The Arty Semite

Three Poems By Alicia Ostriker

By Jake Marmer

  • Print
  • Share Share

Each Thursday, The Arty Semite features excerpts and reviews of the best contemporary Jewish poetry. This week, Jake Marmer introduces three poems by Alicia Ostriker.

Alicia Ostriker, winner of the 2009 Jewish Book Award in poetry, has many voices. From one work to the next her tone may leap from angry and confrontational to lyrical and gentle, meditative to brash. She’s well known for her feminist poetry and criticism, as well as for her work as an inventive midrashist and a spiritual thinker. I am particularly partial to what I’d call her nostalgic Jewish poems — humorous family recollections, in which Ostriker’s affection for old-world Jewish characters is most endearing.

In the first poem featured below, the previously unpublished “Beck and Benny in Far Rockaway,” the vision of two ageing Jews, “warty as alligators,” is simply irresistible. In the second poem, from her 2005 collection “No Heaven,” Ostriker presents a very personal and peculiar vision of poet Allen Ginsberg, mythologized and glorified by fans and critics who thought of him as a guru but were unaware of his “ailing… neurotic” side.

Finally, in the third poem, from her 2010 collection “At the Revelation Restaurant,” she recalls the morning prayer “Elohai, neshama…” (My God, the soul…) in the midst of grandmotherly bliss — thankful for the experience of her grandchild’s soulful purity, you would think. But when at the poem’s end her granddaughter spots another child and shouts “baby,” it feels as if the poet’s connection to the world is very much akin to this exclamation — a gleeful affirmation of everything around her.


Beck and Benny in Far Rockaway

Near the Atlantic Ocean, past the last subway station,
Streaks of sand on the sidewalk,
Armies of ageing Jews soaking up sun
As if it were Talmud,
And the rickety white stairs
To an apartment like a frail body.

My uncle and aunt were both warty, like alligators.
They set a lunch on the oilcloth-covered table.
I felt peculiar about the smells.

The lunch seemed to go on all afternoon,
Anxious syllables floating over my head like fireflies.
Shayne maydel was me.
Eat, they said in English, eat.
So I ate, and finally reached the pastoral scene,
Bo Peep, pink roses, green leaves
At the dish bottom,
One of those sweet, impossible memories
Jews used to buy themselves in America.

The two of them beamed,
Gold-toothed, as if their exile were canceled.
You should eat and be healthy, they said.


Elegy For Allen

That was a break
In the fiber of things
Sorrowful
When Ginsberg died
Because I still have students
Wanting to be Beats
And even some
Wanting to be Buddhists
Why not, but when
That brilliant Jew poet took
The train for the next world
American nirvana
Temporarily went with him.
Not that he ever attained
The tranquility
Supposedly sought,
He was so nervous
And somehow ailing,
The neurotic utopian
Prophetic fairy side
Of the guy never
Surrendered really
To those Asian things
And too much ginseng
Makes a man feeble-like.
Yes, B— says
You would be there
At a party and he’d say
Excuse me I have to follow
That young man, you’d think
Fine but why are you obliged
To announce it, why not
Just do it.

The greatest Jewish poet
After Celan and Amichai,
I cry, grieving, and
B— says better not try
To sell him as a rabbi
Though what else is he
For heaven’s sake
Beads and bells
And dreams of peace
And all.


Grandchild

                         *Elohai, neshama...*

                

I take her to the park, I swing her in the little swing
Help her on the slide, lotion her face and arms against the sun
She runs around in her little bluejeans

The sun is getting higher, as it does every morning
The game now is for me to chase her
The air is dusty and warm

My God the soul you gave me is pure
When another child comes into the playground
She points excitedly and shouts: baby!


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Poetry, Jewish Book Award, Jake Marmer, Far Rockaway, Allen Ginsberg, Alicia Ostriker

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.