BY CHARLES RAMMELKAMP
2013, University of Pittsburgh Press
Filed Under: Poetry
To be a Jew means different things to different people, perhaps especially to different Jews. Is it the religion? The history? The ethnicity? If the religion, what about it? The belief system? The holiday calendar? In her Preface to The Book of Life, Alicia Ostriker asks these questions a little differently: “What is it to be a Jewish poet? What is it to be a Jewish woman poet?” Jewishness, she tells us, “has grown on me like a taste for herring, like a needle in a sweatshop relentlessly stitching,” evoking Jewish cultural images. Which is to say that it’s been a process of discovery for her, and continues to be. These poems, culled from a third of a century of writing, track that process. Her parents and grandparents were Marxists, for whom religion was opium. The essence of Judaism for them was social activism. We see those concerns in Ostriker’s verse but we also find a mystical, visionary, even prophetic thread as well.
The Book of Life is divided into six parts, which roughly cover the various aspects of her Jewishness, her Jewish anxieties and interests. The first part consists of more personal poems, growing up Jewish in America and specifically the lower east side of Manhattan, poems about parents, grandparents, grandchildren. An elegy for Allen Ginsberg. These poems are very “haimish” — homey, folksy, if not really nostalgic; they contain a certain angst.
The poem “Hunger,” about her mother and grandmother, ends with the lines,
And I too had dreams of improvement and perfection.
Another crazy Jewish mother –
I too hungered to give abundant life to my children.
This suggests a potent theme we see throughout this collection: The essence of being Jewish in America, for Ostricker, was the seeking of a better life. “For we believed a better world was coming.” (“Born in the USA”) And so it is for the large family of American Jews. For her grandparents’ generation, America was the Goldench medina, the “golden land” in the Yiddish phrase (See the poem, “Old Men”). Allen Ginsberg, the JuBu – a rabbi dreaming of a perfect world, in her eyes (“The neurotic utopian/Prophetic fairy side/Of the guy never/Surrendered really” – “Elegy for Allen”).
The poems in The Book of Life are grouped thematically rather than chronologically. Without doing the research there’s no way of knowing when many of these poems were written (some come with dates), but the first section lays the foundation for Ostricker’s particular “Jewish” foci – making the world a better place to live, the impulse of her family, the impulse of American Diaspora Jews.
Religion itself – the opium of the masses – merits a great big Why? What is the point of all this ritual? (“What does the contriver have in mind/The contrivance wants to know//Because otherwise what is the point/Of all this moaning//Pretending to be sorry for everything/Groveling like a chained-up snake” – “Kol Nidre”) What is religion for if not to improve mankind?
Ostriker’s concerns about equality extend to the role of women in Judaism. At times she is impatient and even downright contemptuous of the patriarchal structure that excludes or marginalizes women. Hence, her absorption in the Shekinah, the mystical feminine side of God. The poem, “Kol Nidre” concludes: “Please look at us and take us in your arms/Not like a master, like a mother”
A section on Jewish genocide – Russian pogroms, the Holocaust – underscores the aspiration for a better world and is followed by the visionary poems from the volcano sequence, many of which are simply entitled “psalm” and also invoke the shekinah. The short verse entitled “Judgment” sums it up:
One of these days
oh one of these days
will be a festival and a judgment
and our enemies will be thrown
into the pit while we rejoice
and sing hymns
Some people actually think this way
The last line kicks you in the stomach. So much for triumphalism.
And then these sections naturally give way to one about Palestine. “Lamenting the Inevitable” acknowledges the neverending resentments of the oppressed and the oppressor, globally. “The Bride” is a poem about Jerusalem, also in this context of continual strife. In “Tearing the Poem Up and Eating It,” a poem in memory of Yitzhak Rabin, the assassinated Israeli Prime Minister who worked for peace with the Palestinians, Ostricker writes,
Zeal like a tough many-legged insect
Pestiferous, running and biting, indestructible
Ecstasy pressing the tender trigger.
Hope like a manhole the clown falls into,
Wind of the spirit flows toward the aperture
Like gnats pouring into throats of birds,
A man like a pink-gray worm on the sidewalk.
Compassion and justice like raped girls after a party
Of whom one asks, What were they drinking,
Why did they dress in skirts so short?
Bleak. It’s almost despairing. Is there any reason to hope? Are we fools, deluding ourselves that things can ever be any different? As she writes at the end of the “The Eighth and Thirteenth,” the Babi Yar pogrom poem (the numbers refer to the Shostakovich symphonies): “The words never again/Clashing against the words/Again and again –/That music.”
But there are still the aspirations; there’s still the persistent hope, no matter how deluded, for a better world to come (can Israel still be a beacon unto the nations of the world, she asks herself at one point). The poem, “What Is Needed after Food” concludes:
My friend and I, we don’t ask for much, we read Amichai.
We’re not messianic, we don’t expect utopia, which is anyway
Another name for a smiling prison.
But love is a good idea, we think, why on earth not.
Simple women that we are, simple mothers cleaning up
The kitchen after one meal to make it ready for the next.
It’s that mystical, feminine, healing aspect of Judaism, the shekinah, to which she aspires.
The poem that concludes this collection, a section all to itself, the eight-page verse, “The Book of Life,” is a meditation on life and human creation, artistic and natural. “The Book of Life” is a central image of Jewish High Holy Days liturgy. On Rosh Hashanah – New Year – our fates are written in The Book of Life and on Yom Kippur the book is sealed. But is it all vanity? Futility? Does our love amount to nothing in the end?
Integrity unobscured by death
Is what we hope for, then.
But to whom should we say
Inscribe me in the Book of Life.
To whom if not each other
To whom if not our fine insolent children
To whom if not our piteous ancestors
To whom if not the ugly lovely forms
We have created,
The forms we wish to coax
From the clay of nonexistence –
However persistent the voice
That rasps hopeless, that claims
Your fault, your fault –
As if outside the synagogue we stood
On holier ground in a perennial garden
Jews like ourselves have just begun to plant.
Ostriker’s poems are often unpunctuated, just the words there conveying their wisdom, unadorned by complicated syntax. And speaking of “wisdom,” she loves epigraphs, wise pronouncements to usher in her own observations, always at the start of each section, frequently to introduce individual poems, with a sense of gravity. Sometimes, though rarely, there’s a sly sense of humor that cuts through the impatience, the irony and grief. But then, you don’t read Ostriker for belly laughs.