Lake Michigan as Hebrew Landscape

Al gedot hamishigan tz’i lach…
Go forth to the banks of Lake Michigan
and skip among the rocks…
the waves will lash
and scatter at your feet.

…drenched in the smell of lakes,
lean your dew-fresh hand on my forehead…
and my soul will rest.
— “My Longings,” by Anne Kleiman, translated by Yosefa Raz

On this snowy day, far from Chicago, I open a new book — found in search for something else, ordered largely because it was on sale, without particular expectations or knowing thing-one about these poets — and through it, a strange woman is telling me in Hebrew that the same light touches us both, as we look out our separate windows, and that the prospect of peace awaits on Lake Michigan’s rocky shore.

How is this poet speaking straight to me? Here are just a few of the ways:

Set in Chicago. (My first hometown).
Composed in Hebrew. (A language I am still learning but already love).
By a woman addressing a female friend. (Thus, speaking to me in a way that so much fails to do).
In dialogue with ancient text and classic Hebrew poetry. (Some of my favorite topics.) In fact, reworking a poem our study group read not too long ago.
Referencing the Song of the Sea — from this week’s Torah portion, itself a favorite and also our daughter’s bat mitzvah portion, a decade-plus ago.
Enhanced by nerdy endnotes…

1024px-gold_coast_and_michigan_lake_(8091814447)_(2)

Leandro Neumann Ciuffo [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The material in Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores, is itself unlikely in some ways. The introduction, by Shachar Pinsker, touches on many forces working against the material’s creation and publication. Its authors were women educated in a system designed by and for men. They’re U.S.-born in a field focused on Israel and a culture centered in Europe and the Land. And, most fundamentally, they write in a gendered language and a tradition that made it difficult for women to “express themselves poetically as the subjects rather than the objects of masculine desire, a metonymy for the nation, or a projection of masculine self-images” (Pinsker, p.7).

The very structures which gave “American women Hebrew education and access to its riches were also precluding them from writing and especially from publishing Hebrew poetry” (pp.5-6). And “when a work was finally published,” there was no guarantee that “it was received and understood properly” in its day or accessible to later readers and scholars.

Kleiman’s Longings

Anne (Chana) Kleiman (1909-2011 — yes, she lived to 101) was born to Russian immigrants in St. Joseph, Missouri. According to Pinsker’s introduction, Kleiman received an extensive Jewish education before moving to Chicago at the age of 19. There, she studied at the College of Jewish Studies (instruction in Hebrew), and at the University of Chicago (in English). She later worked as a Jewish educator and remained active in adult Jewish education after retirement. Her Hebrew poetry appeared in the 1940s.

In her translator’s preface, Yosefa Raz speculates that existing Hebrew literature formed for Kleiman a “made-up Hebrew landscape (which could include Lake Michigan!), beyond which the words [of her poems] could not travel” (p.18). Raz also describes the challenge of what the poet’s daughter calls “Sabbath Hebrew,” a fancy, heavily inter-textual language.

“My Longings” was originally published in the 1947 collection Netafim[Droplets]. It appears in Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016).

In “My Longings,” Kleiman alludes to Exodus, Kabbalat Shabbat, and some images from H.N. Bialik. She also turns Leah Goldberg’s “The Love of Theresa de Meun” on its head: where Goldberg’s 16th Century French noblewoman experiences unrequited longing for her children’s male tutor, Kleiman’s female Chicagoan treats a meeting with “my sister” — part Sabbath bride, part woman of damp skirts — as possible, perhaps imminent.

Raz calls “My Longings” her favorite poem:

…[it] mixes language from Isaiah, Bialik, and Goldberg is able to strike a balance between the prophetic and the lyrical, imagining sharing a blessing of “light beams” with her female interlocutor, who can also “slake [her] thirst with their radiance.” Thus the poet rewrites the traditional language of the shekhinah, filtered though Bialik’s erotic address to a female lover, into a poem of female friendship.
— Yosefa Raz, “Translator’s Preface,” p.20

view_of_oak_street_beach,_lake_shore_drive_and_drake_hotel,_chicago_(60767)

Tichnor Brothers, Publisher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Less Traveled Territory

There is so much to explore in this less traveled corner of U.S.-born Hebrew poetry. Beyond these particular poets and their work are wider topics, including the way non-Israeli Hebrew poets view their relationship — or lack thereof — to the Land.

