Contemporary Jewish-American Women's Poetry: Marge Piercy and Jacqueline Osherow.
Marge Piercy is a prolific writer who has published more than twenty volumes of poetry and fiction. She may be best known for her novels Braided Lives and Vida. Although she has written many volumes of poetry, The Art ofBlessing theDayis the first devoted exclusively to Jewish subject matter and Jewish themes. While several of the poems in this collection were first published in earlier volumes, The Art of Blessing the Day marks a conscious effort by Piercy to make a unified poetic statement about what "Jewishness" means to her.
Jacqueline Osherow, on the other hand, has made "Jewishness" central to all four of her collections of verse. One of her obsessions is the Holocaust, and some of her best known work includes "Conversations with Survivors" and "My Cousin Abe, Paul Antschel and Paul Celan," poems that address Osherow's own post-Holocaust consciousness. "For my generation," she says, "those born in the aftermath of the war--the horror is a fact of life. Indeed, it defined the world to us. It is as a testament to this predicament that I wish these poems to stand."
Piercy, like other Jewish-American women poets born between 1929 and 1939, has long been interested in political concerns important to other women poets of her generation: feminism, environmentalism, and racism. These issues are addressed in work by several members of Piercy's generation, including Adrienne Rich (b. 1929), Eleanor Wilner (b. 1937), and Alicia Ostriker (b. 1937).
All four of these poets are especially concerned with female identity, and each works out their own distinctive strategies in shaping aJewish female identity. Rich, born in Baltimore to a Jewish father and a Protestant-born mother, writes of herself in an early poem that she was "split at the root, neither Gentile orJew." Despite feeling this split, a topic she addresses in depth in an essay entitled "Split at the Root," Rich has written many poems concerned with Jewish historical experience linked to her own sense of marginalization as a woman, as a poet, and as a Jew. Both Wilner and Ostriker have been acutely interested in midrash and use their poetry to create reinterpretations of traditional Biblical stories where women's voices have been muted or omitted. Thus, we find in their work poems like Wilner's "Sarah" and Ostriker's "The Opinion of Hagar" that retell Genesis stories from a strong female, and oftentimes subversive, point of view. A good source for a sampling of all these poets' work is Steven Rubin's recently published anthology Telling and Remembering.
Piercy, who grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Detroit, was influenced as a child by the stories told to her by her grandmother Hannah, who grew up in a Lithuanian shtetl. Many of the poems in The Art of Blessing the Day are autobiographical and recall the poet's memories of her mother and grandmother. Piercy's work is also influenced by her working class roots, and her social consciousness was informed in part by her maternal grandfather, a union organizer murdered while organizing bakery workers.
Osherow's generation of Jewish-American women poets shares many of the social and political concerns of their predecessors. Poets of her generation, like Robin Becker (b. 1951) and Marcia Falk (b. 1946), also make Jewish female identity central to their work. Becker, like Rich, writes from a lesbian-feminist orientation. And Falk, like Wilner and Ostriker, is inspired to create new midrashim, poetic commentaries on female figures in traditionalJewish texts. Her poem, "Shulamit in Her Dreams," is devoted to the primary female figure in the Song of Songs, which Falk herself has notably translated. Like these other poets, her own poems reflect a commitment to bothJudaism and feminism.
Osherow, however, diverges in significant ways from both these generations of Jewish-American women poets. Unlike them, she often writes in formal verse forms. Many of her most recent poems are written in terza rima, an elaborate three-lined rhyming stanza that derives from Dante. Osherow also frequently writes sonnets, blankverse narratives, and even ghazals, an intricately rhyming form that originated in Iran. Her interest in poetic form may in part be influenced by a resurgence of formal concern by American poets at the end of the twentieth century. Also, while Osherow is interested in Jewish female identity, she does not write as explicitly about this in her work as these other poets. While concerned with antisemitism and its tragic consequences, she is less overtly political. Moreover, Osherow grew up in a traditionally observant Jewish household and as a child was well-versed in the Hebrew language, whereas Piercy acknowledges she did not learn Hebrew until the age of 50.
