How?! Is the World Like A Poem?

We are about to leave the month of Av — with its mournful cry of “eichah/how?!” — and enter the month of Elul, the final one of the old year. As we make this transition, a few more words about a poem, a poet, and a translator I first encountered during this past year.

The Hebrew poem, “Ka-shir ha-‘olam [The world is like a poem], by the U.S.-based writer, “Annabelle Farmelant, z”l, first appeared in the journal Gilyanot, in 1949, and later in the 1960 Iyyum bodedim (Desert Islands). Here is a 2016 translation by Adriana X. Jacobs:

“The World is Like a Poem”

The world is like a poem
in all its glory,
even in the thick of its aches
terrors and cries
its grandeur is reflected.
Man [ha-adam] enters the world like a wanderer
Like a wanderer man enters the world
and declares that he will roam
always, always.
But how — he asks — just how*
does beauty rule a poem
when a line is erased?
How does splendor** shine
when its form is wiped out?
Man is not in these things
for a poem’s beauty is not in a line
an unnamed [lo-karu] wanderer
in the world’s splendor**
Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores, p.149

*Eichacha — yisheil — eichacha.Eichacha” is an unusual form of “how.” The Evan Shoshan Concordance lists 78 occurrences of eich/eichah, plus four instances of “אֵיכָכָה eichachah: two in the Book of Esther and two in Song of Songs.
**”Tifereth” is a feminine word for an attribute of the divine, one right at the center of the Kabbalist tree of life.
tiferet ba-olam. splendor in the world.
tiferet ha-olam. splendor of the world.

The translation is Jacobs’ (see below), but these footnotes are mine.

Unnamed?

Jacobs often writes about the translator’s role in rendering poetry, generally, and more specifically about the poet-translator’s role in modern Hebrew literature. (See Strange Cocktail: Translation and the Making of Modern Hebrew Poetry. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2018; preview on Google Books; related articles via Academia.edu.)

Farmelant was something of an outlier in Hebrew poetry due to time, gender, and geography. And Jacobs shares some of her process around translating her work in “Hebrew on a Desert Island: The Case of Annabelle Farmelant” (Studies in American Jewish Literature, Volume 34, Number 1, 2015, pp. 154-174 — also available via Academia.edu).

In her introductory remarks in Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores, Jacobs speaks about the poem, “The World is Like a Poem”:

I understood wandering to mean the ways in which a poem circulates through time and place, how it is exchanged between readers, and also how it travels in and through translation….

But in what way is the poem “unnamed”? I thought of how translating a poem simultaneously assumes and undermines the poet’s authority by replacing her textual voice with my own but at the same time acknowledges that whatever origins the original text could claim — the influences and materials that brought it into being — can no longer be claimed….
— Jacobs, p.103

I read the line she is discussing differently, however. Perhaps because I have quite a few years on Jacobs, or maybe because I spent an evening this past week at an event highlighted by GoGo performers known as “Uncalled 4 Band.”

Unnamed? Uninvited? “Uncalled 4”?

As with my reading of Farmelant’s “Skyscraper,” I suspect that our different takes are probably colored by our age (I have decades on Jacobs, although I am quite a bit younger than Farmelant was). For someone who grew up female in the middle of the 20th Century reading “lo-karu” as “not invited” makes a great deal of sense.

The penultimate line of the poem in Hebrew —
והוא הלך לא-קרוא
is translated by Jacobs as “an unnamed wanderer.”
But קרוא can also has the meaning of “called, summoned, invited.” We were so often not unwanted in, even prohibited from, physical and intellectual spaces back then. So, I thought that, like the wandering earthling [ha-adam], the poem is trying to manage in a world which really hasn’t room for it, whose beauty is so easily erased:

??”And he walks uninvited — or uncalled for — in the world’s splendor.”??

Elul and the World Like a Poem

As we enter the month of Elul, our language shifts from “how!?” to more specific seeking as we prepare for the new year and begin reciting Psalm 27 through the season of repentance and return:

One thing I ask YHVH, only that do I seek:
to live in the house of YHVH all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of YHVH to frequent God’s temple.
…In Your behalf my heart says: “Seek My face!”
O LORD, I seek Your face.
— Psalm 27:4, 8

Farmelant’s poem includes that “how?!” — how, he asks, will this work? — but also offers some thoughts about one’s place in the world, a world of splendor, even “in the thick of its aches, terrors and cries.”