I have not spent much time with the work of Annabelle (Chana) Farmelant (b.1926) yet, but it appears to be quite different from Kleiman’s. Marcela Sulak, who translated Orit Gidali’s Twenty Girls to Envy Me, discusses and reads some of Farmelant’s work in this TLV1 podcast.

Kleiman herself employs a variety of styles and covers a wide range of topics. Only two of her poems in this volume explicitly touch on Lake Michigan. These have a special resonance for readers who’ve lived somewhere around the lake. But it’s also interesting to consider what “To Lake Michigan,” the second poem referencing Chicago’s lake, might say about Rachel and her poems to the Galilee or what it means to have this Midwestern body of water as “l’megaleh razi ‘ad [my revealer of eternal mysteries].”

After all, I myself, spent just a few days on the shores
of Lake Kinneret, AKA the Sea of Galilee,
while it was Lake Michigan —
sometimes as apparently motionless as glass,
sometimes roiling with white caps,
either way, with opposite shores as invisible as any sea’s
— which witnessed years of my longings,
like the woman’s in this poem,
twin desires
to break free and
be at rest.

There’s a special kind of poetry in hearing the facts of one’s hometown expressed in the language of one’s prayers. Al gedot hamishigan.

NOTE:
Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016.

Shachar Pinsker, professor of Hebrew literature and culture at the University of Michigan, editor.
Introduction: “Meager Gifts” from “Desert Islands” American-Born Women and Hebrew Poetry.

Translators:
Yosefa Raz, for Anne Kleiman. Andrea X. Jacobs, for Annabelle Farmelant.
Each offers notes and a preface.
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(Re)dedication and Tasks Incomplete

In postscript to “Thirty on Psalm 30,” here are some related words from R. Aviva Richman, faculty of Hadar. Meant as a teaching for Chanukah, this strikes me as just as applicable to beginning a new calendar year or, indeed, to starting any new day:

The work of hanukat habayit [dedication of the house], then, takes place in multiple spheres—in our homes, in our communal structures, and in our own bodies independent of any particular larger structure. Any narrow focus on one of these aspects of hanukat habayit to the exclusion of others will necessarily leave gaps—some people will not be able to fully participate in the critical transformation that is Hanukkah if we neglect any of these modes.
— “Communal and Private (Re)dedication

Richman goes on to urge that we work “within all of these sites of rededication, to create homes, communal structures, and selves where brokenness is allowed to be visible and can be transformed into rejuventation and healing.”

The idea of allowing brokenness to show and become rejuvenated also reminds me of the Marge Piercy poem, “The task never completed”:

No task is ever completed,
only abandoned or pressed into use.
Tinkering can be a form of prayer.

Each night sleep unravels me into wool,
then into sheep and wolf. Walls and fire
pass through me. I birth stones.

Every dawn I stumble from the roaring
vat of dreams and make myself up
remembering and forgetting by halves.

Every dawn I choose to take a knife
to the world’s flank or a sewing kit,
rough improvisation, but a start.

— from The Art of Blessing the Day (NY: Knopf, 1999)

This poem, like Psalm 30 in its position in the morning liturgy, knows that making a truly fresh, joyful start involves acknowledging that weeping spent the night. (Re)dedicating the house — in multiple spheres — requires knowing where a knife or a sewing kit is needed.

(Thirty on Psalm 30)

Hebrew Poetry: Idiosyncratic Resources

I read Dr. Seuss when I was little. I poured over the illustrations in Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, although I don’t recall caring much for its verses. If my household discussed poetry at all it was most likely a piece of doggerel in a Mike Royko column (Chicago Daily News then).

