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A few days after the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City in September 2001, the recently inaugurated Poet Laureate of the United States was interviewed by the journalist Sandra Martin. Asked what role poetry might play at such a moment, he replied that for him poetry was a private art, and needed a private focus. In a public radio interview on September 11 itself (1), he suggested that almost any page of any book of poetry would be "speaking for life...against what happened today."

Or, he said, read the Psalms.

The Psalms? Was he joking?

The Psalms are glorious. No, the Psalms are terrible. No, the Psalms are both glorious and terrible, both attractive and repulsive to me emotionally and theologically. I read as a poet and a woman, a literary critic and a leftwing Jew who happens to be obsessed with the Bible. And when I read these poems, I experience a split-screen effect: wildly contradictory responses.

As Catullus says: I love and hate. And it is excruciating.


The Psalms are overwhelmingly beautiful as poems. They represent the human spirit, my own spirit, in its intimate yearning for a connection with the divine Being who is the source of all being, the energy that creates and sustains the universe. Unlike the portions of the Bible that lay down rules and regulations (I skip these), and unlike the narratives that tell compelling tales of patriarchs and matriarchs, judges, warriors and kings, but don't tell how they feel, what they think, what it all means to them —the psalms are love poems to God. Since the course of true love never does run smooth, the psalms are poems of emotional turbulence.

Sometimes the psalmist expresses a wonderfully serene, almost childlike faith and trust. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul. The ineffable sweetness of this pastoral image surely taps a deep human desire to be relieved of responsibility, including the responsibility of being human. Is that why the 23rd psalm is the most popular in the whole psalter? In "He restores my soul," the Hebrew for "my soul" is nafshi, a term humans share with animals. It is wonderful, too, that the psalmist does not declare "I am a sheep" or "I am like a sheep," but speaks directly as from the animal soul, the nefesh, itself.

In Psalm 37 we are advised not to "fret" over evildoers; they are going to disappear, and "the meek shall inherit the earth." All of us who are meek, who feel powerless on earth, can identify with this fantasy. Sometimes a psalm runs a video in my frontal lobe, and causes my back to straighten and my lungs to pull in air — I will lift up my eyes unto the hills, whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth (121). These two sentences are so physical, but then so metaphysical, shaped like a chiasmus (a kind of word sandwich) but also striking a sequence of registers that expand into larger and larger space: body (eyes), natural environment (vista of hills), cosmos (heaven, earth). I catch my breath every time. I feel confident and alive every time.

Commercials for recreational vehicles profiled against a mountain sunrise try to press the same button of exhilaration in me, but something is missing. My help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved. He that keepeth thee will not slumber....The Lord is thy keeper. The Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day nor the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil. God is connected to nature, as its maker. God is in the hills, God is in the mountains. God made heaven and earth, so you and I are protected by the entire cosmos, which makes us very safe. God even makes it possible to shift pronouns from me to you without a touch of anxiety. And look at the security blanket of language when the psalmist has behaved and quieted myself, like a child just weaned from his mother. My soul is like a weaned child. (131). Not a child in the womb or a nursing child, but one who has left those comforts behind, and probably wept for them, but is confident of being loved anyway.

At other moments the psalmist is racked by doubt and self-doubt. How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? For ever? (13) Here is a voice of suffering, complaining, crying out, feeling abandoned, hurt, tormented. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the mouth of my roaring? (22) It seems evident that wicked people prosper in this world, that good people suffer, and that God refuses to intervene. Why standest thou far off, O Lord? Why hidest thou in time of trouble? The wicked persecute the poor.The wicked man boasts of his heart's desire. As for his enemies, he puffeth at them. (10). Or, as we would say, the bad guy blows off anyone who bothers him. They are enclosed in their own fat, with their mouths they speak proudly. (17) And they say, How does God know? (73) O God, how long shall the adversary reproach? Shall the enemy blaspheme thy name for ever? (74) Evildoers get away with murder, they are shameless, and the psalmist passionately begs God's help.

