Poetry Roundup

The twelfth book of poems from Alicia Ostriker, The Book of Seventy (University of Pittsburgh Press, $14.95), written as Ostriker enters her seventieth year, showcases the wisdom she has gained as both a poet and a person: “I have less / interfering with my gaze now / what I see I see clearly.” She has arrived in her body and mind, and the poems feel like offerings to those of us journeying to reach this place. Ostriker celebrates decades of a marriage that only gets better with age. In “The Married Man” she writes: “He kissed and kissed me like an animal / I kissed and kissed him like the other half / of that animal.” In the middle sections, Ostriker speaks through the voices of Persephone, Artemis, and Lord Krishna, among others. These poems ruminate about childhood, motherhood, spirituality, and culture. Ostriker’s gift is that she can be both fiercely feminist and tender in the same breath. She ends the book with poems about the state of the world, tackling war and torture. In “Listening to Public Radio” Ostriker compares today’s world to the world when fascism reigned, explaining: “but nobody could stop it / or not enough people wished to stop it / so nature took its course / the book of Job came true / the millions and the millions disappeared.” Although Ostriker expresses a sense of foreboding about the world and its future, she seizes moments to celebrate life, ending the book with images of spring: “the birch trees close their eyes in the rain / and robins drink their bliss.”

Maxine Kumin’s latest collection, Where I Live: New and Selected Poems 1990 –2010 (W.W. Norton and Company, $29.95), is a compilation of poems from the past twenty years, along with 20 new ones. Kumin, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and former Poet Laureate of the United States, looks with awe upon the world. The most stunning poems in the collection take place on the farm in New Hampshire where she has lived with her husband, raising animals and caring for the land. Her tenderness for the animals is felt throughout the poems. In “Praise Be,” Kumin is midwife at a horse’s birth: “I tear the caul, look into eyes / as innocent, as skittery / as minnows.” Throughout the book are explorations of her past. Most notable are the poems to Kumin’s dear friend, the poet Anne Sexton, who committed suicide in 1974, at the height of their friendship. The loss is still potent today, as Kumin, now 80, reflects in “October, Yellowstone Park”: “My world that threatened / to stop the day you stopped, faltered / and then resumed, unutterably altered.” In “Mulching,” Kumin characterizes herself as “a helpless citizen of a country / I used to love.” But she finds solace in nature again, asking the earth to “take [her] unquiet spirit, / bury it deep, make compost of it.” Kumin has left her mark on the earth in poems that quietly startle, and resonate with love.

These Mountains: Selected Poems of Rivka Miriam (The Toby Press, $14.95) offers English readers a taste of this Israeli poet’s strange and intriguing work. Miriam published her first book of poems at 14, and has since written 12 others. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, her childhood was marked by this tragedy, but also by the cadre of artists she was constantly surrounded by, and her deep connection to Jewish mysticism. Expertly translated by Linda Stern Zisquit, Miriam’s poems are quick snapshots of the poet’s unconscious: simple, dreamy, innocent yet lustful, always informed by Miriam’s fascinating childhood and feverish spirituality. She speaks directly to God in several of the poems, her connection intimate and sensual: “He left his imprinted fingers / on the mist of my window / the scent of his breath / remained in my room” (from “Still”). The subject of motherhood comes up often, through the point-of-views of Rachel, Leah, Lot’s wife — and the poet’s own experience of giving birth to her daughter. Perhaps the most moving poems in the book are about Miriam’s own mother suffering with dementia:

Who is your mother? my mother asked me and I, slowly turning towards her pointed at her with a small finger and whispering, answered: you.

These poems are among her most honest and direct, writing from the raw experience of watching her mother deteriorate. They leave the reader wondering where Miriam’s poems will head next, and eagerly awaiting them. 

Wendy Wisner is the author a book of poems, Epicenter. Her poems have appeared in The Spoon River Review, The Bellevue Literary Review, Rhino, and elsewhere.