A Writer From Rutgers, by Yana
Rutgers College Student Center's Multipurpose Room was brimming
with excitement as more than one hundred people gathered for
a poetry reading by Alicia Suskin Ostriker. Professor Ostriker
is already a familiar face at Rutgers. As a member of the
English Department, she is known as a scholar of religion,
feminism, and poetry, the author of four books of literary
criticism, a teacher of literature and theory as well as of
midrash, the traditional technique for analyzing the Hebrew
Scriptures. She had been invited to read, however, in another
capacity: as an award-winning poet who has published ten books
of verse. As the reading demonstrated, these different parts
of her life often combine, with poetic results.
Professor Ostriker was introduced by Dean of Humanities Barry
V. Qualls, a colleague from the English Department. "Her
work takes nothing for granted," he said, "particularly
not the work of women reading and writing poetry through history."
Dean Qualls went on to extol the inquisitive nature of Ostriker's
writing, both her poetry and her literary criticism. "She
is always asking questions about orthodoxy," he said,
"always working to 'illuminate our darkness.' And she
is always working at exploding boundaries, for she sees no
safety in boundaries." He also read some of his favorite
passages from Professor Ostriker's earlier work.
Professor Ostriker then read to a captivated audience from
her most recent collection, The Volcano Sequence,
a book which draws on her knowledge of Jewish history and
tradition, feminist literary theory, politics, and the writings
of Blake and Ginsberg. "This is a book that records my
own spiritual quest as a Jewish woman," she said. Ostriker
described the strange experience, a first for her, of having
the poems come to her unbidden, often surprising her with
their revelations. She responded by making a special deal
with the poems: "If you agree to keep on arriving, I
agree not to tell you what to say." There is a great
depth of passionate feeling to these poems, which are frequently
addressed to God or to her mother, or "some combination
of the two." The central image of the volcano becomes
a metaphor for these emotions, beneath the surface but always
threatening to erupt: "to imagine how / the earth roared
showed teeth / bucked and heaved / to look for an hour //
at where the tidal wave began / that destroyed Atlantis /
and created a myth / a green good world." She paused
in the reading, then added, "You remember."
Professor Ostriker also read from her new manuscript No
Heaven, which she describes as a venture into new territory,
away from the spiritual concerns of The Volcano Sequence
and into the world of current events. She read "An Elegy
for Allen," a moving poem that pays tribute to Allen
Ginsberg while addressing the seeming contradictions between
his Jewish identity and his Buddhist aspirations. Another
poem she read, "The Window, At the Moment of Flame,"
was written in response to September 11: "and all this
while I have been playing with toys / a toy superhighway a
toy automobile a house of blocks."
Professor Ostriker's poetry is groundbreaking, honest, and
personal - very much in the tradition other New Jersey poets
like Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, and Walt Whitman.
World Literature Today says her work "shows
her to be among the finest American poets," and Amy Williams,
in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, writes:
"For discovery to take place there must be movement,
and Ostriker refuses to stand still; each volume [of her work]
tries to uncover anew what must be learned in order to gain
wisdom, experience, and identity. She is a poet who breaks
down walls." Professor Ostriker acknowledges this demolition
work as a valuable aspect of poetry, saying, "I try to
write things that will make people laugh and cry. I try to
write poems that will give people access to their own souls,
their hidden and secret selves."
Poetry, according to Professor Ostriker, fills an important
need. "People all have interior lives they are forbidden
to talk about, and there is a thirst for poetry that can express
that depth we share," she said to her audience at the
reading. "Muriel Rukeyser has a poem called 'Islands'
that says 'For God's sake / they are connected, / underneath.'
She is talking about all of us. We are all connected, underneath,
and poetry exists to express that connection."
at Rutgers Series
Ostriker’s Personal Website