With gratitude to Jacobs for making Farmelant accessible…like many readers of Hebrew in translation, I can puzzle out words here and there, recognize biblical and rabbinic allusions, but I would find a whole volume of Hebrew poetry formidable…and for so many ideas about Hebrew literature more generally.

And in memory of Annabelle (Chana) Farmelant, who died shortly after I last wrote about her poetry for Shavuot and whom I find myself missing, though I never had the opportunity to meet her.

NOTES

Translations by Adriana X. Jacobs, Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016). See also: information on Farmelant, including an article on her work by Jacobs.

In 1960, Annabelle Farmelant, z”l, a U.S.-based writer, who was living at the time in Israel, published a book of Hebrew verse called Iyyum bodedim (Desert Islands). A second volume, Pirchei zehut (Flowers of Identity), was released in 1961. Shortly afterward Farmelant returned to the U.S. and abandoned the writing of poetry in any language; she lived in New York City until her passing, on June 14, 2019, at age 93. In 2016, Adriana X. Jacobs published translations of her poems in Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016).
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Hebrew Poetry: Idiosyncratic Resources, Part 2

“What does it mean to be authentic?” asked a younger Israeli poet of Iraqi heritage, Almog Behar:

To write poems about Erez Bitton
And hope that one day I’ll run down Dizengoff, shouting
Ana min Baghdad, ana min Baghdad
[I am from Baghdad, I am from Baghdad]
— “Homer of Lod: The Indespensibility of Erez Bitton,” Matti Friedman, Jewish Review of Books Spring 2017

What do you mean to be authentic?
To run along Dizengoff Street, shouing:
Ana min al-Maghrib. Ana min al-Maghrib.”
[“I am from the Atlas Mountains”]
— Erez Biton. “Summary of a Conversation” (2009)
IN You Who Crossed My Path (2015 Hebrew-English collection)

In 2013, Israeli poet Adi Keissar founded Ars Poetica; seeking a way to express herself, she explains in a 2017 interview, she launched a movement promoting Mizrachi culture in Israel. (See 2015 Forward opinion, 2018 Jerusalem Post story; 2018 poetry translation post; and/or visit Ars Poetica Facebook page.)

Poet Erez Biton (also spelled: Bitton), won The Israel Prize in Literature in 2015. He was the first Mizrachi winner in the history of the prize, which was first awarded in 1953.

In 2016, Biton headed a committee that produced a number of recommendations for increasing content about Mizrachi Jews in Israeli school curricula (NIF story; Ynet story). Recommendations include teaching the poetry of Keissar, Roy Hasan, and others.

Hebrew Poetry: Idiosyncratic Resources,” posted in January 2019, included some notes on Medieval Hebrew and Africana poetry as well as a link to a set of resource pages. Since then, that Poetry Resources page has been expanded and now includes Mizrachi poets Shimon Adaf, Maya Bejerano, and Ronny Someck, as well as those mentioned/linked above. Some of the resources cited are in print, but many are also available on-line and free-of-charge.


On a related topic:

…Also related to “authentic” topic in Jewish poetry, although neither Israeli nor written in Hebrew: Sephardic Jew Vanessa Hidary’s The Last Kaiser Roll in the Bodega.

Descending Up and a Rambling Prayer

Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores brings us the work of two quite different poets: Anne Kleiman (1909-2011) and Annabelle Farmelant (b. circa 1926). A few weeks ago, I shared a little about Kleiman and her poetry (see Lake Michigan as Hebrew Landscape). Here are some thoughts about Farmelant (brief bio below).

Rambling with Rachel

In a 1926 piece called “Niv” — translated by Shirley Kaufman as “A Way of Speaking” — Rachel (Bluwstein, 1890-1931) compares “fancy ways to speak, endless and elegant…mincing down the street,” with speech that is “as innocent as a baby, as modest as dust.” The former she knows, but it’s the latter she prefers. See The Defiant Muse (full citation below; preview, including this poem, Hebrew/English, at Google Books.)