I do remember being struck by “We Real Cool,” by Gwendolyn Brooks (1917 – 2000), when it was introduced to us at school. But we were given to understand that this was not “real poetry,” which only lessened my faint interest in the topic. Any connection between Bible and poetry only added, for both literary genres, further impenetrability.

I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.
— Humpty Dumpty to Alice, Alice Through the Looking Glass

“Real Poetry”

Later schooling didn’t improve my relationship to poetry, and I avoided it pretty successfully in college….except for my forays into writers’ groups, where I continued to find poetry a foreign, and often self-absorbed, form of expression. I did come to enjoy authors like Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy, and Alicia Ostriker. But I think my early training stuck, so that I somehow classified this as outside the realm of “real poetry.”

When, nearly fifteen years ago, I began studying the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, it was with the intention of improving my Hebrew and for the connections, in Open Closed Open, to the prayerbook. I was convinced I didn’t like poetry and/or that it was somehow beyond me.

Attempting to read poetry in a language that is foreign to me proved fortuitous in that it taught me how hard poetry is to translate — and, therefore, some of the power poetry can convey. Plugging along word-by-word forced me into looking carefully at the language, much more carefully than I generally do when reading my native English. Eventually, I became a sort of convert to poetry as a means of expression and started to investigate the field as it suited me and whatever poem I was exploring.

All of this is to say that I have zero credentials for understanding poetry in general or Hebrew poetry in specific. I do spend a lot of time with the Hebrew Bible, but, again, without any formal training. Whatever I’ve learned is pretty haphazard. I don’t think I’m the only one who was taught some unhelpful things about “real poetry,” however, so I share what I’ve found hoping it’s of use to others….

Africana Perspectives and Fortress Press

As the annual Torah cycle brings us soon to the Song of the Sea, I recommend “Zora Neale and the Lawgiver in Conversation: Exodus 15 and Moses: Man of the Mountain” by Hugh R. Page, Jr. This piece appears in Israel’s Poetry of Resistance: Africana Perspectives on Early Hebrew Verse (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2013), an unusual volume combining the author’s personal essay and poetry with theological discussion:

At that time Moses and the Israelites
Sang this song about YHWH.
Here are the words:

…My power is in Jah‘s song,
Surely, He is my salvation.
He is indeed my god.
That is why I praise him.
He is my ancestral god.
Therefore, I extol him.
— Page, Israel’s Poetry of Resistance, p.21

Page’s use of “Jah” here, he explains, is part of a “conscious effort to bring these biblical poems into more direct conversation with contemporary Africana music that articulates spiritualities of resistance…” (ibid, p.27). Throughout the book, the author focuses on how biblical poems disrupt their “textual surroundings,” and how that helps foster a theology that can work to “resist and dismantle exploitative institutional structures” (ibid., p.26).

Page summarizes his argument for pursuing ancient Hebrew poetry:

Early Hebrew poetry gives us ready access to the spiritual musings of some of our ancient Jewish spiritual forebears….It shows us the role that poets and poetic language played in shaping our conceptions of the divine and our understanding of how God’s self-disclosure to humanity unfolds. It forces us to deal with the symbolic nature of theological and poetic language and asks that we stretch ourselves intellectually as people of faith.
— ibid, p.129-30

I originally found this book while exploring various aspects of exile and life in Babylon. I am enjoying it differently at this juncture. Here’s more about the book, including a link to sample pages.

Fortress, by the way, is a Christian press established in 1962 offering some important, intersectional perspectives on bible reading. Here is a little more about them and their 2010 Peoples’ Companion to the Bible.

Medieval Poetry

When my study partner and I were seeking some new text, with a new perspective, I consulted an old teacher, Diana Lobel. She offered a number of suggestions, including The Gazelle: Medieval Hebrew Poems on God, Israel and the Soul by Raymond P. Scheindlin (NY: Oxford University Press, 1991). We are working our way through this volume, reading poems by Judah Halevi, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Moses ibn Ezra, with Scheindlin’s literary and theological commentary on each one.

