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Poetry Roundup: Rukeyser & Osherow

The enormous new Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, smartly edited by Janet E. Kaufman and Anne F. Flerzog (University of Pittsburgh Press, $27.95), may appear daunting at first, but even a casual glance through the more than 600 pages yields a wealth of accessible gems. As Kaufman and Herzog remark in their notes, a comprehensive volume of Muriel Rukeyser‘s poems has been conspicuously absent from bookstore shelves. This text should serve to remind readers of Rukeyser’s prodigious talent and her place in the canon of important twentieth-century writers. Her beautiful poems of New York, for example, highlight her skill with language and her sense of humor: “Mr. T.S. Eliot knows the impact of bright words—/ He has forgotten the caked hands, the muscle-banded shoulders,/ In loving sounds swift birds./… A bricklayer stands, and plunges into the subway;/ Shall we use him as a symbol? No,” and later, the bittersweet emotion of New York as both an outsider and an insider: “My people, these,/ who may disown me even against my wish,/ the people of my birth./ City city city/ O my delight/ New York.” Throughout these poems, Rukeyser shows her bookishness and her love of the commoner, her connection to history (as in the deeply moving “Akiba” poems) in a very modern world, and her deeply felt but slightly distancing emotions. She writes in “Artifact,” “When this hand is gone to earth,/ this writing hand and the paper beneath it,/ long gone… there may as in the past be something left,/ some artifact. This pen.” Or perhaps this book, and deservedly so.

Jacqueline Osherow takes an entirely different tack in The Hoopoe’s Crown (BOA Editions, $14.95), with formally and linguistically accomplished poems that deal almost exclusively with Jewish subjects. Osherow is clearly learned, her work teeming with biblical and historical allusions, yet the poems are neither showy nor self-important. Instead, they include striking descriptions and a believable interior monologue, as in “At the Art Nouveau Synagogue, Rue Pavee.” “The other matrons and I have a splendid view;/ from here, on the women’s balcony, it’s almost beautiful,/ though it’s also slightly farcical, this Art Nouveau—/ so much silly posturing— yet, such aplomb.”

Throughout her poems, Osherow maintains this voice of detached interest, highlighting the tensions between the comfort of belief and the cynicism of the non-believer, and exploring the deep emotions elicited by Orthodox patriarchy, as in the terrific sonnet “At the Wailing Wall.” “I hate this women’s section/ almost as much as that one full of men/ wrapped in tallises, eyes closed, showing off./ But here I am, reciting the Amida anyway./ Surprising things can happen when you start to pray;/ we’ll see if any angels call my bluff.” This little volume abounds in such surprises, and Osherow offers many poems worth considering, both for their ideas and for their lovely, thoughtful language. 

Gillian Steinberg is Assistant Professor of English at Yeshiva University. She is working on a book about Philip Larkin’s verse