Many psalms evoke experiences of being alone, attacked, persecuted, punished. Some beg forgiveness for sin: Have mercy upon me, O God....a broken spirit and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (51) Many speak from desperation. Save me, O God, for the waters have come into my soul. I sink in deep mire. The ones that hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of my head (69). My days are consumed like smoke. My heart is withered like grass. (102). I recognize the sense of sinking dread, the feeling that my life is meaningless, that my emotions have dried up. The poetry articulates my dread and dryness in exquisite metaphors and similes, which makes it hurt both less, because of the beauty, and more, because of the accuracy. And then the feeling modulates with incredible subtlety.

One of my favorite psalms is 42: As the hart pants after the water brooks, so my soul pants after thee, O God. What a melancholy yet sweet image of the desire for God, the desire of a thirsting animal. The soul, my soul, is nafshi again, here. The yearning is as pure as that physical need. But then it turns. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my meat night and day while they continually say unto me, where is thy God? It is not simply that I fruitlessly long to be close to God, united with God, but that at the same time, and precisely because everyone knows I go around with this spiritual need, people mock me. Those who do not have my faith or my need, and do not want it, and can live their lives nicely without it, mock me. They stand around and ridicule me. And let me remember that men and women for aeons have been mocked in worse circumstances than mine: in jail, under interrogation, under torture, at the point of martyrdom. I imagine there was considerable mockery, and self-mockery, in the concentration camps of Europe in the last century.

Then again many psalms express jubilation, celebration, wonder and awe.

Make a joyful noise unto God, all ye lands (66) is a tone repeatedly struck. Sing unto God a new song (120), with the sense that God is present throughout the cosmos, and everywhere at once awesome and delightful. Let everything that lives and breathes give praise to the Lord (150). The Hebrew title for the book of Psalms is Tehillim, derived from hallel, to praise (cf. the word hallelujah), and means Praises. Whither shall I go from thy spirit, or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I send up into heaven, thou art there. If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand lead me and thy right hand hold me. (139) This begins with an edge of fear, the suggestion of a wish to escape, but turns out to be very close to love-play, love-teasing, especially in its echo of the sensuousness of the Song of Songs: his right hand is under my head, and his left hand embraces me. The voice of the psalmist is the voice of one who would like to be experiencing this sublime wonder, this intimacy, this sense of being surrounded by a tenderly loving yet cosmically powerful God, day and night. Of course it doesn't happen that way, just as in our own relationships. The emotions of the psalms surge and collapse like breaking waves, as they do in our own emotional lives. There is joy and despair and hope and frustration and fear and anger and grief and sorrow and then the desperation breaks like a wave into trust and joy again.

Uncontrollable, unpredictable. Scholars have tried in vain to find an orderly structure in the sequence of Psalms, since there is very little in the way of rhyme or reason to them. They are not rational, they are intense. Anyone who meditates knows how unruly the mind is. You try to still it and make it serene, and it fails to obey. This is what we find in the Psalms too. They are like a magnifying glass, that seems to be looking at the presence and withdrawal of God, but in another sense can be said to be looking at the capacity of the mind to secrete its own calm — and then its inability to grasp that calm for more than moments at a time. What does remain constant throughout is faith that God exists, whether present or absent. The fool says in his heart that there is no God, (14) but in the world of the psalms, only a fool would think such a thing. In the world of the psalms, God is ultimately our deliverer, we have only to trust. They that sow in tears shall reap in joy (126).

All this makes for magnificent poetry, obviously, and of the kind that survives translation in language, time, and space. The Psalms exist in hundreds of languages, and form an endless source for Jewish, Christian and Muslim culture. The idea of faith, love and devotion in the Psalms saturates the Gospels, whose early readers would of course have known the Psalms well, since they form a central part of Jewish liturgy. When Jesus in the beatitudes says that the meek shall inherit the earth, he repeats the Psalmist's wishful thinking. When he declares, "If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink," he takes the trope of spiritual thirst from Psalm 42. When on the Cross he cries "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me," he is crying out as a Jew in his death as well as in his life.

