Friday, June 03, 2005

Alicia Ostriker

At my own synagogue (JRC: the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, IL) I have led, for the last three years, a monthly "Jewish Poetry Circle." The first few years we read individual poems, two or three a month, mostly from my own anthology of Jewish American Poetry; this past year, for a change, we read two full collections over the course of the year: Alicia Ostriker's The Volcano Sequence and Dead Men's Praise, by Jacqueline Osherow. I'm a big, big fan of both, and so were the men and women (all adults, mostly 40+) who read them with me. Come to think of it, my college-age students have been fans, too, when I've taught these books here at DePaul.

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 Catholic University, especially in required classes on “Multiculturalism in the United States,” no work has startled my students more than Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s The Volcano Sequence. Incorporating negative theology, Ginsbergian family romance, and an erotic, embodied “spirituality” (a term I will question and complicate, but a commonplace among students) this book-length serial poem marks a breakthrough both in Ostriker’s work and in Jewish American poetry, as it captures in poetry, almost for the first time, both the intellectual subtlety and the religious passion available within non-Orthodox American Judaism. All of my students, Jewish and otherwise, note the contrast between the Jewish identity Ostriker constructs and the those they have read about in college and elsewhere, in which Jews die in the Holocaust, survive or intermarry in America, defend or wring their hands over the State of Israel, and perhaps observe a holiday or two, but they neither feel or reflect on an intimate, free-thinking, hunger for and dialogue with God. My talk will describe the aesthetics and ideas of the book, with particular attention to how its self-revising, self-indicting speaker refuses to rest in either secular or religious pieties. It will place Ostriker’s work in the contexts of what the Israeli writer Ari Elon calls ribboni poetics, of contemporary American religiosity (including pop-culture Kabbalah), and of the poet’s own critical work on Blake, women’s poetry, and the Bible. Finally, it will outline the differences this text can make in how students perceive—and how we teach—both Jewish Americans and Judaism itself.

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

-for Abigail
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.


Rachel said...

I haven't read Ostriker's new collection yet, but I'm a huge fan of her work in general, and particularly of "The Volcano Sequence." She gave a midrash workshop at Inkberry in our first year, followed by a reading which was mostly from "The Volcano Sequence," and both blew me away.

I don't know the Osherow title you mention, though -- but it sounds like I should add it to my Amazon wishlist...

I would have enjoyed your "I Never Knew Jews Really Cared About God" talk. I hope you'll blog more about that in time.

Thanks again for the link to your blog!

Anonymous said...

I know this is a little late, but Ostriker's work is the focus of a large segment of my dissertation, which I'm finishing at Purdue University. Let me know if you're ever interested in trying the MLA panel thing again. I've also visited her in person --- she is charming.

Unknown said...

I am the "Abigail" whom this poem is about. I just wanted to say how weird it feels to see a poem about myself on the internet. Alicia Ostriker is my Grandma Alicia, and she showed me this poem. I wonder if you really understand me from this poem. I know she did a wonderful job describing me when I was nine, but I'm older now. And only I know me. Anyway. I'm really glad you like my grandma's poems.