Tuesday, January 18, 2005

A favorite Ostriker poem

I'm a big fan of Jewish feminist poet and midrashist Alicia Ostriker. Her nonfiction books (among them Writing Like a Woman, an exploration of female poets and their work; The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions, which explores the Torah through the twin lenses of autobiography and midrash; and Dancing at the Devil's Party, which I reviewed a few years back) have prominent place on my shelves; ditto her collections of poetry, which are pretty splendid. I've had the pleasure of writing about Ostriker for the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature and the Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poetry, and every time I get to reread her oeuvre, I enjoy her work more.

For kicks, here's one of my favorite Ostriker poems. It's called Everywoman Her Own Theology. Though it's not her most Judaic poem by a long shot (I'm not sure I could choose a single poem to fit that bill, though "A Meditation in Seven Days"--which explores the roles of women and images of femaleness within Jewish tradition, from Sarah to the Sabbath Queen--might come close) this poem "feels" Jewish to me in its playful approach to theology and its insistence on the importance of chesed, loving-kindness. Unlike some of Ostriker's more serious Judaic poems (as exemplified by her recent collection The Volcano Sequence, which rails against injustice with a prophet's ardor, and which speaks both to, and for, the shekhinah exiled in creation) this one approaches the anthropomorphizing of God with a sly, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.

In the last stanza she describes her credo in stark contrast to the stone tablets Moses brought down from Sinai: these lines, unlike those, are tacked to a corkboard, written on perishable paper, small and mundane and soon to be spattered with the ordinary detritus of a life well-lived. Though third-wave feminists (myself among them) would argue that it's essentialist to declare any kind of theology entirely gendered, it's hard to escape the notion that this poem is meant to reflect a kind of woman's theology, concerned less with with halakhah than with the kitchen, with forgiveness, and with love.

Everywoman Her Own Theology

I am nailing them up to the cathedral door
Like Martin Luther. Actually, no,
I don't want to resemble that Schmutzkopf
(See Erik Erikson and N.O. Brown
On the Reformer's anal aberrations,
Not to mention his hatred of Jews and peasants),
So I am thumbtacking these ninety-five
Theses to the bulletin board in my kitchen.

My proposals, or should I say requirements,
Include at least one image of a god,
Virile, beard optional, one of a goddess,
Nubile, breast size approximating mine,
One divine baby, one lion, one lamb,
All nude as figs, all dancing wildly,
All shining. Reproducible
In marble, metal, in fact any material.

Ethically, I am looking for
An absolute endorsement of loving-kindness.
No loopholes except maybe mosquitoes.
Virtue and sin will henceforth be discouraged,
Along with suffering and martyrdom.
There will be no concept of infidels,
Consequently the faithful must entertain
Themselves some other way than killing infidels.

And so forth and so on. I understand
This piece of paper is going to be
Spattered with wine one night at a party
And covered over with newer pieces of paper.
That is how it goes with bulletin boards.
Nevertheless it will be there.
Like an invitation, a chalk pentangle,
It will emanate certain vibrations.

If something sacred wants to swoop from the universe
Through a ceiling, and materialize,
Folding its silver wings,
In a kitchen, and bump its chest against mine,
My paper will tell this being where to find me.

-- Alicia Ostriker


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