In the first section of The Art ofBlessing the Day, "Mishpocheh" (Family), Piercy writes a number of poems that recall the lives of her mother and grandmother. In "Snowflakes, my mother called them," she remembers how they would make papercuts out of newsprint and old wrapping paper. While her mother's papercuts were abstract, Piercy's grandmother's were often made to represent animals in pairs. Piercy writes: "Her animals were / always in pairs, the rabbits, / the cats, always cats in pairs, / little mice, but never horses, /for horses meant pogrom" (Art ofBlessing the Day, 9-10).
In this poem and in "On Shabbat she dances in the candle flames," Piercy invokes her grandmother's Russian ancestry. We learn, for example, that she married a man from St. Petersburg who "quoted Pushkin instead of Mishnah." Despite his knowledge of nine languages, he was drafted by the Czar "in the Army, whereJews / went off but never returned." Somehow, her grandmother recalls, "we escaped under a load of straw. / You can't imagine, we were frightened mice."
Both Piercy's mother and grandmother left strong impressions upon the poet. While her grandmother is represented as a benign influence--"I touch your lids while you sleep / and when you wake, you imagine me"- Piercy's relationship to her mother was much more conflicted. In several poems, she speaks of her mother's stultifying influence and Piercy's fierce desire to be independent. The poet's anger is expressed most acutely in a poem entitled "The Wicked Stepmother," where she imagines her mother transformed into the archetypal stepmother, who punishes unjustly: "It begins in late childhood. / It begins with bitter / policing, acid of resentment: / how dare you turn on me, my / child, and grow apple breasts? / ... / This is the wicked stepmother / the long toothed wolf who gobbled / Mommy. This is the basic / female betrayal, that the first / lover becomes the queen of No" (Art ofBlessing the Day, 28-29).
If mother becomes the "queen of No," then Piercy, in response, has become the queen of Yes, affirming her own body, her own passions, her fierce desire to write and travel. Although Piercy credits her mother with making her a poet, Piercy acknowledges that "as she grew older and became more independent, they fought viciously." In "My Mother's Body," she writes: "All I feared was being stuck in a box / with a lid."
She did manage to reconcile with her mother very late in her mother's life, and recalls her grief over her mother's death in the moving elegy "A candle in a glass." The first stanza evokes the dead of winter, Chanukah, the time of year when her mother died: "When you died, it was time to light the first / candle of the eight." She recalls a stinging sense of loss for her mother, who had "returned to love me again /just before the end of time." Piercy now must say kaddish and light the yahrtzeit candle. She feels the pain of the moment acutely and ends the poem by echoing Ecclesiastes: "We lose and we go on losing as long as we live, / a little winter no spring can melt."
In "The Chuppah," Piercy writes of her most recent marriage. The Chuppah, or marriage canopy, is a metaphor in these poems for all the activity that takes place between Piercy and her third husband, who live in a simple house in Wellfleet on Cape Cod. In the opening poem Piercy compares the four poles on which the chuppah stands to the four corners of their house.Just as the chuppah creates an open space beneath its canopy, so too does Piercy envision her marriage as an open space, where she and her partner live, eat, sleep, celebrate, and struggle together.
It is not a box.
It is not a coffin.
It is not a dead end.
Therefore the chuppah has no walls.
We have made a home together
open to the weather of our time.
(Art of Blessing the Day, 55-56)
The chuppah comes to represent Piercy's domestic life in which writing, gardening, and lovemaking are all sacred acts. Piercy, who first moved to Cape Cod in 1971, celebrates in these poems the new life she and her partner and co-writer and publisher Ira Wood have made for themselves on the Cape, where she has become active in the Jewish renewal movement.
Many of the poems in the volume draw upon traditional Jewish symbols like the chuppah and the mezuzah, and Piercy will use these as a springboard for lyrics that represent her own distinctive relationship to Judaism. She consciously makes such ritual objects her own by integrating them into her life and poetry.
Much of the rest of the volume reflects Piercy's commitment to engage and reviseJewish texts. In "Toldot, Midrashim," several poems imaginatively engage Biblical source texts. In "The Book of Ruth and Naomi," she uses her poem to evoke the unique bond these two women had, positing their female friendship as a way to overcome worldly hardships. Her poem "Fathers and Sons" is yet another contemporary midrash on the Akedah, the sacrifice of Isaac. In several post-Holocaust poems, Isaac comes to represent theJewish people, and instead of being spared by the Angel of God, is slain.