The Psalms have inspired mystics through the centuries, and continue to inspire poets beyond the boundaries of conventional religion. Think, for example, of Whitman's insistence on celebrating every jot and tittle of the created world. Or the close of W.H. Auden's elegy on W.B. Yeats, with its parallel death-and-rebirth motif: "Follow, poet, follow right/ To the bottom of the night....With your uncomplaining voice/ Still persuade us to rejoice....In the prison of his days/ Teach the free man how to praise."

How to praise is one great lesson of the Psalms. Literature in English is irrigated by these poems not only because of the multitude of memorable phrases in the King James Version that I and other poets steal, but because they are always telling us to celebrate, praise, open ourselves to the universe. That is the task of the poet, or at least I take it to be my task as a poet and a human being, to open myself in praise of an existence that inevitably includes suffering, anguish, pain, despair.

A poem by Sharon Olds typifies the way the Psalms can be used in ways that may seem shocking but are perfectly faithful to their spirit. The poem is called "Sex Without Love," and is an attempt to imagine how they "do it," the people who make love without love. "How can they come to the come to the/God, come to the still waters and not love/ the one that came there with them." Lifted directly from the twenty-third psalm, the poem's stumbling incredulity assumes that when we do love the person we make love with, it is like that moment of blissful safety in the psalms where we know ourselves to be cared for by the Lord who is our shepherd.


Magnificent poems. When I read them through the lens of politics, I shudder at their magnificence. It is perhaps a figure and ground problem. Let me point out that although there has been an explosion of scholarly and critical writing about the Bible by women in the last fifteen or twenty years, almost nothing has been written about the Book of Psalms by contemporary women scholars. That is rather curious. Part of the reason, surely, is that unlike books of the Bible like Genesis, Exodus, the Song of Songs, the Book of Ruth, or the Scroll of Esther, or even Proverbs with its stereotyped portraits of the evil seductress and the good woman whose price is above rubies, no women at all appear in the Psalms. No Eve with her apple, no laughter of Sarah, no Miriam with her timbrels and her song. But the problem runs deeper. We do not take literally the old idea that the psalms were composed by King David, yet the psalmist often seems less a generic human than a public man. A politician, a warrior. The sun may rise in the psalms like a bridegroom running to meet his bride, but nothing like domestic life or domestic imagery enters. What I hear — when I read consciously as a woman with antiwar tendencies — are the personal meditations and intimate feelings of a man who feels himself to be surrounded by enemies. Are his enemies personal rivals? Are they political or military foes? The categories seem virtually interchangeable. An enemy is an enemy. The psalmist's enemies are evildoers, workers of iniquity, and adversaries. They are the proud and the heathen. They blaspheme and are violent. They oppress the poor and the fatherless. And then again they persecute and lay snares for the psalmist.

How are we to interpret this motif? If the psalmist is David, the enemies might include King Saul who through much of Samuel I is trying to hunt down David and kill him. Or the enemies might be the Philistines against whom David waged many battles. But what about us, the readers? Insofar as you and I identify with these poems, our most dangerous and hurtful enemy is probably a family member, a neighbor, a co-worker, a boss. Perhaps an unspoken reason for the universal appeal of the Psalms is that ordinary people all over the world feel themselves to be at the mercy of enemies large and small. But here is the rub. In our lives, and the life of history, the animus against personal foes is made to accrue to public ones; the purpose of state propaganda is to funnel our frustration and anger against the foes of our rulers. We the people can always be manipulated to hate some demonized Other. At the same time, whatever damage we endure at the hands of those more powerful than ourselves can be taken out on whoever is weaker than ourselves. "Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return," as Auden points out in "September 1, 1939," the single poem most widely circulated in the wake of the World Trade Center attack. The interchangeability of public and private hostilities is finely mirrored by the ambiguities of the Psalms.

