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The Crack in Everything.

In her eighth volume of poems, Alicia Suskin Ostriker puts no barriers of arcane language between herself and her reader. Her style combines acute observation in plain speech with halting rhythms of run-on lines as though she is thinking it out as she goes. Most poems begin with a setting: the beach, a bar, dance floor, classroom, hospital. The characters and story unwind, holding us charmed until the poem ends with a question, an ambiguity, an enlightenment. A mature American woman's voice speaks deliberately of her many concerns: her marriage, family relations, war horrors abroad, needy students, and, surprisingly, in a final series of poems, her mastectomy.

The forty-plus poems, most of them previously published, are in four sections. Units 1 and 3 divide the whole, and 2 and 4 are each a single long poem. Part 1 begins with character studies (people and animals) evoking the poet's empathy. A dog on the beach leaps for joy, a baby in Somalia starves to death, Shostakovich writes music that defies the tyrant. I especially like "Globule," dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop, which describes a jellyfish and ends, "Both a thing contained and container of mystery, / Smoothness inside of smoothness, cold in cold. // Wishing only to be as I am, transparent."

Section 2, "The Book of Life," is dedicated to Sheila Solomon, Ostriker's close friend in the years of being Jewish mothers of young children. Their frustration of no time to practice their arts as they care for babies and husband (the experience Adrienne Rich called "the trial by fire") makes them grapple for a toehold: "Certain women survive / Their erotic petals and pollen, grasp dirt, bite stone / Muttering I can't go on, I'll go on." Even more disheartening is their realization that their place as women in the Jewish orthodoxy cannot be accepted, although they are among the faithful.

Part 3 becomes more personal and interior. Philosophical meditation in "The Nature of Beauty" and "The Glass-blower's Breath" and other poems is still tied to narrative experience, but the tone is softer, deeper. Dropping a former lover when he reappears in her life, however strong the attraction, might have been treated comically; instead, the poet recognizes "time's arrow . . . the least relenting thing / in the known universe." This section has two beautiful poems on marriage.

"The Mastectomy Poems" of part 4, a series of twelve poems, take us through the experience of breast cancer from the shock of announcement, to decision-making, through the hospital stay, to a return to "normal life" with adjustments to inner feelings and friends' responses. The series concludes with an ode to the absent breast and emotional recovery. The tone is sober and honest and will surely bring a varied response. After my initial surprise, I applaud the poem, thinking of the body violence in the literature of wars and of the millions of American women who need this experience to be voiced.

Although Ostriker writes in an accessible style, at times even prosy, her choices are backed up by a career as a prominent scholar and critic. She began publishing with studies of William Blake and English metrics. She has written a valuable history of American women poets, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America (1986), and two books of Bible criticism: Feminist Revision and the Bible (1993) and The Nakedness of the Fathers (1994). Reading her whole work, we understand the poetry's place in her remarkably rich range of voice: delicious comedy in The Nakedness of the Fathers (the dialogue of King David and the Queen of Sheba should be on Broadway), argumentative brilliance in Feminist Revision, and, in the poetry, warmth of heart.

Doris Earnshaw University of California, Davis
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Author:Earnshaw, Doris
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1997
Words:615
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