Piercy helped to found the havurah of the Outer Cape, Am ha-Yam, and she worked on revising the Hebrew siddur, or prayer book, used on Shabbat morning. She has included in The Art of Blessing the Day a group of poems she wrote for the Or Chadash Shabbat morning siddur. In these poems Piercy adapts traditional liturgical prayers, like "Nishmat" and "Shma," as well as "Kaddish" and "Amidah," and reworks them into English poems. While capturing the spirit of the originals, Piercy stamps each one with her own distinctive voice and images. Several of these work quite wonderfully and provide worshipers a poetic version of each prayer. One common device found in these poems is repetition, often of initial words or phrases. This works to evoke rhythmically the Hebrew original. She manages this particularly well in "Kaddish," when she writes:
Blessed is the earth from which we grow, blessed the life we are lent,
blessed the ones who teach us,
blessed the ones we teach,
blessed is the word that cannot say the glory that shines through us and remains to shine flowing past distant suns on the way to forever. Let's say amein.
(Art of Blessing the Day, 138)
The Art of Blessing the Day concludes with a sequence called "Ha-Shanah," the Jewish year. She devotes poems to Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh (New Moon), Rosh Hashanah (New Year), and several poems to the Passover Seder. In "Breadcrumbs," she recalls tossing bread crumbs into the Herring River during "tashlich," the service recited on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah to rid oneself of sin. She writes: "sometimes / it's odd to be a Jew, like a three- / legged heron with bright purple head." She hits the right notes, finding surprising and insightful metaphors for Jewish experience. One entire poem, "Matzoh," displays Piercy's beguiling use of simile and metaphor.
You are dry as a twig
split from an oak
You are bumpy as a mud basin
in a drought.
Square as a slab of pavement,
you have no inside
to hide raisins or seeds.
(Art of Blessing the Day, 164)
From the light-hearted "Matzoh" to the politically engaged "Ark of the Covenant," Piercy displays the full range of her voice and poetic imagination in The Art of Blessing theDay. Although she claims thatbeing a woman and a Jew is "sometimes more / of a contradiction than I can sweat out," she shows in this volume that she is adroit enough to walk the tightrope between those identities that intersect in surprising and unusual ways in these poems.
Jacqueline Osherow, in her collection Dead Men's Praise, also deftly negotiates the tensions between being a Jew, a woman, and a poet. Osherow has greater interest in her Yiddish predecessors than her peers, and the title of her volume owes a debt not only to Psalm 115 but also to Yiddish poet Yakov Glatstein's poem "Dead Men Don't Praise God." Osherow notes that "Glatstein quotes the psalm with great bitterness because his book (Radiant Jews) was published in 1946, an immediate response to the Holocaust."
Osherow's book is composed of four different sections; but the most original and compelling of these is her "Scattered Psalms" sequence, in which the poet engages verses from the Psalms of David as a catalyst for her writing an entirely new and contemporary sequence of "psalms." Osherow's willingness to engage the original Hebrew psalms in a literary conversation signals the depth of her knowledge of Jewish source texts. Her bold claim to the psalms and her midrashic argument with them aligns her with other Jewish women writers who feel compelled to make such texts their own, even if it means reinterpreting or rewriting them.
Altogether Osherow has included here 13 "scattered psalms." She thinks of the number 13 as something magical inJudaism, citing the thirteen attributes of God and the age when boys become Bar Mitzvah. The title psalm is the eleventh of these, "Dead Men's Praise." She begins by invoking Glatstein.
