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.
The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems, 1979 – 2011
Jason Myers is a writer whose work has appeared in AGNI, BOOKFORUM, and Tin House.
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