The poems are provided in Hebrew, with English translation as well as additional linguistic commentary. Beyond the individual poems and their exegesis, Scheindlin’s book highlights ways in which Arabic and Hebrew traditions are interwoven and build upon each other. We have found The Gazelle helpful in considering questions about literary borrowing and adaptation, assimilation, and preservation of minority culture.

I have found studying these poems instructive in unlocking some of the mystical imagery in the work of contemporary Israeli poet, Rivka Miriam. I am sure we will continue to see resonance of these medieval works in other Hebrew poets, as well as in music.

Seeking more background, I stumbled upon this Medieval Hebrew Poetry website. Henry Rasof, who created the site as part of his master’s thesis from Gratz College, is a poet in his own right as well. The site is currently seeking a new editor to work with, or take over from, Rasof — who says he discovered the topic late in life “and has since been bitten by the bug” — just in case a reader has been bitten by a similar bug or knows someone interested in a new project.

Modern Poetry — and a Sale!

Amidst an effort to reorganize this blog, some of the resource pages were sort of misplaced. While I work to sort that out, I posted some poetry-related resources, focusing on contemporary Hebrew poets.

And, in the process of updating some of that information, I discovered that Wayne State University Press — which publishes The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself, among other related resources — is offering 40% everything until January 11.

Mouse and Menorah

In Perek Shira, as noted in the previous two posts, verses from Psalm 30 join a chorus of praise in which “each of God’s creatures, plants and animals, mountains and rivers, sings out to its Creator in a special way.” Our prayers, are part of a “cosmic symphony” says Rabbi Arthur Green:

The prayers of Israel are recited in a special language and a distinctive form. There is a way in which they belong to the Jewish people and to us alone. But prayer is also a universal act, one that binds the whole human community together with all of nature, calling forth in us an appreciation of life as an ongoing celebration of the gift of being.
— from Kol Haneshemah (citation below)

This idea leads to the commentary in Pesikta Rabbati — medieval commentary on the holidays — which tells us that there were seven dedications, channukot, from dedication of heaven and earth in Breishit to the “dedication of the world to come, because even that has lights…”

More on the seven dedications as November (National Novel Writing Month) ends and Chanukah begins.

20 of 30 on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)…. Look for this not-necessarily-novel writing project to extend into Chanukah, which begins just as NaNoWriMo ends, and apologies to anyone who is bothered by the strange posting schedule.

Mouse and Menorah.jpg

NOTE:
Comment appears on page 704 of Kol Haneshemah: Shabbat V’chagim, the prayerbook published by Reconstructionist Press, 1996. Full citation at Source Materials. For more on Art Green, visit his website.

Kol Haneshemah includes select verses from Perek Shira as an alternative P’sukei D’zimrah. Among them is the first Mouse verse, translated as follows:

The mouse says: “I shall exalt you, O REDEEMING ONE, for you delivered me, and gave my enemies no joy on my account.” (Psalm 30:2).

Kol Haneshemah does not include the verse-conversation when the mouse is captured by the cat. See “And the Mouse Says” and “Glory and the Swallow” for more on Perek Shira.
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And the Mouse Says…

In addition to the swallow, the mouse [עַכְבָּר] also speaks a verse from Psalm 30 in Perek Shira:

עַכְבָּר אוֹמֵר. אֲרוֹמִמְךָ יְיָ כִּי דִלִּיתָנִי וְלֹא־שִׂמַּחְתָּ אֹיְבַי לִי׃ (תהלים ל ב)
And the Mouse says, “I extol You, O LORD, for You have impoverished me/lifted me up, and not let my enemies rejoice over me.” (Ps. 30:2)
— Perek Shira, Chapter 5; more on the Mouse below

As with “kavod” in verse 13 — which, as previously discussed, is translated in many ways in addition to “glory” — דִלִּיתָנִי [dilitani] has a number of translations. But the one used in Nosson [Natan] Slifkin’s 2003 translation of Perek Shira stands far apart:

    • The 1917 JPS has “Thou hast raised me up” for “dilitani” in Psalm 30;
    • The 1985 JPS has “You have lifted me up”;
    • Other translations use “delivered,” as well as “lifted” and “raised”;
    • Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has the less usual, “you set me free so that my enemies could not gloat at my troubles”;
    • Slifkin alone has “impoverished me.”

