For This I Came – Guest Poetry Blog Series # 18 – Part Two of Two – Canadian Poet Barbara Pelman Features Jewish American Poet, Alicia Ostriker (1937-)

Jewish American poet Alicia Ostriker (1937 -) Photo Credit: Blue Flower Arts.

from SEASONAL

When the full sun is on me this way
I itch and am satisfied

I take it in like a thirsty man
drinking from his garden hose

I take it in like a serene woman
receiving a man, and then when the golden leaves

rush past me sometimes I jubilate
like Abraham I am here for this I came

like Isaac I laugh trembling
well at least I am alive

and like Jacob I think in the spirit world they can never
experience pleasure the way flesh can

the body making love
the body nursing a child

the body fighting
playing basketball

even when it sickens
nursing its lesions

it struggles to stay
it clings to its bars

everything else is theology and folly.

***

Alicia Ostriker from The Volcano And After, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020

BARBARA PELMAN FEATURES THE JEWISH AMERICAN POET ALICIA OSTRIKER

What a richly physical poem (especially in its third part not included here) by the Jewish American poet and teacher Alicia Ostriker. It is from a series about the Shekhinah, the feminine aspect of God. One can see all her skills at work: the easy knowledge of Biblical stories, her sensuality, her wonderful life-affirming language.

I discovered Alicia first, and then her poetry, though for me it’s usually the other way around. I first heard of her after a panel discussion I was involved in last spring, along with Isa Milman and Dvora Levin, fellow poets and members of Congregation Emanu-El in Victoria, B.C.

Isa, Dvora and I were talking about our various connections to Judaism, and were looking at other Jewish feminists who have left a footprint. Alicia’s name came up in the conversation as being one of those women along with others: Maxine Kumin, Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercey, and in Canada, Miriam Waddington, Adele Wiseman and Elizabeth Brewster (who used to come to our synagogue every winter) to name a few.

Alicia uses her Jewish traditions as a foundational pivot to her writing, which is what interested me. My question to her  would be: “How do you use your understanding of Jewish thought and traditions in your own poetry, and how does that help you, the poet, and us, the reader, reveal our ‘authentic selves’?

Consider the poem, below, with a title that tells you immediately this is going to be ‘heavy’. It begins, not about the Holocaust, nor the Jewish people, but with scenes from the protests concerning the Iraq War, 2003.

POEM SIXTY YEARS AFTER AUSCHWITZ

for C.K.Williams

On a day of marching, the police in London
were bored and benign, not needing to keep order
for the million marching people were orderly.

Although they came from around the world,
they were mostly Englishmen and Englishwomen.
Many carried signs saying “Make Tea Not War.”

Horses stood motionless, questioned why they were not
allowed to move, and from time to time would shake
their glossy bodies impatiently. The marchers flowed over London

Bridge, flowed past Nelson remotely on his pillar
past Whitehall, past Green Park to Hyde Park, traffic was banned,
people were drops of water composing a river

and their signs and posters were a writing taken off the wall
and made into sails, what a beautiful clear cold day.
A day for sailing, a day for reading the signs.

I did not know life would inspire so many
to come out in its favor, patiently marching,
singing the occasional song. On the same day

in New York the marching permit was withheld
so the people and the police struggled
forming whirlpools and dams, areas of dangerous turbulence,

some scowling mounted officers charged the crowd, let the
horses rear. There were other cities, Rome, Madrid, Mexico City
—and the weather was cold, or it was warm—

Dozens of cities, people marching
like sands of the sea and stars of the sky,
or like stems of snowdrops nudging the frozen dirt

piled on their heads, unburying themselves
before it’s officially springtime, here’s a patch by the brick wall
next to our garage that I look up from my book to see

glowing white and brave, a little afraid, a little aware
of the brevity of their visit here. It happens that
the book I’m reading is Poetry after Auschwitz

and I set it down after learning of a poem describing how
from a mass grave a fountain of blood spurting up
surprised even the officer in charge.

This is one of a thousand interesting stories the book tells.
For poems after the Holocaust remember, or imagine,
how sick and sickening people can become.

And now I think we are writing the poems before the Holocaust.
Is this not true? We are writing these poems with all our soul.
It’s our writing, it’s our wall.

London and Cambridge, February 2003.

Alicia Ostriker from The Book of Life: Selected Jewish poems 1979-2011, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012

This poem contrasts the orderly marches through London, and the chaos in New York, where even to get a permit to protest was refused. Then the poet, in contrast, veers to a quiet scene where she is reading a book about the Holocaust. Oblique to this poem is the statement from Theodore Adorno that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” The question unfolding could be stated as: What is all this to do with me?

We are those who sit at their desks looking at snowdrops. We are also the protesters, safely marching in mostly civilized city streets. But Ostriker reminds us, clearly: “It’s our writing, it’s our wall”. I love her use of symbols: the snowdrop, a little afraid, a little aware/ of the brevity of their visit here. And ours too. And a fountain of blood, from a mass grave—a reminder that even murder, burial, denial won’t be the end of it, blood will burst forth, a symbol not only of the barbaric death but also of life continuing. Ostriker presents her poem quietly, in neatly delineated tercets, weaving together the horses, the protesters, the flags like sails, the snowdrops outside the window, the poet looking on as we too are looking on. Where do we stand? She asks. It’s our writing. It’s our wall.

Ostriker once stated: What if everyone understood that the personal is the political?” She was born in Brooklyn during the Depression, so a social conscience came easily to her—Judaism emphasizes social justice as one of its fundamental pillars. At Brandeis university, one of her professors said, “you women poets are very graphic, aren’t you?” which spurred her to become one of the early poets who wrote about motherhood, marriage, sexuality.

Alicia, now Professor Emeritus of Rutgers University, taught there for many years, after completing a PhD at the University of Wisconsin on William Blake. You can see those influences in her writing: the seemingly simple language, the use of symbolism and vivid imagery, the strong sense of social injustice and the desire to ‘repair the world’. She is married to Jeremiah Ostriker, an astronomer. What a wealth of imagery available to her! Imagine the talks around the dinner table! I was sorry to have missed her online workshop last weekend on Midrash (which I wrote about in part one of my two part posts).

Alicia presents, in a longer poem called “Mother and Child” the interplay between the shootings at Kent State University, the war in Vietnam, and the birth of her son, in May 1970. The poem juxtaposes prose poem elements with short free verse elements with breaths in between, like the breaths the mother takes while birthing her child—short bursts of power. The poetry of a master poet. Here is an excerpt:

The Guards kneeled, they raised their weapons, they fired
into the crowd to protect the peace. There was a sharp orange-red
explosion, diminished by the great warm daylight, a match scratching, a
whine, a tender thud, a sweet tunnel, then nothing.
Then the tunnel again, the immense difficulty, pressure, then the head
finally is liberated, then they pull the body out.

Alica Ostriker from Cambodia, from The Mother/Child Papers, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009

By Barbara Pelman, September 2023

2 Comments

  1. Peggy Rosenthal
    Posted September 17, 2023 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    How lovely to be reminded of Ostriker’s work. She was teaching at Rutgers University (in New Jersey) when I was a grad student there in the 1970s. But I haven’t kept up with her poetry—so am grateful to have this reminder of its importance.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted October 6, 2023 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Thank you Peggy. Ostriker still going strong!

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