Ps. 114: Psalm & Anti-Psalm, An Interview

Alicia Suskin Ostriker is a poet, scholar, and critic who writes Jewish feminist poetry. She has been called “America’s most fiercely honest poet” by Progressive. Additionally, she was one of the first women poets in America to write and publish poems discussing the topic of motherhood. In 2015, she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. In 2018, she was named the New York State Poet Laureate.

 

Before responding to the questions posed to me, I need to be clear about my equivocal relationship to the psalms as a woman for whom “God” is a metaphor, but a metaphor I recognize as having immense power over and within what William Blake calls “the human imagination.” For me personally, “God” is at times the Absolute Reality for which I yearn as the hart yearns after the water brook; at times it is the name for a power that wants to be wrestled with and will yield a blessing only if I wrestle with it; at times it is the name for the Creator of the Universe; at times it is a tender parental figure; sometimes it is the Beloved; sometimes it is an egotistical and violent tyrant. In my journey as a writer, a seeker, and a woman, I have engaged with all these figures—and more.  

We may or may not believe that David composed the psalms. But we must see how the “I” of the Psalms whirls and whiplashes as he, too, confronts the multiplicity of the One.

 

Why have the Psalms been so important to you over the years?

To sing unto the Lord a “new song” has been the motive behind much of my poetry. The beauty of the Psalms, in the King James version, is a model for the English language at its most beautiful, most magnificent, most memorable. Shouting joyfully, praising, blessing the force that has created earth and sky and sea and all that dwell therein, as in Psalm 104, is what I wish I could be doing all the days of my life. “Joy” is a word that reemerges in the Book of Psalms as the high-water mark of human emotion. Joy is several degrees beyond happiness; joy is sacred. When I was a child, and even as a young woman, I knew this in my bones. Today I can only wish that knowledge might return.

 

Why did you entitle your chapter on the Psalms in For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book “Psalm and Anti-Psalm: A Personal Interlude”?

I call my chapter by this name precisely because I take these poems so personally. I do so because they invite us to. Unlike most of what we read in the TaNaKh (Hebrew Bible), they are supremely personal. They are love poems to God, and since the course of true love never runs smooth, they are turbulent. They run through a gamut of personal emotions, from childlike trust to adoration and exaltation, to neediness and demanding, to despair—and more. There is suffering in them, complaining, crying out, feeling abandoned, hurt, tormented. There is doubt and self-doubt. I imagine most readers of the Psalms will agree with much of what I say in admiration of them in this chapter. 

The “Anti-Psalm” section will perhaps startle some readers, because it takes the violence and militarism of the poems seriously. In psalm after psalm, David demands that God punish his enemies as cruelly as possible. In Psalm 58 the enemy’s teeth will be knocked out and the righteous will wash his feet in the blood of the wicked. The poignance of Psalm 137 ends with a vision of vengeance: “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed... happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”

God as warrior and punisher of our enemies is, of course, ubiquitous in our culture, and of course it is necessary that we consider ourselves righteous and that our enemy be labelled wicked. Unfortunately, everyone can play this game. I invite anyone who wishes to do so to check out in my Psalms chapter the prayers I quote that seem to have been prayed by the terrorists on September 11th. I do not wish to quote them here, but to read them is heartbreaking. And to read them might also be mind-changing.

 

As you reflect back on your psalms-inspired poems is there one that stands out now, in these difficult days? Why?

In the response to the social uprisings we are currently experiencing, I might point to a poem in my book The Volcano Sequence that ventriloquizes a pious voice well-aligned with the voice of vengeance in the Psalms, and in so much of our culture, and other cultures, wherever it is believed that God is on “our” side:

One of these days

oh one of these days

will be a festival and a judgment

and our enemies will be thrown

into the pit while we rejoice

and sing hymns

 

Some people actually think this way.

There is despair as well as irony in the last line of this poem. All too many of our fellow citizens enjoy a rapturous faith steeped in hatred of the Other. As Bob Dylan sang, “You never ask questions when God’s on your side.” For a faith that endorses love of the Other, we go not so much to the Psalms as to the thirty-six (some say forty-six) moments in Torah when we are commanded not to oppress the stranger in our midst, to treat the stranger like ourselves, and even, most radically, to “love them as yourself, for you know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Yet the psalms remain, not as commandments but as mirrors of one’s heart. 

 

What about an original psalm? Is there one that calls to you now?

To which psalm do I turn in this time of troubles? Perhaps to Psalm 126, “Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.” That it might be so.

 

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.