Fascinatingly, in this world of mighty rhetoric, the sins are commonly sins of the tongue. His mouth is full of cursing and deceit and fraud (10). They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent. (140) Their mouth speaketh vanity (144). They are foes of Israel, foes of God, and the Psalmist wants them destroyed. Is it yearning for goodness and justice on earth that drives his fantasies, is it yearning for vengeance, is it mere hatred of Otherness? Can we necessarily tell the difference? An enemy is an enemy. Occasionally the imagery of punishment is less than lethal, but it is always urgently physical. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel (2). Break thou the arm of the wicked and the evil man (10). Upon the wicked shall he rain snares, fire and brimstone (11). The enemies of the Lord shall be as the fat of lambs: they shall consume; into smoke they shall consume away (37). Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth: break out the great teeth of the young lions, O lord. Let them melt away like water...The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked (58). Magnificent poetry. Sublimated aggression (which, like latent energy, is easily converted to action.) State propaganda. Psychological projection. All of the above. All.

Part of what makes the dream of punishing the enemy in the Psalms so forceful is the way punishment blooms like a flower from pathos. Poetically, the "turn" of numerous psalms is from devastating grief to its redress, which is sometimes an expectation of deliverance in generalized terms and sometimes the more exciting promise that our enemies will be destroyed.(2) Psalm 137, one of the most evocative in the psalter, speaks from the perspective of the Israelites driven into exile and slavery after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. In a way it is a typical psalm, full of unpredictable changes in tone. It begins with a picture of a crowd of people carrying their few belongings sitting by a river that is not their home. By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

In these extraordinary opening lines, which audiences all over the world today know from Bob Marley's reggae version, we have a scene of conventional beauty —a river with its willows —suffused by a collective sorrow. The sitting down on the ground is extended by tears falling and harps hanging, further images of helplessness. Simultaneously the sitting and the hanging up of harps is also a kind of passive disobedience during a forced march. And is there not a relation between the waters of Babylon and the flowing tears? Then the mood shifts from simple grief to irony. The bitterness of being mocked by those who are stronger, which is such a powerful theme throughout Psalms, is particularly piercing here. How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? Nothing in poetry so succinctly captures the trauma of exile. Our enemies, who have conquered our land, destroyed our homes and our holy temple and are herding us along, are making fun of us by asking us to sing, in effect, a psalm. The demand is not only cruel but absurd. How can we sing God's song in a foreign land? The Hebrew Bible claims throughout that the children of Israel cannot separate their identity as a people from the land God has given them. This portion of psalm 137 is like saying not only won't we sing, but we can't. Song cannot come out of us if we are not in our home place.

And then comes the moment of the vow. I may be in exile now, but I will never forget. These next lines at once intensify and reverse the grief at captivity: If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget her cunning. May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I remember not Jerusalem above my chief joy. Notice the shift from first person plural to the singular "I," and how the hand that acts, the tongue that converses and sings, become subject to the mind that swears not to become assimilated to the alien culture. I do everything with my right hand, so these lines are asking to be paralyzed if I fail to cherish the memory of Jerusalem above every other pleasure in my life. And in fact the passion of the exile for the homeland has remained alive in Judaism for two thousand years since the destruction of the second temple in the year 70 of the Common Era. Jews in Diaspora ritually promise each other "next year in Jerusalem" at the close of every year's Passover feast.

