The Book of Life: Select­ed Jew­ish Poems, 1979 – 2011

Ali­cia Suskin Ostriker
  • Review
By – August 9, 2012

In the pref­ace to this unortho­dox – both in terms of the­o­log­i­cal con­tent and orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple (how many oth­er col­lec­tions of poems can you think of that are clas­si­fied specif­i­cal­ly as Jew­ish – or Mus­lim or Chris­t­ian, etc.?) – col­lec­tion, Ostrik­er refers to the umbili­cus of hope.” She has a knack for such unex­pect­ed and pow­er­ful turns of phrase, and said cord stretch­es across this book. Though much of her sub­ject mat­ter could not be more grim – the Holo­caust, Hiroshi­ma, wars in Bosnia, Iraq, etc. – the music con­tin­ues. It has no oth­er choice.” That line comes from my favorite poem in the col­lec­tion, The Eighth and Thir­teenth,” which explores the sym­phonies of Shostakovitch bear­ing those num­bers. The sym­phonies them­selves are musi­cal explo­rations of atroc­i­ties vis­it­ed upon Jew­ish peo­ple in Rus­sia dur­ing Stalin’s purges. Three mil­lion dead were born/​Out of Christ’s bloody side,” Ostrik­er writes, remind­ing us that while cru­el­ty can focus on par­tic­u­lar peo­ple, evil is indis­crim­i­nate. The dead were stacked like sticks until May’s mud” is an exem­plary yet typ­i­cal line for this col­lec­tion. It pos­sess­es per­fect pen­tame­ter rhythm and cap­tures an utter hor­ror in a clear and haunt­ing image. There are also poems of ten­der­ness and sweet rec­ol­lec­tion, as well as ones where the speak­er address­es God direct­ly. The tone in such poems, not sur­pris­ing to any­one famil­iar with Job, ranges from won­der and awe to bit­ter­ness, con­tempt, and dis­ap­point­ment. I will nev­er love you again,” she insists in a poem enti­tled Psalm,” until, after a caesura, she offers the con­di­tion­al, unless you ask me.” There is hope after all.

Jason Myers is a writer whose work has appeared in AGNI, BOOK­FO­RUM, and Tin House.

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