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In the first poem featured below, the previously unpublished “Beck and Benny in Far Rockaway,” the vision of two ageing Jews, “warty as alligators,” is simply irresistible.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
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
Temporarily went with him.
Not that he ever attained
He was so nervous
And somehow ailing,
The neurotic utopian
Prophetic fairy side
Of the guy never
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
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!