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Vol. LXI, No. 51
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
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Book Review

Lighting a Poet’s Path Into the Labyrinth

Stuart Mitchner

It has just been pointed out to me how appropriate it is for a new bookstore called Labyrinth to devote its first single-author event to a book that attempts to guide us through the labyrinthine ways of biblical lore and language. At the same time, I should admit up front that I need a guide. I’m way out of my depth here, but fortunately Alicia Ostriker’s For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book (Rutgers $22.95) is itself “an open book.” To penetrate even the outer layers of the labyrinth, you need a guide who writes clearly and straightforwardly, someone who speaks from the heart as well as from the intellect. For such a mission, we can do without labyrinthine expositions and rhetorical gamesmanship, or gatekeepers standing at the entrance waiting for secret passwords, or academic show-offs lurking in the shadows with weighty agendas and a full arsenal of rhetorical blunderbusses. Though the author’s task is clear throughout her exploration of six texts (The Song of Songs, the Book of Ruth, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Jonah, and Job), one of her most effective assessments of the situation comes in the chapter on Job:

“It is not enough to point out, rationally, that these and other pieces of biblical stitchery are the result of multiple sources and hundreds of years of editing. For the text of the Bible as we have it is more than the sum of its parts, and its inconsistencies are also apertures. A purely coherent and consistent Bible would never have been able to command the millennia of loyalty the Bible has commanded. It would lack mystery. It would be reduced to the flattest sort of theology. We need the layering, the tension, even the absurdity of scripture.”

The author of numerous volumes of poetry and a founding member of the U.S. 1 Poets, Ostriker explores, challenges, questions, and illuminates these six layers of the labyrinth with a poet-scholar’s sensitivity. Her prose is clear and forthright, and flexible enough to allow her to be at once personal and learned, and occasionally edgy; she always seems to know when to lessen the weight of a solemn issue with salty phrasing and she never loses sight of her mission, which is not only to justify the subtitle but to make you want to open the “open book” yourself.

Another of her expressed intentions is to challenge the “moralizing authoritarianism” the Bible has come to represent, approaching “the most unconventional and outrageous portions” of it “both personally and analytically.” According to her preface, if not taken personally, the Bible “becomes meaningless; if not taken analytically, it becomes dogma.” She makes her priorities explicit in the afterword. With reference to living in a “world in crisis” she speaks out against simplifying reality, against using the “sacred texts as a security blanket or a blindfold, much less a weapon,” and against allowing the Bible to be “the property of people who cannot imagine a connection between spirituality and sex, or skepticism and joy, or Us and Them.”

Keeping it Open

You know you’re in good hands as soon as you read the opening sentences of the introduction, which simply and eloquently echo the subtitle: “When we awaken, we open our eyes. When we love, we open our hearts and arms. When we think, we open our minds. Most of us like to feel that we are open to life, that we do not want to leave it before we have lived it.”

For the Love of God was written in the aftershock of September 11 and under the deepening shadow of fundamentalist tyranny subverting American politics from the evangelical forces on the Far Right. Which is not to say that Ostriker wastes her time making political statements. It isn’t until the afterword that she directly confronts the “tide of fundamentalism flooding the world.” In any case, it’s hard to resist a book so effectively opposed to ists and isms.

Alicia Ostriker will be at Labyrinth Books at 5:30 pm. on Thursday, December 13, to talk about and sign copies of “For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book” (Rutgers University Press, 164 pages). Labyrinth is located at 122 Nassau Street.
Hours are Mondays-Fridays from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information call (609) 656-7800 or visit stores_pr.aspx#info.

The Song Is You

The Song of Solomon is an obvious choice to begin with since it offers a sense of the “holy” at odds with what is usually understood as “religious.” Ostriker gives her reading a personal immediacy by describing the impact of the Song when she was in her teens and the words “seemed to come not from outside but from inside myself,” blending “the natural and spiritual” because she was in love with a boy two years older who “appeared to contain and enclose the stars, and the spaces between the stars.”

