July 2, 2022

The Return of the Repressed: Women Poets & the Sacred

By Alicia Ostriker

Aviva Bogart, Woman, 2022

A specter is haunting the world of American poetry. The repressed is returning. The doors of perception are being cleansed. Adrienne Rich would say we are diving into the wreck, retrieving the treasures that prevail in the depths of our ancient texts and private dreams, from our subconscious fury and longing, and our painful and joyful experiences in the world, experiences excluded from literature for millennia; we are hauling these valuable sunken treasures to the surface of our culture and language.

We are pulling off our masks, so we can breathe.

Our spirituality is complicated. We live in a postsecular world. No returning to a culture shaped by male monotheism and its divine dictator. And yet we are spiritual seekers. By “we” I mean myself and all those dreaming alongside me.

What do we seek? It is a fact that human beings worshiped goddesses for thousands of years before the advent of male monotheism. Goddesses controlled fertility and childbirth, law and judgment, the weather, and of course love and war. Goddess-worship under patriarchy became illegal, but it hung on, sometimes right out in the open. The biblical prophet Jeremiah catches the women baking cakes for the Queen of Heaven, and tries to chase them out of the Temple, but they talk back: they’ve always done this service, and when they do, the rains come and the crops are good (Jer. 44:15–18).

When the future Saint Paul preached at Ephesus, a crowd attacked him, shouting Artemis! Artemis!

Men fear the goddess. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures explicitly reject her. The God who insists thou shalt have no other gods but Him denies Her existence, thereby strangling women’s potential power. Now fast-forward. From the 1960s to the present, under the radar of mainstream media and the academy, the women’s spirituality movement in America and Canada has flourished, reclaiming women’s power—to name and to act—and to love. “To exist humanly is to name the self, the world, and God,” says Mary Daly. “We do not believe in the Goddess—we connect with her; through the moon, the stars, the ocean, the earth, through trees, animals, through other human beings, through ourselves. She is here. She is within us all,” says Starhawk. “The liberating encounter with God/ess,” Rosemary Ruether writes, “is always an encounter with our authentic selves resurrected . . . through relationships, healing our broken relations with our bodies, with other people, with nature.”

I am sketching a tradition of gynocentric spirituality that is ripe with poets. Poets sprung from the traditions of Paganism, Christianity, and Islam, and I myself, sprung from Judaism, ride a wave of transformation. Here is a very bare introduction to this unstoppable tide.

Paganism meets Judy Grahn, legendary West Coast poet, essayist, queer theorist and activist, cofounder of the Women’s Press Collective, author of The Common Woman Poems, A Woman Is Talking to Death, The Queen of Wands, The Queen of Swords, and very much more. Grahn’s visionary 1977 sequence “She Who” celebrates the quest for an integrated and sacred female self. “She Who” is evidently a goddess figure. She might also be the secret tribal name of Everywoman, and is furthermore a grammatical configuration pointing toward a potentially unlimited array of possible states and acts, which the sequence begins to exemplify. The chant of the sequence’s opening poem moves from a question that is possibly curious, possibly insulting, to an affirmation which mimics the noise of a crowd or of the wind:

She, she who? she WHO? she, WHO SHE? . . .
She SHE who, She, she SHE
she SHE, she SHE who

Some of the poems in the “She Who” sequence are deadpan comedic fantasies, as when Grahn appropriates the third eye of Hindu mysticism:

I shall grow another breast
in the middle of my chest . . . Call it
She – Who – educates – my – chest.

There are also animal fables, parables of female power and powerlessness, a poem of insults as “the enemies of She Who call her various names . . . a cunt a bitch a slut a slit a hole a whore a hole.” There is a beautiful birth poem that plays the role of an origin myth:

She Who bears it / bear down, breathe / bear down, bear down, breathe / bear down, bear down, bear down, breathe . . . She Who lies down in the darkness and bears it / She Who lies down in the lightness and bears it / everywhere the waters are breaking / the labor of She Who carries and bears / and raises and rears is the first labor, / there is no other first labor.