In Farmelant’s, “Flowers of Identity,” from the 1961 collection of the same name, the speaker forgets “niv ha-tefilah [the prayer’s idiom]” on a morning ramble. A footnote in on American Shores explains how translator Adriana X. Jacobs rendered the phrase so as to preserve the link with Rachel’s poem; more about the connection:

Rachel’s poem rejects the maximalist poetics of her (male) contemporaries and celebrates the modesty and simplicity of her niv, or poetic idiom, over the ornamental and densely allusive that early twentieth-century Hebrew poetry had inherited from the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment.
–Jacobs, Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores, p. 222

Additional notes explain specific prayer references as well as the dual meaning of the ramble’s location: “siach” is both “bush” and “conversation.”

The translation of “Flowers of Identity” can be read, on its own, as reflections on formal and informal prayer: “My neighbor left his tefillin behind/ And wrapped a garland around his head/ Intoxicated by their ripe scent/ Even my senses roamed…A foreign prayer/ From dawn to dusk.” But the notes add layers for the non-Hebrew reader and/or one unfamiliar with Rachel’s “Niv“: Farmelant’s “ramble” and the “mincing” steps of Rachel’s poem, for example, and the simpler speech preferred in “Niv” and the [ramble] לַשׂוּחַ and [plant; conversation] לְשִׂיחַ of “Flowers of Identity.”

Depths of Reflection

Farmelant’s poem “Skyscraper [Gored Shechakim],” from the 1960 collection Desert Islands,” appears in Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores and in Jacobs’ 2015 article, “Hebrew on a Desert Island,” which offers an overview of Farmelant’s work and Jacobs’ experience in translating:
Child, the plaza is flat./ Take care, the slope sets/ before you, the sky, immense….Descend up./ Spaceman
(Full poem and a link to the article below.)

unattributed, public domain photo, labeled: “buildings, city, man, reflection”
In her article, Jacobs discusses the challenges of navigating between “American Hebrew” and “Israeli Hebrew,” using as an example differing conceptions of “skyscraper” in the U.S. and Israel in 1960. (Remember: long before Israel started to build “up,” Boston’s Custom House Tower had been around for decades, and skyscrapers had long been a defining part of the U.S. landscape.) She concludes:

In this poem, the speaker experiences the reflection of the sky on the plaza as both a doubling effect and a fata morgana. The reflection of the sky is both literal but also transformative, and it is in this context that the ungrammatical command “descend up” takes effect and makes any sense. In moving between American and Israeli Hebrew, moments of (mis)perception have proven to be comparably generative.

Jacobs’ article discusses, in some detail, Farmelant’s exposure to Hebrew language, and the relationship of her career to wider issues between U.S.- and Israel-based Hebrew writers. The article, as well as end notes in Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores, also highlight issues in gender and gender politics relevant to Farmelant’s work and its reception. Despite the paucity of previous material and Jacobs finding Farmelant “entirely estranged from her poetry” (on American Shores, p. 104), a picture of the poet and her literary milieu emerges. The poet’s relationship to Judaism and Jewish text, however, remains more of a cipher….

Do we know enough about her background to say, for example : When Farmelant warns, “You will be like Adam [Adam ha-Rishon], scraping the whole sky,” is she referencing Talmudic legend? And is that odd locution of “descending up [תַּעֲמִיק מֵעָל]” meant to carry overtones of the sin that diminishes Adam in these legends, while also making him truly human?

R. Eleazar said: The first man reached from earth to heaven…But when he sinned, the Holy One, blessed be He, laid His hand upon him and diminished him…”

B. Sanhedrin 38b; other legends speak of his size, East to West

Also wondering in this context if the “הוּא” (which can be “he” or masculine “it”) in “תְּכַסֵּהוּ, הוּא עֵירֹם [It’s naked. Cover it.]” — might, then, refer to Adam? So, more like “Cover him, he’s naked.”??

Knowing a little more about her Jewish background, beyond linguistics, might help place some of her images. Meanwhile…

The First, Giant, Adam’s Fall?