I don't blame him if he thought all praise had ended
but I wonder if it's heartless after only fifty years to think-again-the praise has just begun:
I'm not suggesting that we think about it: just sing it during Hallel, at synagogue, the next new moon, and get in on a little of its stubborn bravado, its delirious proof of itself-hallelujah--
(Dead Men's Praise, 79-80)
Osherow, who recalls singing the Psalms duringHallel services as a child, cannot get out of her mind their melody and their beauty. "To get in on a little" is to enjoy the sound of hallelujah on the lips, " a word composed of holy signs / that could actually spell God's name." She is conscious of Glatstein's situation and the terrible shadow of the Holocaust even as she advocates singing "hallelujah." She also laments that her hallelujah doesn't have the stamina she would like:
has, in fact, been burned away before it could adorn a single tongue for countless generations of David's offspring
and I'm not talking about the ones turned to ashthey're around somewhere, singing hallelujah- I'm talking about the other ones, numberless as stars, who never got to sing a word at all
(Dead Men's Praise, 82)
Those who never got to sing, of course, are those unborn children of Holocaust victims. Osherow asks the reader to think of them too as "David's offspring," a terrible irony in that they never were born. In a daring and controversial metaphysical move, she suggests in one couplet that those who did perish are "around somewhere singing hallelujah," and in the next couplet laments that the unborn generations of the Shoah will never get to hear hallelujah. Osherow knows that an entire gene pool was nearly wiped out by the Final Solution and by the Nazi policy of eugenics. The conclusion of her poem draws on the language of genetics to suggest the scope of the tragedy: "among the double helixes that burned, / every one an unrepeatable / and complex promise." The uniqueness and complexity of individual life, and the tragedy of its annihilation, is Osherow's subject here. The poem ends on a muted note, the joy of reciting Hallel burned away by historical memory.
Some of Osherow's strongest poems are written about the Holocaust, and in Scattered Psalm V she considers calling upon the experience of her father-in-law, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
I could try asking my father-in-law
If, in all his years at Auschwitz-Birkenau, He ever once overheard a psalm.
(Dead Men's Praise, 62)
But she already knows the answer. He would tell her: "Where do you find these foolish questions?" In his terms, "You were lucky to put two words together/ Without some SS screaming in your ear."
As for the verses from "Grace After Meals," we learn in this poem that Osherow herself refused to sing them as a kid, although as an adult she has learned not to take the lines too literally. She probes within the text of her poem nuances of individual words from these verses, wondering if the word "seen" refers to a single person's life span. How then could it be true that one never saw "a righteous man forsaken"?
As in so many of these poems, the poet digresses from her theme to consider, in this instance, the comparison between David who used a sling shot to slay Goliath and the girlfriend of a Vilna partisan who crippled a Nazi train "loaded with guns and bombs and ammunition / with a single handmade ball of yarn and nails." Often, such spontaneous and conversational moves in her poetry provide some of its most rewarding moments. She has a jazz player's knack for improvisation, even as she is careful to always return to her theme.
The concluding stanzas of Scattered Psalm V return to the central question-whether those in the concentration camps would have had the time, inclination, or faith to recite psalms.
All those people waiting. Couldn't one of them
Have mumbled to a brother, a father, a son
Just a little longer and there will be no wicked one,
Just a little longer ... he'll be gone.
(Dead Men's Praise, 64)
Having challenged and questioned both the meaning and usefulness of reciting Psalms in Auschwitz, Osherow cannot relinquish from her mind the hope that some religiousJews might have drawn solace from the psalms prior to their deaths. In fact, there are oral testimony accounts of the recitation of prayers and psalms on the way to the gas chambers. The concluding lines of Osherow's poem invoke this scenario, even as much of the rest of the poem has undercut the possibility of faith, both in Auschwitz and in a post-Holocaust world.
The rich complexity of her "Scattered Psalms" sequence is not limited to the Holocaust. The last psalm in the sequence, "Space Psalms," takes one of David's common subjects-the heavens-and recasts it by considering celestial bodies, informed as she is by a knowledge of modern astronomy. In her "Space Psalm" Osherow cleverly incorporates elements of the traditional psalm structure, with her use of initial repetitions and hallelujahs, even as she weaves into her poem a diction and knowledge unavailable to the Bible's psalmist. This is the shortest of the "scattered psalms."
Let stars reverse their courses--hallelujah--
Let planets flaunt their necklaces of ice--
Let suns confound eclipses--hallelujah--
Let moons' scavenged radiance rejoice--
Let galaxies recluster--hallelujah--
Let nebulae uncloud and celebrate-- Let meteors spread banners-hallelujah-Let black holes unleash astonished light
Let comets jump their orbits-hallelujah To jangle inadvertent atmospheres With rumors of the distance-hallelujah- Anecdotes-songs-suspicions-prayers
(Dead Men's Praise, 88)
As this poem illustrates, Osherow is capable of rising to great heights, just as she is capable of sinking emotionally in her work to great depths. Like her nineteenth-century predecessor, Emily Dickinson, whom Osherow admires more than any other American poet, she is a poet of frequent dashes and great range, a poet who makes readers exult and despair, sometimes in the same poem.