The poignance of the vow in psalm 137 is extraordinary. It signals a spiritual triumph over the initial scene of powerlessness, as if declaring that Babylon may capture bodies but not souls. At this point the psalmist turns to God, reminding God of the destruction of His own sacred city: Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof. And finally comes the poem's prophetic conclusion: O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed, happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

And there we have it, human history, the justification of every blood feud, every literal dashing of children's heads against walls by conquering armies, guerilla armies, occupying forces, terrorist suicide bombers, Arab and Jew, Serb and Bosnian, Hutu and Tutsi, Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics, Buddhist and Hindu in Sri Lanka, Hindu and Muslim throughout the Indian subcontinent, The Shining Path in Peru, to name a few current instances. Not to mention the Crusades, the Inquisition, the burning of heretics at the stake, the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth century in England and Europe, the pogroms, the holocaust. The righteous, with God on their side, joyously washing their feet in the blood of the wicked. Osama Bin Laden, shortly after the September 11, 2001 attack which destroyed the World Trade Center, issued a statement broadcast throughout the Islamic world. Is not the rhetoric chillingly familiar?

Praise be to God and we beseech Him for help and


We seek refuge with the Lord.

He whom God guides is rightly guided but he whom God

leaves to stray, for him wilt thou find no protector to

lead him to the right way.

I witness that there is no God but God and Mohammed

is His slave and Prophet.

God Almighty hit the United

States at its most vulnerable

spot. He destroyed its

greatest buildings.

Praise be to God.

Here is the United States. It

was filled with terror from its

north to its south and from

its east to its west.

Praise be to God.

They champion falsehood,

support the butcher against

the victim, the oppressor

against the innocent child.

May God mete them the punishment they deserve.

A handwritten document left behind by a leader among the hijackers, Mohammed Atta, urges the prospective hijacker/martyr: "You should pray, you should fast. You should ask God for guidance....Purify your heart and clean it from all earthly matters." Among the prayers: "O God, open all doors for me. O God, who answers prayers and answers those who ask you, I am asking you for your help....God, I trust in you. God, I lay myself in your hands."

The Psalms are the prototype in English of devotional poetry and possibly of lyric poetry in general. Let nobody say that poetry makes nothing happen. Let nobody say that poetry cannot or should not be political. We have this model before us.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and pagans before us, have worshiped a God —have created a God to worship—who is both tender and violent. God is father, judge, warrior, mighty arm, rock, redeemer, and (with a little help from his friends) destroyer of the godless, which in practice can mean anyone I take to be my enemy. Is there any way to get around this? A famous sermon by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (3), written in 1937 at the brink of World War II (in which he died a martyr of the resistance to Hitler), tries to rescue Psalm 58, "this frightful psalm of vengeance," by claiming that it is not really we sinners who "are able to pray this psalm," but King David—or, rather, Jesus Christ praying from within David, for "only he who is totally without sin can pray like that." We sinners must entrust vengeance to God, and endure suffering "without a thought of hate, and without protest."

Moreover, if we shudder at the image of the righteous splashing about in the blood of the guilty, we must understand that the death sentence has already been enacted on Jesus, "the Savior who died for the godless, struck down by God's revenge," that the "bloodstained Savior" redeems whoever prostrates himself at the Cross. Jesus, then, is both the psalm's author and its victim; the true Christian is not responsible. Still, Bonhoeffer's solution perpetuates a familiar rhetoric of "the godless," as if we could be certain who they are, and supports a vehemently traditional view of God as chief officer of retribution. In effect, Bonhoeffer recommends that as good Christians we avoid guilt and leave the punishing of sinners to God. It sounds, though I hesitate to say so, like Pilate washing his hands.

A beautiful essay by Kathleen Norris, "The Paradox of the Psalms," (4) takes another approach toward their violence. Norris writes of what she learned during a year-long residence at a Benedictine convent, where the Psalms are the liturgical mainstay, sung or recited at morning, noon and evening prayer. Asking "How in the world can we read....these angry and often violent poems from an ancient warrior culture, [that] seem overwhelmingly patriarchal, ill tempered, moralistic?" she answers that they reflect emotional reality—that the pain in them is essential for praise, that the psalms are full of anger because "anger is one honest reaction to pain," that women who are trained to deny pain and anger—including Benedictine women—may find their expression healthy, and that "as one sister explained, the enemies vilified in the cursing psalms are best seen as my own demons, not enemies out there."

