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The Volcano Sequence

The Volcano Sequence

by Alicia Suskin Ostriker

A bold, erotic,and spiritual collection of poetry from well-respected poet and critic Alicia Suskin Ostriker, whose previous two books were both National Book Award finalists.


A bold, erotic,and spiritual collection of poetry from well-respected poet and critic Alicia Suskin Ostriker, whose previous two books were both National Book Award finalists.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This is a book written in white-hot passion, the kind of book that enters the writer perhaps once in a lifetime, and its synthesis of intellect and eros, historicism and contemporaneity, make it a major achivement. Whe Garbo went unannounced to visit Eric von Stroheim one afternoon, he said, ‘Greta! Please come ind never leave.’ After reading ‘the volcano sequence,’ you want to say, ‘Ostriker! Please write like this forever.’ ... In American spiritual poetry, there is nothing to match its sweep and power until you go back to Emily Dickinson writing in the 1860s. This is a book to be cherished, written about, argued over, read and reread for years.” 
Women's Review of Books

“Complex, original, and written with a truly literate and skilled economy of words. ‘the volcano sequence’ is a compilation of verse that fully showcases Ostriker a master poet in the full vigor of her imagination and wordsmithing talent.”

Midwest Book Review

“In her tenth collection, Ostriker's need to understand a woman's relationship with “ruach” (wind, breath, spirit of God) is a crucial poetic—and human—act, making this is an innovative “book of life” for men and women alike. Recommended for all poetry collections.”

Library Journal

“Every year, I try to recommend a book of poetry, and this year I’ve found a great one: Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s ‘the volcano sequence. A mature, philosophical, yet playful voice comes through in these tight poems. Intense and profound, these poems also dazzle with surprising imaginery.”

The Progressive

the volcano sequence is one of the those poems the world of literature occasionally has the good fortune to receive which doesn't so much sum up a life, as embody it.  Ostriker's spiritual consciousness is abundant, complex, she has many moral sympathies and many symbolic selves to enact her curiosities and compassion.  Her ruminations and ethical queries range from the world of the bible, to India, classical Greece and most urgently to our own imperfect dominion, as it is lived in the mind and the body, in passion and despair.  This is a poem with a voice of its own; it is a prayer to God, and a hymn of accusation for the lapses of divinity; it is a psalm of praise for the life of the flesh, and a mourning for life's fleetingness.  Most importantly, Ostriker finds, and offers us, a heartening solace in the rigor of her regard.”
—C. K. Williams

Publishers Weekly
Ostriker's reputation rests on her energetic, accessible verse from the 1980s and 1990s (The Imaginary Lover; The Crack in Everything) and on her work as a feminist critic and theorist of poetry by women (Stealing the Language). Her admirers will find much to enjoy in her vivid 10th volume, which comprises nine related sets and series of short poems, some more like fragments. Several of these fulfill the titular promise by comparing the poet to a volcano, "righteously destroying all in its path," or to other forces of nature. Ostriker turns more attention, however, to Jewish history, liturgy and theology. She cites Judaic thinkers like Martin Buber and Judaic texts like the Passover Haggadah; inquires into phrases from biblical Hebrew; and compares herself to Bruriah, "the one woman who speaks in Talmud." Painful and affecting poems and fragments follow Ostriker's aging mother through a painful decline: "mother, I am sixty-two at last able to speak the sentence I love you." Other verses address violence in Israel and Palestine, or pursue larger questions about "freedom how it has to come from suffering." Ostriker tries to address big questions with even bigger statements one poem begins "what if truth and illusion fuse" and concludes "humankind cannot bear life without deities." Her short-lined, declamatory forms still seem rooted in the 1970s feminist poetics she has chronicled, and her verbal choices lack the subtlety allies (especially Adrienne Rich) bring to similar topics and stances. Nevertheless, sympathetic audiences will certainly admire her brave declarations and identify with her very real tones and concerns. (Mar.) Forecast: Ostriker's insistent involvement with Jewish issues may bring her a new audience; journals and venues with a Jewish-American focus should certainly pay attention. In the meantime, she is well known on campus, where this book should do well with her peers, if not with later generations. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This "volcano sequence," psalmlike journal entries for the year 1999 dramatizing the conflict between a woman's need for self-actualization and the "power and shame" of religion, voices Ostriker's problematic relationship with Judaism. Finding herself part of that tradition yet exiled from it ("their gates stand closed fastened against me"), she responds with these "tireless flowing" postmodern meditations, which aim to reconcile wrath and mercy, memory and sensuous immediacy. Here, the volcano, a force that destroys and yet creates new identities, is emblematic of "shekkinah," the feminine aspect of God, showing "hot beauty thick and magnificent rage." What results is a sort of 21st-century "midrash" (commentary on the Jewish Bible) that aims to recast "cool and hardened" forms of divinity and see creation freshly. In her tenth collection (following The Crack in Everything), Ostriker's need to understand a woman's relationship with "ruach" (wind, breath, spirit of God) is a crucial poetic and human act, making this an innovative "book of life" for men and women alike. Recommended for all poetry collections. Frank Allen, Northampton Community Coll., Tannersville, PA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

University of Pittsburgh Press
Publication date:
Pitt Poetry Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

    december 1998—january 1999

    ruthless radiance

We are incapable of progressing vertically. We
cannot take a step toward the heavens.
—Simone Weil

    1. volcano

Let me speak it to you in a whisper
I am like a volcano
that has blown itself
out of the water

my long stony curve
my melancholiac cliffs
a strip of old hard

the blue Aegean flows
in and out of me
the tourists come, oh they come
to stand where the lava flew

to imagine how
the earth roared showed teeth
bucked and heaved
to look for an hour

at where the tidal wave began
that destroyed Atlantis
and created a myth
a green good world

you remember

* * *

A woman looked at my poem. What is a volcano? She wanted to
know. What makes you like a volcano? What would the world be like
without the myth of Atlantis?