A funeral song, a plainsong invoking the bonding of older and younger women (“are you not shamed to treat me meanly / when you discover you become me”), and a boasting rune which has become canonical in lesbian poetry:

I am the wall at the lip of the water
I am the rock that refused to be battered
I am the dyke in the matter, the other
I am the wall with the womanly swagger . . .
And I have been many a wicked grandmother
and I shall be many a wicked daughter . . .
When She-Who-moves-the-earth will turn over
When She Who moves, the earth will turn over.

The earth is clearly turning over as well in Lucille Clifton’s revisionist Christianity, where the spiritual core is Black—in soul and in culture. It is also what Lucille calls, punning on her own name, “the light.” In her ability to startle the reader again and again, Clifton is kin to Emily Dickinson. Like Dickinson, she is playful. (Actually, all the poets who are re-making the possibilities of a woman-centered spirituality are playful.) She can turn on a pin from the humility signaled by the lower-case first-person “i” to the most awesome cheekiness. In “prayer,” Clifton asks God why his hand is so heavy on “just poor me.” God answers:

this is the stuff
i made the heroes
out of
all the saints
and prophets and things
had to come by

This is a Black woman’s claim—the claim of a Black woman raised in the church—that God is nominating her as saint or prophet. Her readers may well believe it. Or, again, countless poets have written poems on their craft, but none like Clifton’s “the making of poems”:

the reason why i do it
though I fail and fail
in the giving of true names
is i am adam and his mother
and these failures are my job.

Inhabiting the voices of Old Testament Adam and Eve, Cain, Moses, and more, in a sequence from Good News About the Earth (1972) titled “some jesus,” here is her John the Baptist, prophesying in what could be Galilee, could be Philadelphia:

somebody coming in blackness
like a star
and the world be a great bush
on his head
and his eyes be fire
in the city
and his mouth be as true as time

he be calling the people brother
even in the prison
even in the jail

i’m just only a baptist preacher
somebody bigger than me coming
in blackness like a star

This is classic contemporary midrash, locating a scriptural text in time present. The Jesus who is coming wears an Afro, “fire in the city” means race riots. And here is her Mary unlike any Virgin Mary you have ever encountered—a Mary at the annunciation saturated with eros:

this kiss
as soft as cotton

over my breasts
all shiny bright

something is in this night
oh lord have mercy on me

i feel a garden
in my mouth

between my legs
i see a tree

Still more boldly, elsewhere, in “to a dark moses” she becomes an avatar of deity:

you are the one
i am lit for.
come with your rod
that twists
and is a serpent.
i am the bush.
i am burning.
i am not consumed.

Most astonishing to me is the radical sequence in Quilting (1991) called “Tree of Life,” a cryptic re-imagining of Adam, Eve, the angels, and Lucifer, whose name means light-bringer and is a cognate of Lucille herself. Her Lucifer dazzles the other angels but remains mysterious. In the sequence’s final poem, he explains that God loves him for performing his task of enabling Adam and Eve to “walk”:

illuminate I could
and so
illuminate I did

Many other women poets wrestle with the Christianity that has so powerfully shaped Western culture, updating and spinning it in new directions. In 1988, Marie Howe, born in 1950 and raised Catholic, published The Good Thief, an allusion to the thief who hung on the cross next to Jesus. What the Living Do (1998) is in part an elegy for her brother John who died of AIDS, and partly a book of recovery from a girlhood traumatized by incest. The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (2009) celebrates her relationship with her adopted daughter Grace (a significant name). Most recently, Magdalene (2017) is designed to join body and soul, sin and redemption, today’s sensual and sexual life with all that is sacred. Howe’s spin on the gospel story has a light and even a comic touch, but is a serious examination of sin and holiness, which in this book may be identical. She speaks as the adulteress in the gospels whom Jesus saves from being stoned to death, the prostitute who had seven devils cast out of her, the disciple of Jesus whom Jesus loved best. “Magdalene—the Seven Devils” is written in the voice of a woman trying to list her seven devils, and repeatedly losing track and starting over, with bits like:

The seventh—I knew I was breathing the expelled breath of everything that
was alive, and I couldn’t stand it . . .
No. That was the first one.

