Poetry Sunday: “during the bombing of Kosovo,” by Alicia Ostriker

Guest Column written by Susan Cohen

Just imagine a different title for this poetic response to the April 1999 NATO bombing of a Serbian city. Perhaps the bombing of Iraq or the destruction of Syria. Or the flight of refugees? Alicia Ostriker’s devastating words of witness resonate now more than ever, as families escape homelands in numbers not seen since World War II, and the United States government shamefully attempts to slam the door to the feast our country represents.

What makes a poem both timely and timeless? And why, when Rebecca Foust invited me to write a column celebrating the Jewish festival of Passover, which begins tomorrow, did I choose this poem of lamentation?

In 2017, many American poets find themselves torn between competing urges: compelled to bear witness, and yet hoping to produce work that survives the months before publication or (why not confess our collective hubris?) the decades to achieve some semblance of posterity. Every poet must attempt to solve this puzzle for each poem that reflects the news.

Ostriker’s solution in during the bombing of Kosovo is to address the issue of timelessness itself—the way humans have slaughtered each other since the start. She keeps her four stanzas uncluttered by information that might date the poem, providing its immediate context only in the title. She also masterfully merges content and form by embodying the way tragic events repeat. She doesn’t need to say this happens over and over. She eloquently conveys that idea, as poetry can, through her reappearing metaphor of “mist” and “vapor.”

The poem begins at the beginning, with the story of Cain and Abel. By employing the Hebrew name Hevel, Ostriker, who is a student of the Hebrew Bible, can play with its curious multiple translations. She mentions vanity first, as if vanity might precede all the tragedy that follows. After all, Cain is both the first man conceived from a woman and the original murderer. This makes Abel the first murder victim, or as Ostriker puts it: “…the first man / whose brother was not his keeper.”

I admire how the second stanza weaves hevel’s other meanings through alternating lines. The similes “like mist” and “like vapor” relentlessly float in and out, like the fog of war through history, always destined to return. This rhetorical device of repetition at the start of a line, called anaphora, frequently occurs in the Bible, a reference Ostriker certainly intends. It also creates a drumbeat, an insistent rhythm in a poem that—as free verse—doesn’t follow any established metrical pattern.

Typically, Ostriker punctuates and capitalizes.  She doesn’t in the volcano sequence, where during the bombing of Kosovo first appeared. Poet W.S. Merwin once described his decision to abandon punctuation as un-stapling the poem from the page, and that’s what happens here. The sentence fragments without end-stops contribute to the poem’s powerful movement, allowing a reader to group and regroup words within and across lines. In “like mist tens of thousands / of refugees cross the border / like vapor from morning to dusk / unmanned families,” for example, people and atmosphere merge, both of them unfixed and in motion.

Notice I haven’t yet mentioned Passover, because in the poem Ostriker hasn’t either. She describes the Passover meal or Seder in the third stanza as the “…feast / of liberty and memory.” Readers may understand that Passover commemorates the liberation of the Jewish people from bondage in ancient Egypt. But even if they don’t, “feast” might well be figurative language to indicate the speaker’s relatively safe and plentiful life compared to those whose homes are rubble. Similarly, when Ostriker suddenly addresses God directly, we don’t need to know she’s echoing prayers of thanks offered during the Seder. This “father of rain” who nourishes the spring crops, where is he when the sky rains bombs?

The holiday, though, is not merely circumstantial to the poem, but at its essence. That’s obvious in the book where it originally appeared, as Ostriker explains in her author’s statement. I first read during the bombing of Kosovo in her The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems, 1979-2011, and there she adds the postscript “Passover 1999,” as I did for this column. Clearly, she believes the coincidence of the bombing and the holiday to be important.

Passover joyously celebrates freedom and renewal, but it also demands we vividly recall the hardships of exile. The text, or Haggadah, that Jews will read around the table tomorrow night differs between countries, congregations, and even families, as people incorporate favorite poems, songs, and stories. At my childhood Seders, when the Haggadah declared no one can be truly free until everyone is free, my father always invoked Martin Luther King. After the Hebrew songs, we sang union ones. I assumed for years that every family’s Passover included a hearty chorus of “I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night.”

Everyone’s doesn’t, of course. But tomorrow night in the Hebrew Year 5777, families who once again tell their children the story of slavery to Pharaoh will teach them some version of these words from Exodus: Do not mistreat or oppress strangers, as you were once strangers in the land of Egypt. Like Alicia Ostriker’s poem, the story remains timeless, and brutally, tragically timely.



Guest Editor Susan Cohen’s most recent book of poems, A Different Wakeful Animal, won the 2015 David Martinson-Meadowhawk Prize from Red Dragonfly Press and can be ordered at Red Dragonfly Press, Amazon, or Small Press Distribution. She was a newspaper reporter, contributing writer to the Washington Post Magazine, and professor at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism before earning an MFA from Pacific University. Her poems appear widely in journals and anthologies, including the Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, and have received numerous honors, including the Rita Dove Poetry Award and the Milton Kessler Poetry Prize. www.susancohen-writer.com

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  • Meryl Natchez April 10, 2017 at 10:05 pm

    I love how this poem builds and resolves. A terrific poem to read at any Passover Seder. Thank you for this/

  • Mary Burke Mockler April 9, 2017 at 11:10 pm

    I am a poet living in Westchester County,NY.