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

* * *

when I was a child
I was an island
a small round bushy island
inside me were many

roots, rocks, ores,
flowings and crevasses wrinkled
pushing like joy, like fear's thin
fluids, like love's neediness

maybe too much
and somehow they all turned
to anger and for years
the lava poured and poured

destroying all
in its path


* * *

the myth of Atlantis lets us believe
the world used to be better

people lived in harmony and grace once
fish came asking to be caught

the moon shimmered like a mist
in the hair of women

and because we believe this
we have to blame someone we have to

step down those slimy stairs

* * *

finally the lava stopped boiling
it cooled and hardened into what you see
blisters and carbuncles of cinders
rough and dry as the moon

striking terror, mindless
as an army, now it's quiet
except for a fringe of surf
and the sway of water in the crater

* * *

what is Atlantis
what is the myth of innocence
before and after the kick of time

oh amniotic worm
poor lentil wearing your archaic smile
soft baby rockabye

soon you'll be naked
rock cutting your tender feet
mud and tears coursing down your cheeks

the smell of money like brine
flags and bombs bursting around you
greed like a spirochete eating in

but if there is no Atlantis
no managed dream
how can a person breathe in that nihil air

doomed either way, dear God

    2. the unmasking

I have come to sow the seed of light in the world
To unmask the God who disguises Himself as world
—Abraham Joshua Heschel

kh'bin gekumin zayen zeyen in der velt, says the holy man
I have come for this, I have come for that, says the Baal Shem Tov
but as for me I have come to tread in the brown tar of your cities
         and I have come to watch light glitter on automobile graveyards
I have come to kiss under beeches with bark of elephant skin
         and I have come to sob under elm wineglasses
I have come to worship reflections of traveling cumuli in architectural glass
         and I have come to adore the khaki blankets of homeless men
I have come to sniff dried blood in the newsprint
         and I have come to swim like a virus on electromagnetic ripples
I have come to pray like Hannah moving my lips sitting on asphalt
         and I have come to rave like Jonah in beery ballparks
I have come with my child to your hysterical stock exchanges
         and I have come with my grandchild to your hypocritical congresses
I have come to exchange curse for curse with the sanctimonious microphone
         and I have come to return your bronze medals
I have come in humility to beg and scratch in the dust
of your mass graves until you rise up
and I have come to defecate
in your chapels

until the death of the word "until"
I don't want you to be proven scientifically, I want you to appear
to me and to all peoples in your true form
of ruthless radiance

* * *


after that it snowed
a crispy inch or so
and after this the sky
resumed her rinsed blue scintillance

and after that I remembered the birds
so I filled the feeders with two kinds of seed
and after this a cardinal
a red-capped woodpecker

and some finches
have been flying around
Now you are smirking at me
See how simple it really is

to receive a blessing

* * *

We make each part perform multiple parts
and in that sense each of us is your poem:

the endocrine system immeasurably old
already estrogen appears in yeast

light sensitive cells may have evolved
among slow habitants of coral reefs

inexorably propelled by appetite
toward high bright tides teeming with diatoms

pores rimmed open for sweating blushing
skin itself a pouch
of wet organs transmitter of touch
the sly invader the baffling thief

What a piece of work is man
what an interminably dancing fount

and is it true you treasure us

    3. mother

honor your mother
what if it commanded only that
honor your mother

against nature which
bids you flee her
honor while despising

while wrestling free
while avenging
this unasked for

gift of life

* * *

unasked for disappointing hateful life
it is the mother's fault

we fall from her space into the world
webs of organs helpless

what a pity she does not eat us
and be done with it

      rats do
lions do

    in dry times

    4. descent

The year dives toward its close. There is something so glamorous in its
descent. As the waves make toward the pebbled shore, our minutes
hasten to their end. The gray-gold afternoon shudders down to indigo,
transparent. It is full darkness by six.

Whoever is speaking or will speak in these pages, I welcome you. Let
me be your vehicle. Let me be the mouth of your tunnel. Or the split in
the earth.

Meet the Author

Alicia Suskin Ostriker is one of America’s premier visionary poets and critics.  She is the author of fourteen poetry collections, including The Book of Seventy; The Mother/Child Papers; No Heaven; the volcano sequence; and The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968–1998, as well as several books on the Bible.  She has received the Paterson Poetry Prize, the William Carlos Williams Award, the San Francisco State Poetry Center Award, the National Jewish Book Award, and has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award. Ostriker is Professor Emerita of English at Rutgers University and teaches in the low-residency MFA program of Drew University.

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