Alicia Suskin Ostriker Essay - Critical Essays

Alicia Ostriker


Alicia Suskin Ostriker has become an idol of the feminist movement, and she has also been called a Jewish poet, a visionary, a revolutionist, and an iconoclast. Her poetry fits into all these categories and yet transcends them. She is in love with both the natural and human-constructed world and somehow includes more of both in her work than most other poets do; however, there is an intimate thread that runs through each collection. By themselves, Ostriker’s poems are alternately perceptive, startling, and beautiful, but in each collection, her poetry achieves a certain momentum, each poem building on the last to create a more complex reading experience than is found in any single poem.

The Mother/Child Papers

The Mother/Child Papers, written in the 1970’s after the birth of her son during the Vietnam War and after four young people were killed at Kent State University by U.S. National Guards, has become a feminist classic. In this work, Ostriker confronts her personal tumult as she considers the world into which she has brought her son. Having a son during wartime was difficult for Ostriker, but she recounts that during his actual delivery, she experienced her own personal invasion: Medical staff overruled her wish for a natural childbirth, partially numbing her and exhibiting their need for control and domination. Worse yet, those in charge claimed that the procedure was for her own good. The thin volume was originally published by the small press Momentum Books but was reprinted in 2009 as part of the prestigious Pitt Poetry series by the University of Pittsburgh Press, with a new preface by the author.

The Volcano Sequence

The Volcano Sequence, a much later collection of poetry, reveals Ostriker’s considerable knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, Jewish customs, and feminist theory. She explores the relationship between the human and divine, and considers profound spiritual questions. Although she deplores the Bible’s historic marginalization of women, rather than abandoning the Bible, she challenges the tradition, argues with it, and somehow transforms it. This volume has identified Ostriker as one of the most important contemporary poets working in the visionary tradition of Blake and Allen Ginsberg, two poets who have had an influence on her work.

The Crack in Everything

The title of The Crack in Everything is taken from “Anthem,” a song by the Canadian poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen, which contains the lines: “There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” The volume is divided into four uneven parts: Section 1 draws readers in with the first poem, “The Dogs at Live Oak Beach, Santa Cruz,” a deceptively simple poem about dogs as they leap and plunge into the foaming sea, “for absolutely nothing but joy.” However, the tone of the collection grows darker quickly. In such poems as “Surfer Days,” “Migrant,” “The Boys, the Broom Handle, the Retarded Girl,” and especially the often anthologized “The Eighth and Thirteenth,” Ostriker deals with death, depravity, and the scourge of war. Pain also is frequently present here, as in “Somalia” and “Disco.”

Section 2 is one long poem, “The Book of Life,” dedicated to...

(The entire section is 1354 words.)