The second was that I was so busy. I had no time. How had this happened?

A few pages later, in “On Men, Their Bodies,” Howe is a master list maker, listing penises she has known. It begins:

One penis was very large and thick so when he put it inside I really did say, Wow. One penis was uncircumcised, and I loved to grip the shaft and pull down so the head popped out like a little man. One penis was curved so I had to move in a different way. One penis was so friendly I was never afraid of it.

And so on, for fifteen more lines, which John Ruff, in the Valparaiso Review, praises for “amazing frankness, obvious authority, startling warmth, abundant humor, gentle playfulness, understanding, patience, forgiveness, and affection.” Later in the book, she describes her relationship with the man she calls her “teacher,” who perhaps is or had been her lover, whom we understand to be Jesus. He has told her that what he foresees at Gethsemane was “not his own death” but “the countless   in his name.”

He said he saw the others . . .
raped, burned, lynched, stoned, bombed, beheaded, shot, gassed,
gutted and raped again.

So we are not surprised when she concludes:

I was hung as a witch by the people in my own town
I was sent to the asylum at sixteen.
I was walking with my younger sister looking for firewood
when we saw the group of men approaching . . .
I’m the woman in the black suit and heels hailing a taxi.
I’m in prayer, in meditation, I’ve shaved my head . . .

And yet, finally, the poet speaks in her own voice which is also Magdalene’s:

everything moving underneath
half alive   half awake

What tunnels through the loam?
What rises from the sheath of leaves?

As it is for many Christian and Jewish poets, the Bible is also a major source text for Muslim poets. The relationship between Abraham’s wife Sarah and Sarah’s servant Hagar, told in both Genesis and the Quran, has been the subject of many women’s midrashim; their rivalry has been reimagined by the poet Mohja Kahf.

Kahf was born in Damascus in 1967, came to America in 1971, and is the author of a novel, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf (2006), and two volumes of poetry, Emails from Scheherazad (2003) and Hagar Poems (2016). Hagar, pronounced Hajar in Arabic, lives in two sacred traditions. She gives birth to Ishmael in the Book of Genesis and is exiled on Sarah’s orders to the desert where God by a miracle provides water. Sarah’s son Isaac will be understood as the founder of the Jewish people, Hagar’s son Ishmael as the founder of the Arab people. This story thus signals the mythic beginnings of a split that torments the Middle East to this day. In Islamic tradition, Hajar’s search for water to save her son is the template for the Haj—the pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim is commanded to perform. In Kahf’s Hagar Poems, Hajar speaks:

After the god who requires blood and obedience,
how do you find water? . . .
It is almost not visible
between thorn and rocks . . .
the water that came
up from the ground,
from the ground of Hajar

And later, she continues:

I am Hagar the immigrant . . .
I am Hajar, mother
of a people
I stand here
straddling the end and the beginning

Each rock cuts into the heel like God
Each step is blood, is risk:

is prayer

Like every other American woman’s midrash on this story, Kahf imagines a reunion and a friendship between Sarah and Hagar—that is, between Israel and Palestine. Not that it is easy. Elsewhere in the book, at a family reunion, the dead killed by Zionist terror squads and Palestinian suicide bombers emerge from the woods:

a Hamas sniper, a Mossad assassin fall
to their knees, rocking; each one cries,
“I was only defending my—my—”
Into the arms of each,
Hajar and Sarah place a wailing
orphaned infant . . .
The grieving goes on for ages . . .

Finally, when the orange groves go back to their rightful, presumably Palestinian, owners, everyone

. . can recognize
in the eyes of every other,
the flickering light of the Divine.

