the volcano sequence

the volcano sequence by Alicia Suskin OstrikerAlicia Suskin Ostriker
University of Pittsburgh Press ($12.95)

by Julie Drake

If a reader is very lucky, maybe once a year will she come across a book of poetry that will change how she views the world. As 2002 comes to a close, this reader is happy to report the volcano sequence is that book.

Ostriker's tenth volume of poetry begins with a section whose title could aptly sum up the entire book—"ruthless radiance"—and with a poem, "volcano," that lets us know this will not be a "feel-good" book, but that instead, it will burn:

the volcano is a crack in the earth
the volcano is a bulge over a crack
a fault line runs under it

something terrible happens
and the magma
coughs out

hot beauty
thick and magnificent rage
so what if afterward

everything is dead

Ostriker has been called "a poet...who was raised an atheist (Jewish atheist—a special strand) and is seeking god—or the poems are." In this book, the poems continue the search for god, or rather it should be said they find god, as several of them carry on a conversation with him, as in "during the bombing of Kosovo":

and you, you—
father of rain
what are you thinking


the spot of black paint
in the gallon of white
makes it whiter

so the evil impulse
is part of you
for a reason

what reason

greater wilder holiness

Ostriker also converses with the feminine emanation of god, or the Shekhinah; in one of the book's most provocative poems, "the volcano breathes," the volcano image returns in a turbulent scene of birth, and the conversation continues:

like wolf swallowing grandmother [the being
called] god the father swallowed god the mother,...

...from the source the desire
is to flow without cease
I do have a heavy burden
and cannot wait to put it down


to put it down is forbidden

Although Ostriker is known as a Midrashist (interpreter of the Torah) as well as a poet, not all the poems in the volcano sequence deal with the religious. Many of the strongest poems here deal with the everday world, and Ostriker's handling of it—as in her "interlude" poems—shows her poetic craft at its finest. The words are simple, the line-breaks exact, and the effect is quite moving, whether she writes of an aging mother,

hands folded under your chin, staring
at nothing, preparing to be blind
and helpless, for fifty years
it has tortured me that I cannot save you from madness
and that I do not love you enough

or beggars:

Why not say
Why invent novelty phrases like "the homeless"
as if our situation were modern and special

instead of ancient and normal,
the problem of greed and selfishness?

Ostriker tackles language as powerfully as she tackles religion or issues age-old yet still relevant. the volcano sequence is a book literally erupting with powerful poems, a book that burns wildly like a barely-contained fire, from the opening lines right up to the closing "coda":

sometimes the stories take you and fling you against the wall
sometimes you go right through the wall

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2002/2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002/2003