Some of Jacqueline Osherow’s best known poems address her post-Holocaust consciousness. “For my generation,” she says, “those born in the aftermath of the war—the horror…defined the world to us. It is as a testament to this predicament that I wish these poems to stand.” Her work also explores Jewish tradition and the inconsistencies and mysteries in Biblical texts, often in difficult verse forms (sestinas, sonnets, terza rima), often with humor and an intimate tone.
Osherow is the author of five books of poems, Looking for Angels in New York (1988) and Conversations with Survivors (1993) from University of Georgia Press, With a Moon in Transit (1996) and Dead Men’s Praise (1999) from Grove Press, and The Hoopoe’s Crown (2005) from BOA Editions. Her work has appeared in The Norton Anthology of Jewish-American Poetry, The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, Best American Poetry (1995,1998), and The Extraordinary Tide: New Poems by American Women. She has been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation and the Witter Bynner Prize from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters as well as a number of prizes from the Poetry Society of America. She is Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Utah.
Poetry Center Reading:
At the Wailing Wall
I figure I have to come here with my kids,
though I’m always ill at ease in holy places—
the wars, for one thing—and it’s the substanceless
that sets me going: the holy words.
Though I do write a note – my girls’ sound future
(there’s an evil eye out there; you never know)
and then pick up a broken-backed siddur,
the first of many motions to go through.
Let’s get them over with. 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.
There’s mercy in the decades as they pass,
reducing years of ache to a single afternoon
beneath a cherry tree in a terraced garden:
the cherries seem to ripen while we gaze,
darkening as sunlight starts to fade.
You’re talking; I’m waiting for you to realize
what you won’t admit for another decade:
love is not a word I wouldn’t use
you’ll say once I’ve had daughters, you, a son.
Now there’s another decade gone
and I have yet to hear of love
without some qualifier, some double negative.
Perhaps I’ve stifled it? It’s getting late;
no sign of ripeness, just failing light.
Spring Sonnet, with my sister’s favorite bit of Deborah
The way I see it, every season comes through
With a blessing—winter: dazzle; summer: evening;
Autumn: cold; and this particular spring
It’s got to be you, monotonous cuckoo
Or whatever you are, blasting that major third
Like a downbeat for the music of the spheres.
And who’s to say it isn’t, that the stars
And planets aren’t guided by a bird?
Your voice certainly seems to carry far
Enough, its two persistent notes so pure
They must keep the air’s orchestra in tune.
Who cares if they’re the same again and again?
I’ll stop waiting for that new, exquisite song.
I’ve got two notes; even I will sing.