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No Heaven Required

In her latest collection, poet Alicia Ostriker contemplates paradises lost and found

By Rick Kleffel

Alicia Suskin Ostriker's poems connect to the reader--and to one another--to deliver a powerful and complex story. From Central Park South to Redondo Beach, from Botticelli's Birth of Venus to Janacek's string quartets, from the moon to Auschwitz, Ostriker offers readers the world and more--her world--in her latest collection of poems titled No Heaven (University of Pittsburgh Press; 136 pages; $12.95 trade paperback). And while Ostriker covers a lot of ground with her poetry, there's an intimate thread that runs from each poem to the next. There are short stories here, in effect, and longer, more complex narratives. In short, No Heaven offers lots of reading experiences that you don't expect when you pick up a book of poetry.

By themselves, the poems are alternately beautiful, startling and perceptive. But reading through the breadth of Ostriker's work in this collection, you will find that her poetry gains momentum, following upon itself with nuanced skill, successive poems building to deliver a message more complex than any single poem. Of the themes she explores, she says that "mostly they just emerge from my obsessions, and one poem leads to another." In No Heaven they offer a unity that makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

The title comes from the famous John Lennon lyrics, "Imagine there's no heaven ..." "My two epigraphs," Ostriker says, "from Lennon and Wallace Stevens, are contrasting. Lennon's 'Imagine' is a kind of anthem of hope, while Stevens' line, 'And hard it is, in spite of blazoned days,' is a reminder of how difficult it is to keep hope alive." Those contrasts carry through the collection and invigorate it.

The book's opening section, titled "Here and Now," focuses on the world we are given or have managed to make for ourselves. It includes "Running Out the Clock," which Ostriker describes as "one in a long series of marriage poems I've written over the years." It is simple, but darkly powerful.

"This was written in the spring of '04, along with two others, and it was written fast. I see it as a tribute to an enduring relationship, mostly joyous, with components of sex and intellect. But if you pay attention you can hear other undertones as well, even before the turn toward the end, which is a turn toward facing mortality."

The next section, "Archival," focuses on previously uncollected poems, many of which contribute to the story we see in "Running Out the Clock."

"Material Density," the third section, offers a fascinating look at various art forms through Ostriker's quite astute poet's eye. "I've written many poems about painters and painting," she says, "probably because when I was young I wanted to be a painter."

"Abraham's thumb digs into Isaac's jaw. / Like all Caravaggio's victims Isaac howls," she writes in "Caravaggio: the Painting of Force and Violence." Her language is blunt and masculine. "I tried to make the music of the poem an equivalent of the power and brutality of the paintings--not melodic, but heavy, lots of consonants, lots of momentum at the same time." Elsewhere, she's suitably chameleonic, recreating the music of "Janacek, String Quartet #1" with her language.

Cafés of mirrors, flowers,
Tubercular lovers. Oh,
Janacek, what a brace
Of hope-besotted ironists
You modern geniuses were.

In every case, what's most impressive is that while Ostriker manages to make you wish to experience the artwork, her poetry creates a linguistic analogue.

The final section, "Tearing the Poem Up," ventures out into the world. "'The Window, at the Moment of Flame,'" she says, "written two weeks after 9/11 ... is a meditation, really, on what it means to be an 'innocent' American in a world racked by violence." This theme is the calling card of the final section, where Ostriker says she was trying to "mostly tap a sense of looking on helplessly at human madness."

After all, the collection is titled No Heaven. But in reading Ostriker's work, one can at least get a sense of what heaven might be like.

Alicia Ostriker and Patrice Vecchione read from their works as part of Poetry Santa Cruz, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 7:30pm, at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave; 831.423.0900.

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From the September 7-14, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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