Of Psalm 137, Norris points out that it has a special poignance for women who experience the journey from girlhood to an adulthood that demands prettiness and niceness as a journey to exile. It also "expresses the bitterness of colonized people everywhere....the speaker could be one of today's refugees or exiles, an illegal alien working for far less than minimum wage, a slave laborer in China." The vision of brutal vengeance at its close, O Babylon...happy is he who repays you the ills you brought on us, happy is he who shall dash your children on the rock, should come as no surprise, she observes; it is "the fruit of human cruelty." She goes on to say that psalms such as this ask us to recognize our own capacity for vengeance and to see it as "a potentially deadly vice" that may be "so consuming that not even the innocent are spared." We should, Norris says, pray over it. Good. But do the vengeance fantasies in the psalms ask to be read this way? Or is it not rather Norris' rather special temperament that chooses so to read them? Aren't the vengeance fantasies in fact endorsed in the poems' theological framework? Endorsed, that is, by God? And, incidentally, is vengeance morally acceptable if it punishes "the guilty," and reprehensible only if it strikes "the innocent?" If so, we return to the sticky question of how guilt and innocence are to be determined, and the likelihood that "the guilty" and "my enemies" will be mysteriously identical.

We may twist on the hook as we will. Once we have bitten the bait of the psalms we are in the power of a vision that mirrors our minds. The character of God in these splendid poems is also our projection, deny it as we may. We create him in our image and attribute holiness and power to him. Catherine Madsen in "Notes on God's Violence" (5) advocates facing the possibility that the Biblical God's character "alternates between tender care and ferocious brutality, between limitless creation and wholesale wreckage" not because the Biblical God rewards nice people and punishes bad ones, but because "the violence of the universe [is] at every point congruent with its nurturance" and because "Hebrew monotheism sets up one source for good and evil, one responsible will from which they both derive."

The God who speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, that explosion of magnificent amoral creativity, is the God of the Psalms, but with the veil of righteousness removed. And can one love such a God? And if one refuses, does praise too dry up? On the other hand, if one denies God's violence, is that not a kind of blasphemy? Stephen Mitchell, the brilliant translator of the Book of Job (6), recognizes the Voice from the whirlwind as embodying "the clarity, the pitilessness, of nature and of all great art." Mitchell rightly points out how closely this vision of Job resembles the magnificent and terrifying play of divine creation and destruction revealed to Arjuna at the climax of the Bhagavad-Gita. He quotes Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell: "The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man." Yet I recently walked into a bookstore in Berkeley at a moment when Mitchell was reading his versions of Psalms, and was appalled to hear him omit the close of Psalm 137, letting the poem end with the image of Jerusalem as the exile's chief joy, and not the image of the Babylonian child's head being dashed against a rock. I thought: has New Age sentimental niceness claimed another victim? Is he trying to convert the Psalms to Buddhism? Is he trying to castrate God? Who does he think he is fooling?

Why does the poet laureate of America, after terrorism has destroyed the World Trade Center and several thousand human lives in New York City, claim that poetry is about personal and not political matters? And why on earth does he cite the Psalms as "against" acts of terror?


My poems wrestle with the need of God, the violence of god. I should rather say I that let these matters attack and wrestle with my poems.

In 1999 I am working on a manuscript provisionally entitled "the space of this dialogue," after a sentence of Paul Celan, "Only in the space of this dialogue does that which is addressed take form and gather around the I who is addressing it." The experience is not so much of writing as of receiving. The poems arrive intermittently, and I have undertaken not to tell them what to say. They often address God, not expecting a response. Early in the process I write down some lines and call them "psalm." They are more like an anti-psalm. They say this:

