The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems, 1979-2011

Alicia Suskin Ostriker's latest book gathers poems from over three decades that explore different facets of Jewish history, passion, and Ostriker's own experience as a female Jewish poet. She prefaces the collection with an introduction that reads as both a meditation on the work and a generous invitation to the reader: "I ponder the Shoah as an illustration of how sick and sickening human beings can become, but also as a window onto acts of extraordinary heroism and empathy." This contradiction is part of what makes The Book of Life so compelling—beauty and struggle are so often intertwined. In "West Fourth Street" Ostriker recalls watching Brazilian men play handball outdoors. She writes

If I watch them samba with their shadows

Torqued like my father fifty years ago
When sons of immigrant Jews
Played fierce handball in Manhattan

—if I think these men are the essence of the city
it is because of their beauty
Since I have learned to be a fool for beauty.

The poems in this volume illuminate lived experience, as Ilya Kaminsky writes, "with gusto, with passion, with clarity, with eros, with grief. If there is God, it is the mourner's or the mystic's God. If there is faith, it is the faith in our future. This is gorgeous poetry, as Jewish as it universal."

This book review originally appeared in American Poets.