When I first met this poem, it reminded me of the many hours I have spent — as a child and later, too — gazing into puddles, speculating on life in “the upside down world.” And, as with some of the Kleiman poems that reminded me of Chicago, I loved the connection, in Hebrew, to my U.S. city life. (I know rural places have puddles, but they don’t have upside down apartment buildings and skyscrapers.)

After reading Jacobs’ article, about struggling with the mirages in Farmelant’s writing, I developed another kind of appreciation for those reflections. And now, after more time with this poem, and with the rest of Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores, I am wondering if “Skyscraper” is talking about all the space that man took up in 1961.

So much of her writing itself — and her attempt to carve out a literary career — surrounds the difficulties women experience(d) just trying to take up space: on the sidewalk, in the home, in the workplace, and, most particularly, in any world of “ideas.” Farmelant and I are not the same age, but this, too, is an experience we shared.

As noted in a previous post, I recommend the TLV1 podcast from Marcela Sulak, discussing and reading some of Farmelant’s work. And I repeat my recommendation for getting hold of this volume of poetry. Once you meet these American Hebrew poets, you might discover that your horizon has been a mirage.

NOTES

Annabelle (Chana Biala) Farmelant was born in Boston and has, with the exception of a few years in Israel in the early 1950s, spent most of her life on the east coast of the U.S. Prior to studying at Hebrew College in Boston, she attended local public schools as well as the high school program of Hebrew College. She wrote Hebrew poetry in college and for some years afterward but then focused on writing plays. [UPDATE 8/30/19: Farmelant died in New York City on June 14, 2019 and was buried in Boston.] See introductory material in Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shore and “Hebrew on a Desert Island: The Case of Annabelle Farmelant,” by Adriana X. Jacobs, Studies in American Jewish Literature, Volume 34, Number 1, 2015. Download full text here: Hebrew on a Desert Island,

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Bibliography:
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. Adriana X. Jacobs, for Annabelle Farmelant. Each offers notes and a preface.

The Defiant Muse: Hebrew Feminist Poems from Antiquity to the Present, a Bilingual Anthology. Edited and introduced by Shirley Kaufman, Galit Hasan-Bokem, and Tamar S. Hess. Foreword by Alicia Suskin Ostriker. NY: Feminist Press at CUNY, 1999.


Poems borrowed from Adriana X. Jacobs, “Hebrew on a Desert Island: The Case of Annabelle Farmelant.” Originally in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Volume 34, Number 1, 2015. Download link: Hebrew on a Desert Island

גורד שחקים
יֶלֶד, הַכִּכָּר שָׁטוּחַ
זְהִירוּת, הַמּוֹרָד שָׁקוּעַ
מוּלְךָ, הַשַּׁחַק, עָצוּם.
תְּכַסֵּהוּ, הוּא עֵירֹם
תִּהְיֶה לְאִישׁ, כְּאָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן
אֶת כָּל הַשְּׁחָקִים תִּגְרֹד
לְאַט יֶלֶד, הַיָּם עָמֹק.
תַּעֲמִיק מֵעָל
הֱיֵה אִישׁ חָלָל. — (c) Annabelle Farmelant, 1960

SKYSCRAPER
Child, the plaza is flat.
Take care, the slope sets
before you, the sky, immense.
It’s naked. Cover it.
You will be a man, like Adam
you will scrape the whole sky.
Slowly, child, the sea is deep.
Descend up.
Spaceman. — (c) Adriana X. Jacobs, 2015

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The wingCatz of Terumah

Instructions for crafting a place for God to dwell include a pair of hammered-work creatures, with upward spreading wings, facing one another above the cover of the Ark. Between the two sculptured figures is where God promises to meet Moses to deliver further Revelation (Exodus 25:10-22, in parashat Terumah: Ex 25:1-27:19). The imagery is intriguing, if disconcerting: too close to forbidden graven images, too similar to idols of neighboring ancient cultures, and, ultimately, too erotic for prime time. But I’ve I recently learned some new perspectives on the hammered-work creatures and, more generally, the way religious imagery can work for us or not.

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Lake Michigan as Hebrew Landscape

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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 (1926-2019) 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. Adriana 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

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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.