After considering the Arch of Titus in her museum poems, for example, with its carved menorah and rams' horns, she thinks back to her readings of Lamentations on Tisha B'Av, the date on which the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans and the fewJewish survivors brought to Rome in chains. She follows this reflection with the kind of pungent commentary that characterizes much of her best work: "Still, if you take the long view, here I am / And Titus isn't anywhere in sight." Nevertheless, as the poet observed in her "Scattered Psalms" sequence, most of the Jews of the Continent and the country she is touring are no longer in sight. She cannot help but be cognizant of this fact as she ogles the artwork in Italy and registers her grief and guilt about doing so. When she recounts discovering a swastika on the black-and-white mosaic floor of an old synagogue in Rome, she remarks that "we should never have set foot on such a continent." While she can exalt in discovering a shofar, etrog, and lulav carved in the marble columns of what was the oldest synagogue of Europe, she also steps back to acknowledge:
But I'm forgetting the swastikas on the floor, The distance from town, the torture of theJew, The roundup in Florence, theJudean war,
Who Italy's allies were in World War II Before their final-hour about-face.
(Dead Men's Praise, 14)
In the concluding section of this long tour of Italian art and history, she returns to the moral dilemma and tension that has run like an undercurrent throughout the piece. What troubles her moral sensibility most is her viewing in Urbino Paolo Uccello's "The Desecration of the Host." She learns from the guide that the stolen "host" had been originally purchased by a Jew, and in the fifth frame Uccello painted a scene in which the Jew, his two children, and his wife are burned at the stake. A crowd gathers to hear the story behind the painting and view the frame. Osherow lashes out:
No one blinked an eyelash but me ...
Perhaps they didn't notice the children
Burning, in the fifth frame, at the stake ...
It is, after all, a nighttime scene.
(Dead Men's Praise, 16)
Although Osherow is angered by the untroubled gaze of the viewers of the scene, even she admits to moving on to view the rest of the masterpieces in Urbino by Piero and Raphael. Yet Uccello's scene with its Jews burning at the stake haunts her and reminds her of:
A continent notoriously profligate
Of knees, heads, fingers, elbows, thighs.
Wasn't this Uccello's greatest insight:
That if you gradually habituate the eyes
They will be capable of watching anything?
I wonder if this came to God as a surprise.
(Dead Men's Praise, 17)
The poet's indignation at the end of the poem is directed not at Uccello or God, but at the continent of Europe soaked as it is in innocent blood. The strength of the poem's conclusion lies in the poet's revulsion with her own self-deception as she walked through the museums of Italy.
Both Marge Piercy andJacqueline Osherow convincingly negotiate the inherent tensions of their respective situations as American Jewish women poets. Their techniques and poetic strategies, however, are quite different. Piercy, a member of an earlier generation of writers, fiercely and consistently maintains her allegiance to free-verse. Osherow, however, is content to display her mastery of traditional form. Nevertheless, some of Osherow's best work in Dead Men's Praise can be found in the "Scattered Psalms" sequence, which is both conversational and jazzy in voice and technique.
While both poets make Jewish themes their central concern, each approaches her subject matter from a different religious and social background. Piercy, an ardent feminist, writes poems that are more overtly political than Osherow. Although Piercy is less steeped in traditional Jewish learning, she writes compelling poems about her mid-life embrace ofJudaism and her work on behalf of Jewish Renewal. Osherow, on the other hand, is less concerned with the political themes that preoccupy Piercy. Despite these differences, both poets recognize the importance ofJewish history and write striking poems about the long shadow of the Holocaust. The publication of their two books is a welcome occasion during a time whenJewish-American fiction has garnered most of the critical attention. STEVEN P. SCHNEIDER, Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, is the author of a critical study of A. R. Ammons and articles on contemporary American poetry. His poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, the Literary Review, The Beloit Poetry Journal, The Jewish Spectator, and many other national literary journals. He is a winner of a Nebraska Arts Council Fellowship Award.
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|Author:||SCHNEIDER, STEVEN P.|
|Publication:||Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2001|
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