The chapter “Psalm and Anti-Psalm: A Personal Interlude” was written, as the introduction points out, in response to the destruction of the World Trade Center. As she does throughout the book, Ostriker challenges facile citings of the text like that of the then-poet laureate who suggested that post-9/11 solace could be found by reading the Psalms. As she points out, the Psalms are all over the place, the glory mixed with terror, beauty with violence, doubt with joy. In the vindictive last line of Psalm 137 (“Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones”) she finds fertile ground for “the justification of every blood feud,” including “occupying forces, terrorist suicide bombers, Arab and Jew, Serb and Bosnian, Hutu and Tutsi.” She then achieves an associative tour de force by comparing the mixture of violence and devotion, faith and fury in certain of the Psalms with the “chillingly familiar” rhetoric used by Osama Bin Laden in his statement praising the September 11 attack against those “who champion falsehood, support the butcher against the victim, the oppressor against the innocent child.”

A Postmodern Ecclesiastes

Ostriker’s talent for giving her subject a contemporary luster comes through especially well in the chapter, “ Ecclesiastes as Witness.” Following For the Love of God into the “open book,” I found some of the terms and issues (the labyrinth again) almost as elusive as the quantum mechanics I tried to make sense of when reviewing biographies of Oppenheimer and Einstein. But then it’s Ostriker’s determined pursuit of biblical ambiguities that draws you in and holds your interest. Discussing the “author” of Ecclesiastes, she even brings the physicist into her argument: “Like Einstein, he likes to point out how little we know of the laws of the universe.” This is only the penultimate in a series of “disagreements.” The text is both “pious and skeptical,” was “composed by a single, or two, or plural authors, or it was a patchwork cobbled together by an editor.” The author is also compared to Lao Tse and a Buddhist on the way to being described as the first empiricist, the first pragmatist, the first existentialist, and the first postmodern writer. In addition to the melange of associations, it’s suggested that the author invents “the autobiographical ‘I’ of western literature, glamorizes it, and ridicules it, all at the same time,” as well as inventing “for western civilization the thrill of disillusion.” Such lively claims are guaranteed to send readers to the text (at least it did in my case). No less intriguing is Ostriker’s reading of the concept of “vanity” and the text’s comparison of “all works done under the sun” to “a striving after wind,” wherein she gives the “statement of frustration” a comic turn (“something like the idea of herding cats”) that she finds “less accusatory” and “more poignant, more absurd” than “vanity.” It’s no surprise, then, that the path she’s guiding us down leads to “a door that, when passed through, opens straight into the existentialism of Camus.”

Ostriker continues citing secular figures in “Jonah: The Book of the Question,” where she brings in “Melville’s Ishmael and Twain’s Huck Finn,” along with Gatsby and Kerouac, when discussing Jonah’s desire to escape. Speaking for myself, I’ve always depended on secular intermediaries to repair some of the damage done to the Bible after an Episcopalian adolescence growing out of the See-Spot-Run level of Sunday School Bible lessons (singing “March On Christian Soldiers,” coloring in drawings of Moses among the bulrushes, and squirming during the service, literally bored to tears). The Bible’s very ubiquity has estranged me from it. No doubt every other motel or hotel bedside table in America still comes equipped with a Gideon. But the so-called “good book” acquires a sort of reflected glory when portions turn up in the form of epigraphs to Anna Karenina or The Sun Also Rises, or when, in an effectively “religious” movie like Frank Borzage’s Strange Cargo, Clark Gable sarcastically reads passages from the Song of Solomon to Joan Crawford as she’s putting on makeup in the “mirror” formed by the lid of a tin can, or when Melville sends you to Jonah by way of Father Mapple’s sermon in Moby Dick, or when Blake’s artwork sends you to Job, and Keats’s poetry to The Book of Ruth when he writes of “the self-same song that found a path/Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,/She stood in tears amid the alien corn.” Ostriker makes sure to note the reference from “Ode to a Nightingale” on her way through the labyrinth, reminding us that Ruth’s homesickness was a bit of poetic license, for she’s “a woman of expedition and action, not merely sad or sick with longing for a homeland she left.”

At Labyrinth

As mentioned, Alicia Ostriker will be giving the first one-author appearance at Labyrinth Books, which officially celebrated the return of a bookstore on Nassau Street last Thursday. Perhaps her appearance will also mark a return to something like the glory days of Micawber when readings and signings were regular events.

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