"What is Needed After Food," a poem by Alicia Ostriker
Twice a finalist for the National Book Award, Alicia Ostriker has published fourteen poetry collections, including The Book of Seventy, which received the 2009 National Jewish Book Award for Poetry. To further our celebration of National Poetry Month, Ostriker has allowed us to reprint a poem from her newest collection, The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems 1979-2011.
Ostriker begins the preface to this new collection with two questions: “What is it to be a Jewish poet? What is it to be a Jewish woman poet?" “I did not always ask these questions,” she continues.
“My writing life has evolved from being an American poet in the wake of Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams. I have been a disciple of Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton, and a hundred others. Jewishness has grown on me like a taste for herring, it has gone to my head like a needle in a sweatshop relentlessly stitching, it has bathed my heart like a fountain of irresistibly sweet language. I write in particular as a third-generation Jew whose grandparents and parents were Marxists and thought religion was the opiate of the masses. To be a Jew, for them, was to bring about the workers’ paradise. None of them ever made it into the middle class. They taught me that Jews defend the underdog and struggle against injustice. So in my veins runs the rusty stain of desire for the impossible world old Jewish radicals dream of, from Isaiah to today. I am unable to let go the umbilicus of hope. “
The struggle and the hope are both evident in "What is Needed After Food."
WHAT IS NEEDED AFTER FOOD
The darkness doesn’t war against the light,
It carries us forward
to another light….
In my land, called holy,
they won’t let eternity be:
they’ve divided it into litle religions,
zoned it for God-zones,
broken it into fragments of history,
sharp and wounding unto death.
--for Linda Zisquit
And so beautiful it cracks the bones, especially Jerusalem
With the lustre of her stones, the hurt in her eyes,
And our dreams for her children: a triangle,
Beauty, despair, hope…the whole mishpochah
Pulling three ways at the same time
Like the people in so many families,
Fighting but joined at the hip, or call it a sandwich,
Despair the filling embraced by the bread of beauty and hope,
Like a manna we eat every day, sent from above,
While on earth in Jerusalem my friend’s husband and son
Relax from a sabbath meal, like well-fed beasts,
Happily slumped watching the aftermath
Of a game where the Nazareth team has just won
And vaulted from the bottom of their league
To the top, the players have stripped off their shirts,
Hugging and dancing, circle dancing, belly dancing,
Waving at crowds in the stands to make them cheer louder.
The coach strips his shirt from his hairy barrel chest,
Climbs a wire fence, wobbles and waves his hips.
When someone asks how he feels about his team
(A mix of Jews, Moslems, and one Nigerian,
He himself is Druze), he punches the air
And roars, I beat them all! I beat Arafat! I beat Sharon!
I show them we love each other! We watch a while,
The celebration is still going on when we quit
To go back to the kitchen, where loaves of beauty and hope
Stand on the counter and the cup of despair goes on the shelf,
My friend and I, we don’t ask for much, we read Amichai,
We’re not messianic, we don’t expect utopia, which is anyway
Another name for a smiling prison,
But love is a good idea, we think, why on earth not.
Simple women that we are, simple mothers cleaning up
The kitchen after one meal to make it ready for the next.
© Alicia Ostriker, the Book of Life; Selected Jewish Poems, 1979-2011