject here that this poem exemplifies what I mean by Alicia as mensch. She and her husband are obviously man and woman, fully sexual beings together, but they are also, first and foremost, each other's human beings, urging each other and separately striving to taste life's juices to the full and, each in their separate ways, to pour them back to the people around them, every precious drop.
The Passions of Aging
No Heaven also offers some perceptive poems on art, on "Caravaggio: The Painting of Force and Violence," on Giotto, and this one, "Rembrandt: Work and Love." Tracing through his life and career, it ends like this:
…Then you face
Saskia's death, creditors, the paintbrush slows, your face
grows plump but humble, ruddiness gone brown
as a muddy millstream, bankrupt, bags for eyes.
Old-fashioned for the times, your darkened art
makes Hendrickje a fat Bathsheba, denies defeat,
prepares a copperplate. Now what's left to love?
A window, a studio, a man in a smock at work.
Wearied, stubborn, finally I see in your face
The simple truth: the identity of triumph and defeat,
pride and humility, profit and loss. Through the black
crosshatch as you gaze outward from the art-
work you work on, here are your deathless eyes
shadowed by trouble, fortified by love,
looking me in the eye, helping me face
bravely my own short art and long defeat.
To praise the wisdom and humility in those lines is also to dull their flash in platitudes.
I'm going to leave No Heaven with a few quick looks at "from Elegy Before the War," which superimposes the death of her mother, her secular, totally fleshly mother, against America's disastrous, misguided indulgence in the Iraq War. Here, near the beginning (of what is, itself, actually a selection):
My mother is dead two weeks
We were holding her hands and singing to her
when she let go. Very little pain, lucid
almost to the end, correcting
a week before
and we burned her and flew to Arizona
and the tanks roamed Ramallah and Nablus
A page or so further:
The tanks roll, the missiles fly.
Greedy teeth blaze at the microphone.
They know where the oil is. They have plans, big plans
to connect the imperial dots.
I beg you awesome ones lift yourselves off the page
blow through us like a hot desert wind, as if we were trumpets
as if we were saxophones. Beat on our membranes hard
and let us be drums. Artillery
will always outshout us, testosterone explosions
are more thrilling than anything, chain reactions
brilliance between opposite poles accelerating
at the speed of hate…
Two pages on:
Ignorant violence that stuns the intelligence.
Dear animal inside us whom in other respects
we cherish, is it you?
Whitman and Blake inside us, celebrants of war equally with peace, is it you?
Descendants of Homer? Is it our stars? Is it our cold reason?
Is there a devil? Will somebody pass me that bourbon?
I think this impulse to destroy
this need for an enemy
has nothing to do with sex
it is simply a human characteristic
it has climbed the corporate ladder of the DNA
it is on the board of directors.
And here are two brief passages from the last section:
She cried when she read Shakespeare
when I was young, she taught me not to hit or hate
anybody, she thought education was the answer, she said most people
were ignorant and superstitious but not us.
I miss her hugs though they were like clamps,
I miss her voice though she often mysteriously screamed
with rage at us all, the shopkeepers, the neighbors.
What drove her crazy, what wasted her beauty and intellect, was it America,
the goldene medina just a joke, land of bankers and lynch mobs
in her girlhood, land of brokers and bombs at her death,
hammer to which everything is a nail?
and skipping a half page down:
Where did she go, my hopeful young mother,
my mother who promised we would overcome
the bosses and bigots? I want her. I want her
to come back and try again.
There are actually some hundred and fifty more pages to the book, many more of her previous collections selected from. But we've already looked across much of Ostriker's strikingly broad range of concerns, spiritual, psychological, esthetic, and gotten at least a taste of her as a caustic, hawk-eyed critic of politics and war and the money gnawing behind them. So I'm going to try to limit my greedy impulses and look at just a few more facets of her writing.
Waiting for the Light, published in 2017, celebrates her and her husband's return to New York City, city of their birth, after fifty years living in Princeton, New Jersey teaching at Rutgers. "The Light" is one of a series of poems dancing in the ethnic splendor of the Big Apple. Here's most of it:
…I am anyhow afloat
in tides of Puerto Rican, Cuban, Mexican, West Indian Spanish, wavelets of Urdu
swelling like oceans, sweating like jackhammers, rasping like crows, calling out
in the West Side Market, the Rite Aid, and every other shop on the street
Porque no comprendes, you don't own this city any more
the city belongs and has always belonged to its shoals of exiles
crashing ashore in foaming salty droplets, como no, gringita—
with their dances and their grandmothers, with their drinking and their violence
and their burning thirst for dignity, and smelling money, what, what is the joy
is it those lamps of light those babies in their strollers
those avocados with their dark-green pebbled rinds, shining from inside
two for four dollars in the West Side Market, and three for four dollars from the cart
joy like white light between the dollar bills, is it these volleys of light fired
by ancestors who remember tenements, the sweatshops, the war,
who supposed their children's children would be rich and free?
There are a number of powerful poems in the book, including its title poem, dedicated to Frank O'Hara, a decidedly urban meditation on eternity in the instants of waiting for a green light to cross a street (not to mention the philosophical pun in the title, itself); the fierce "Afghanistan: The Raped Girl" about a ten-year-old girl who is going to be killed by her brothers because the mullah raped her and they have to erase the stain on their family's 'honor', which ends with another reference to Alicia's own mother "…she for whom honor/ was not a concept, she from whom I learned/ liberty and fury, our weapons in this world," and many more. But I'm going to hold to my resolution and detail just one more of this book's poems because it reveals a genuinely distinct facet of her writing we have yet to encounter.