…The Hebrew word for “impoverish” (decrease, deplete, etc…), דִּלֵּל (dileil), shares a dalet-lamed pair with dillitani. Possibly Slifkin is following a line of commentary that uses the similarity to translate the verb as “impoverish.” In the context of Perek Shira, some version of lifting would seem to parallel the warning, “from there I will bring you down” (Obadiah 1:4) which is uttered by the Cat. (See note below for links to the whole conversation between Cat and Mouse.) For the purposes of “Thirty on Psalm 30,” however, we can return to the ways dillitani is understood in the context of the psalm itself….

A Few Notes on dillitani

The Hebrew word here comes from a root meaning “to draw water” and probably originally referred to drawing water up from a well. It may have retained this connotation when this psalm was written: water and well imagery abounds in the Bible…
— Joel Hoffman (“What the Prayers Really Say” commentator), My People’s Prayer Book, vol.5

The following quotation is from The Jerusalem Commentary (broken up here into easier to read lines but otherwise unchanged:

You have lifted me up,” is derived from the root דלה, DLH (see Exodus 2:19: “And he also drew water [דָּלֹה דָלָה daloh dalah] for us”), whose primary meaning is “drawing water from a deep place.” [NOTE: OUr verse is the only example in the Bible of the root דלה, DLH, in the pi’el conjugation.] The expression, “You have lifted me up,” bears various interpretations:

  • …from my humble position (as in Psalm 113:7: “He raises the poor from the dust”);
  • You have lifted me up from my sickbed;
  • You have raised me from the underworld, as is stated in verse 4, below…
  • You kept me alive, that I should not go down into the pit” (the word דִלִּיתָנִי, dillitani, hints at the pail [דְּלִי, d’li] which is used to draw water from a well);
  • You have granted me victory over my enemies.

At all events, the word דִלִּיתָנִי, dillitani, corresponds to the word אֲרוֹמִמְךָ, aromimkha: You have lifted me up, and I will extol You (lift You up).”

More later.


19 of 30 on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)…. Look for this not-necessarily-novel writing project to extend into Chanukah, which begins just as NaNoWriMo ends, and apologies to anyone who is bothered by the strange posting schedule.

NOTE
In fact, the Mouse is one of the few animals who speaks more than one line in Perek Shira. The others are the Rooster, which speaks eight times, and the Cat, which speaks once before and once after catching the Mouse.

After being captured by the Cat —

וְעַכְבָּר אוֹמֵר. וְאַתָּה צַדִּיק עַל כׇּל־הַבָּא עָלַי כִּי־אֱמֶת עָשִׂיתָ וַאֲנִי הִרְשָֽׁעְתִּי
And the Mouse concedes, “You are just for all that comes upon me, for you have acted truthfully, and I have been wicked.”

This second Mouse speech is a singular version of the plural expression of Nehemiah 9:33:

וְאַתָּ֣ה צַדִּ֔יק עַ֖ל כָּל־הַבָּ֣א עָלֵ֑ינוּ כִּֽי־אֱמֶ֥ת עָשִׂ֖יתָ וַאֲנַ֥חְנוּ הִרְשָֽׁעְנוּ׃
Surely You are in the right with respect to all that has come upon us, for You have acted faithfully, and we have been wicked.

There is undoubtedly a lot to pursue here. But it’s tangential to Psalm 30 — and Perek Shira is not something I’ve studied before.