My own writing as a Jewish feminist led me to the experiment of The Nakedness of the Fathers (1994), combining prose and poetry, autobiography and midrash, re-telling biblical tales from before the Garden until after the Book of Job. It opens by stating that the canonized text cannot be the final text. “I remember slavery,” it announces. “I remember liberation from slavery. I remember a covenant in which I promised to serve God’s purposes. And what if I say the purposes have not yet all been revealed?”

They say no, they say blasphemer, they say false,
They say whore, they say bitch, they say witch,
They say ignorant woman, they lock me up for crazy

Of course I’m crazy
Digging and digging,
I remember things, and sometimes I remember
My time when I was powerful, bringing birth,
My time when I was just, composing law,
My time playing before the throne
When my name was Wisdom . . .

In Judaism, the name for the female divine is Shekhinah, from a Hebrew word for “dwelling.” Nakedness closes with a prayer to the Shekhinah, who in Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, is the Presence of God on earth, and/or the female aspect or emanation of God, said to have been divided from him at the creation of the universe. The goal of existence is to re-unite them.

When the transformation happens as it must
When we remember
When she wakes from her long repose in us
When she wipes the nightmare
Of history from her eyes
When she enters the modern world
Shaking her breasts and hips
With timbrels and with dances . . .
When they behold each other face to face
When they become naked and not ashamed
On that day will the Lord be one
And their name One.

“Their name”: I did not anticipate that this play of pronouns, replacing the canonical God-He, would intersect with today’s breakup of conventional pronouns. There’s a scrap, and here is another scrap, from a book of poems called the volcano sequence (2002), invoking the Shekhinah as exiled, as mute, and as amnesiac:

you were above rubies
and exalted like the palm tree
or like the rosebushes in Jericho

come on, surely by now you remember who you are
you’re my mother my sister my daughters
you’re me

we will have to struggle so hard
to birth you
this time

the brain like a cervix

My husband once asked me what I meant by “spirituality,” and if I could put it simply for him. I think I said something like this: We recognize a dimension of reality that is not material, that we experience as sacred, and that is not tied to dogma or to “religion” in a conventional sense, though the language for it may be drawn from traditional scripture and prayer. It may be ecstatic, it may be demonic. Feminist spirituality locates the world of the sacred within us, within the body, within sex, within the natural world, immanent not transcendent. This is why the imagery of quest for women is seldom about ascending or about conquest; it requires descent. Remembering what has been forgotten, recovering what has been erased. Diving into the wreck. Diving deep and surfacing.

Here is a closing parable. In prehistory the being we call God the Father swallowed God the Mother. But the goddess did not die, because divinities cannot die. She is alive in the belly of the beast, like grandmother alive in the belly of the wolf, in that old story. Sometimes she kicks, and we can see her kicking when we see traces of female power in old texts. But God is tired of carrying her. God is in pain, as we are in pain. God is in fact pregnant and in labor. He needs to give birth, rebirth, to his female self. And we, all of us, can be midwives. The task is ongoing.

Works Cited

  • Lucille Clifton. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965–2010. Edited by Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, Ltd., 2012.
  • Lucille Clifton. Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969–1980. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, Ltd., 1987.
  • Mary Daly. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973.
  • Judy Grahn. She Who: A Graphic Book of Poems with 54 Images of Women. Baltimore, MD: Diana Press, 1977.
  • Marie Howe. Magdalene: Poems. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.
  • Mohja Kahf. Hagar Poems. Fayetteville, AR: The University of Arkansas Press, 2016.
  • Alicia Ostriker. The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994.
  • Alicia Ostriker. the volcano sequence. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002.
  • Rosemary R. Ruether. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.
  • John Ruff. “Marie Howe: Review.” Valparaiso Poetry Review, May 23, 2017.

Alicia Ostriker has published nineteen collections of poetry, been twice nominated for the National Book Award, and has twice received the National Jewish Book Award for Poetry, among other honors. As a critic she is the author of the now-classic Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, and other books on poetry and on the Bible.