I am not lyric any more

I will not play the harp

for your pleasure

I will not make a joyful

noise to you, neither

will I lament

for I know you drink

lamentation, too,

like wine

so I dully repeat

you hurt me

I hate you

I pull my eyes away from the hills

I will not kill for you

I will never love you again

unless you ask me

What I recognize in the poem is my resistance to a God who deals cruelly with us and demands our praise. What the final line tells me is that I want to stop resisting. Perhaps I am like one of those abused woman who keeps forgiving her abuser. You read about them. They phone the police and then hide their bruises and refuse to press charges. Another poem ventriloquizes a pious voice that could emerge from any of the monotheistic faiths, and concludes with a last line that is, alas, a vast understatement:

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 that way

Later in the manuscript, writing during the 1999 bombing of Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia—remembering that this war of Christian against Muslim is typical of religious wars through the ages, in which God is the gun with which we shoot our enemy—I ask God what he is thinking. The question precipitates a dialogue:

the spot of black paint

in the gallon of white

makes it whiter

so the evil impulse

is part of you

for a reason

what reason

greater wilder holiness


so perhaps you want us to understand

it throbs also in you

like leavening

you want us to love that about you

even if you pray that your attribute of mercy

may overcome your attribute of wrath

you want us always to love the evil also

the death-wish also

the bread of hate

because we are your image

confess you prize

the cruel theater of it

An ancient rabbinic story describes God praying in the ruins of the destroyed temple. For what, it is asked, does God pray? He prays that his attribute of mercy will overcome his attribute of justice; my poem slightly alters the story. More painfully, the unnamed responding voice makes a declaration I cannot deny. It brings me to my knees. It sickens me. I am very well aware that I, like just about everyone else I know, rubberneck at traffic accidents. Am outraged by—and avidly read about and discuss—the wickedness of congress, the Administration, oil interests, anyone whose politics or moral principles deviate from my own, etcetera, etcetera. As Elizabeth Bishop says in her poem to Marianne Moore, "we can bravely deplore." And we all enjoy deploring, don't we? Later still, to my surprise, appear poems such as this, which is again entitled "Psalm:"

I endure impure periods

when I cannot touch you

or even look at you

you are a storm I would be electrocuted

by your approach then I feel some sort of angelic laughter

like children behind a curtain

come, I think

you are at my fingertips my womb

you are the wild driver of my vehicle

the argument in my poem

nothing between us

only breath

Where did that come from? I cannot imagine. I feel myself to be an aperture through which the words arrive. Like the biblical psalms, mine seem to be love poems to God. But I cannot justify my love.

1. National Public Radio News Special, 3:00 PM ET, Sept. 11, 2001.

2. Jonas C. Greenfield,"The Holy Bible and Canaanite Literature Assembly of Gods" The Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, Harvard University Press, 1987, p 552 quotes as one example of the kind of poetry from which our psalms sprang:

Now, your enemy, O Baal

now, you smite your enemy

you strike your adversary;

you will take your eternal kingdom

your everlasting dominion.

3.. Dietrich Bonhoefer,. "Vengeance and Deliverance" A Testament to

Freedom: the Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
, ed. Geffrey B.Kelly and F. Burton Nelson. N.Y.: Harper Collins, 1990, pp. 293-98.

4.Kathleen Norris, "The Paradox of the Psalms," Out of the Garden:

Women Writers on the Bible
, ed. Christina Bachmann and Celina Spiegel. NY: Ballantine, 1994, 221-233.

5.Catherine Madsen, "Notes on Gods Violence," CrossCurrents 51.2 (Summer 2001), 229-256.

6.The Book of Job, translated and with an Introduction by Stephen Mitchell. NY: HarperCollins, 1992, p xxi, p. xiv.

copywrite Alicia Ostriker, 2002. Reprinted with permission of the author. This essay originally appeared in American Poetry Review, July/Aug 2002, vol 31, #4. The author used the KJV and the RSV.

Alicia Ostriker is Professor of English at Rutgers, and is a prolific poet and writer. Her publications include, The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions; Stealing the Language: the Emergence of Women's Poetry in America, and The Crack in Everything (1996 National Book Award Nomination).

Citation: Alicia Ostriker, " Psalm and the Anti-Psalm," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited April 2006]. Online:


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