See the whole exchange between Cat and Mouse at Sefaria. The dialogue appears in a slightly different order in this (PDF) booklet version, Perek Shira (Slifkin).
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BACK to translation discussion

Glory and the Swallow

Ps. 30:13, discussed in several post here, appears in Perek Shira, a long, ancient hymn to creation in which the earth, ocean, lightening bolts, dew, and many creatures each speak a verse from Tanakh. Many of the quotations are from Psalms, but also Job, Song of Songs, the Prophets, and other texts. Ps. 30:13 is attributed to the swallow:

The Swallow is saying, “So that my soul shall praise You, and shall not be silent, God my Lord, I shall give thanks to You forever.” [30:13]
— Chapter 4, Perek Shira

Links to the full text in Hebrew and English and a few more details below.

In “Glory versus Silence,” the most recent post in this series, I asked if we can find our own glory if others are silenced, given that our liberation and joy is bound up together. I confess that I had in mind human “others.” Perek Shira reminds me that my liberation and joy is also bound up with with the rest of Creation….And this image reminds me that praise and prayer come in many formats and languages.

Golondrina


Psalm 30, because of its language about healing and rescue, is often linked with prayers related to these concerns, as is Perek Shira. “El Sabor del Rimon,” the blog offering the beautiful series of images linked to Perek Shira, also shares reflections on many related topics. Among those are thoughts on prayers for healing when they do not appear to be answered in the way that was hoped. One teaching suggests that such prayers might be helping someone else in the community — which brings us back to the concept that we are all connected and no one’s liberation, joy, or healing happens in a vacuum.


18 of 30 on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)…. Look for this not-necessarily-novel writing project to extend into Chanukah, which begins just as NaNoWriMo ends, and apologies to anyone who is bothered by the strange posting schedule.


NOTE
The entire “Chapter of Song,” translated by Aharon N. Varady and R. Natan Slifkin, as well as some introductory material from a 1967 facsimile edition, appears at Open Siddur. The text and similar translation is also on Sefaria, without the introduction, in another format. (The psalms citation to the Swallow’s verse is wrong there — if anyone knows how to correct it, please advise or just contact Sefaria.)
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Perek Shira Saved
There is also a custom, among some Jews, to recite Perek Shira for 40 days in hopes of an engagement, or help with business problems, as well as for healing. Some include in their intentions a promise to publish positive results….

…Seems to me I recall Catholics did something similar with prayers to St. Anthony, maybe, with praise published in the classifieds. (Anyone know about this?) Photo above came from Judaism StackExchange.
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Say Uncle for the High Holidays

I found the poetry collection, Say Uncle by Kay Ryan, at my local library and thought two of the pieces useful for the season of returning and repentance:

“Failure 2”
There could be nutrients
in failure–
deep amendments
to the shallow soil
of wishes.
Think of the
dark and bitter
flavors of
black ales
and peasant loaves.
Think of licorices.
Think about
the tales of how
Indians put fishes
under corn plants.
Next time hope
relinquishes a form,
think about that.
— p.69

“Don’t look back”
This is not
a problem
for the neckless.
Fish cannot
recklessly
swivel their heads
to check
on their fry;
no one expects
this. They are
torpedoes of
disinterest,
compact capsules
that rely
on the odds
for survival,
unfollowed by
the exact and modest
number of goslings
the S-necked goose is –
who if she
looks back
acknowledges losses
and if she does not
also loses.
— pp. 32-33
Say Uncle. NY: Grove Press, 1991

Also of possible interest, as we prepare to begin anew in head the book of Genesis, “A Certain Kind of Eden.”

Here is general information about the poet and the Library of Congress resource page. The latter includes a video farewell reading program, from the conclusion of Kay Ryan’s term as poet laureate.

Finally, just because it tickled me — A previous reader of the library volume I borrowed had circled three phrases in red. Together they form a sort of meta-poem or mangled haiku:

elfin tailor

weakness and doubt
are symbionts

that’s water under
the bridge, we say

Maybe there’s a message for the new year in this odd mash-up of Kay Ryan lines.

May we all be inscribed for a good and sweet year to come.