I recently proposed a couple of talks on Ostriker's book and related topics to some MLA panels on Jewish and Jewish American literature, but I couldn't even get a nibble. (I won't speculate why; it just makes me grumpy.) The talk that was closest to my heart was called “I Never Knew Jews Really Cared About God: On Adding Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s The Volcano Sequence to Various Canons." Here's what I wanted to say:
In my decade of teaching Jewish American writing at a
Ostriker has a new collection out, No Heaven, which I've just begun to read, so I'll post more on it when I know the book better as a whole. One poem from it, though, has already received some notice: "What You Cannot Remember, What You Cannot Know," featured on Garrison Keillor's "Writer's Almanac" back in April. I read it two nights ago to the members of our synagogue school committee, at the end of a very long meeting (about 4 hours for some of us). Any poem that can hit a target like that deserves to be reprinted here:
What You Cannot Remember, What You Cannot Know
When you were two you used to say
I can do it all by myself, then when
you were three
You had tantrums, essentially
Because you wanted to go
back and be a baby like before,
And also to be a grownup.
It was perplexing,
It was a mini-rehearsal
For adolescence, which lurks inside your body
Now that you are almost nine,
Like a duplicate baby, an angel
Or alien, we don't know which,
Forceful and intelligent and weird,
Playing with the controls.
Fetal eyes blinking, non-negotiable demands
Like Coke bubbles overflowing a glass,
It strengthens and grows.
When you read it stares through your eyes,
It vibrates when you practice piano,
The cotton dresses hang in your closet
Like conspirators, wavering in its breeze.
We watch you turn inward, your hair
Falls over your face like a veil that hides whatever
You would rather others don't know,
You lean your head listening
For its keen highstrung melancholy voice.
Here comes the gypsy caravan,
Ding-a-ling, the icecream man,
Plenty of glee and woe up the road.
We would do anything for you,
Sweetie, but we can do nothing—
You have to do it all by yourself.