There are two poems with "Q & A" in their titles. Both employ a fascinating mode of what I'm going to call 'nonsense' writing to delve philosophically. The second is "Q & A: Reality." It begins:
Did Max Planck really say "I regard matter as derivative from consciousness"
Did Sir James Jeans, pioneering physicist, really say "the universe begins to look
more like a great thought than a great machine"
And it ends a page and a half later:
Is it true that looking for consciousness in the brain is like looking in the radio for
Is it true that when the election results are accepted by the populace and the media,
Do you remember what you wrote in my high school yearbook
If we dove into a cosmic wormhole could we choose to emerge in the Eisenhower
years when the world was all before us, expanding, and we too were expanding,
like light! right there along with it, ballgame after ballgame, and we were
indisputably the good ones
Did the Stone Age end because of a lack of stones
Her 2014 book, The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog, involves one more facet of her work, somewhat related to what we've just looked at, a unique book-length group of poems that aren't what I've loosely called 'nonsense' writing but are more comic or playful, yet still drive their poetic edge. Here's the first poem, "The Blessing of the Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog":
To be blessed
said the old woman
is to live and work
washes right through you
like milk through a cow
To be blessed
said the dark red tulip
is to knock their eyes out
with the slug of lust
To be blessed
said the dog
is to have a pinch
and all the other dogs
can smell it
All the poems in The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog follow that triple-decker pattern, these three beings stacked in parallel, each expatiating on the poem's particular theme. Alicia talks about the book in her Preface, saying that the poems simply spoke, and she listened, "entertained by the comedy," and let them form themselves into a whole over a period of years. She briefly speculates on some larger meaning, super-ego, ego, and id? but she decides, no—they're just themselves.
Obviously, the Old Woman is the 'boss' being here, watering and caring for the Tulip, acting as mistress to feed and walk and care for the Dog. Yet there's a comic cacophony in that, I think, virtually without exception, they don't refer to each other, they just go for their own needs and truths, like remora on a shark or barnacles on a whale. The book succeeds because they're each consistently entertaining and sometimes border on the inspirational. In the above poem, for instance, what the Old Woman is saying is reminiscent of the mensch-ly drive and generosity Alicia is going for in "Running Out the Clock."
Finally, The Volcano and After is the culling and expression of her old age, and I'm going to wrap up this review with three poems that cast it in a startling and then almost searing light. First this shortie, "The years," from "Approaching Eighty: Six Poems":
Between when she held a man's penis
like a flag
for the first time
and the final
time not quite yet
ah the years
Oooh la la! Deep, nostalgic oh la la.
Now the beginning and end of the rhyming, songlike "Ballad," after Leonard Cohen, from the same set of six:
Some lights are moving toward me
some lights are leaving fast
it isn't that I ever thought
my little life would last
I'm cooking in my kitchen
I'm climbing into bed
I'm pushing eighty but my sweet
I still am giving head
And the final two stanzas:
Yours is the joke that makes me laugh
the frown that makes me cry
so many years together, love
don't leave me high and dry
Some lights are moving toward me
some lights are leaving fast
it isn't that I ever thought
my little life would last
Putting that initial risqué shortie into a loving, long married setting.
Those two poems are from the collection's final book Approaching Eighty: New Poems. Now, from the older book, The Book of Seventy, we go back into that rich marriage. Here's the beginning of "The Plateau":
The climb was long
and often dangerous,
there were recriminations,
stumblings, and yet
never did I desire another
for my companion on this path
so at last we have gained the plateau
the delicacy with which we attend
to one another's liberty is remarkable
our demons sleep in their caves
like angry children who have sobbed themselves
But then the ending takes the late life sexuality of the previous two poems, flips it around and drives it deep into life's core:
someday one of us
will begin to die
to lean on the other
with horrible need
and passion, passion
will flow again
The Volcano and After, then, a major book of a major American poet, perhaps her last. She gives the lie, as do so many other poets and artists, to what we might call the wound cliché of creativity, the idea that art is compensation for pain in 'real' life. The figure of an isolated, unrequited Emily Dickinson; Hart Crane, jumping overboard to his death out of drunkenness, rough trade, literary disappointment; Sylvia Plath's brilliant, troubled life ending with her head in the oven after Ted Hughes's betrayal, and so forth. Alicia Ostriker's poetry is the fruit of richness, fullness, hard, generous work. How many other poets are so vivid and electric across such a broad range? How many as funny, moving, twisting and turning in imagination to stick their landings? If this is, indeed, her last book, it may be her best. And who knows, maybe if we're lucky, when the time rolls around we'll see Approaching Ninety.
Richard Silberg is Associate Editor of Poetry Flash. His poetry collections include The Horses: New and Selected Poems and Deconstruction of the Blues, recipient of the PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Literary Award 2006. Author of Reading the Sphere: A Geography of Contemporary Poetry, he co-translated, with Clare You, The Three Way Tavern poems by Ko Un, Northern California Book Award-winner in Translation, and other volumes of Korean poetry. He lives in Berkeley, California.— posted APRIL 2023