Anything I say about the poems of Meir ben Eliahu is, of course, about the poems as presented by the translators Ellman Crasnow and Bente Elsworth. That having been considered in the last post I will talk about the poems as though they were in English. This will sound a little shocking knowing how distant in every respect - language, time, context, conditions - the English text is from the Hebrew, but it is pretty common practice in reading and reviewing. Translation, and very often the translators, vanish into a hole in the imagination. They are assumed to have become as transparent as the glass of the window you look through in order to see what is beyond the glass. Believe me, it ain't so. But this much is true: in the end the foreign laguage text will be read as an English text, by English reading standards.
Enough caveats. Let us be glad we have an English text at all.
The two works read from at both the invited and the public launch were Put a Curse on My Enemy and the Sixteen Poems set. I'll concentrate on those. Put a Curse on my Enemy first.
The actual title of Put a Curse on My Enemy is A Liturgical Poem on the Burden of Exile, Suffering and Ruin which tells you a great deal. It tells you the poem's purpose was less personal than social, that its form is ritualistic as is usual in an act of worship, and that it had a very particular subject.
The Book of Lamentations in the Bible may be described in the following terms:
Lamentations consists of five distinct poems, corresponding to its five chapters. The first four are written as chapters. 1, 2 and 4 each have 22 verses, corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the first lines beginning with the first letter of the alphabet, the second with the second letter, and so on. Chapter 3 has 66 verses, so that each letter begins three lines, and the fifth poem is not acrostic but still has 22 lines. The purpose or function of this form is unknown.
So we have acrostics and we have number-and-alphabet-coding, that is to say a deep concern with structure and symbolism. These passions are in the root pattern of Jewish history and sensibility.
The poem begins with a curse:
Put a curse on my enemy
for all are deceivers...
Curses are proper to poetry. If fetishes have power, so have words. Naming things implies control and to be cursed by a poet was (and may remain) a dangerous thing. There was much to curse in this case, of course, nevertheless it shocks us. Elisha cursed his enemies: Smite these people, I pray thee, with blindness.
It is not very New Testament is it? Those vengeful Jews with eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth. It sets our own teeth on edge a little. But that is something that may happen after massacres, pogroms and exile. People get cross.
The tone immediately changes. The figure addressed - God - is not so much instructed as entreated to bring the suffering house of Jacob to the light.
There are three distinct tones in the first verse: the desperate cry for vengeance; the sound of entreaty, as of a child nagging his parent; and, finally, the chorus to be repeated after each verse:
Majestic are you and luminous, you irradiate our darkness with light.
The cry of praise, which is also a desire for mystical light is beautiful and affirming, especially in conditions of such darkness. Irradiate is not a word you will find in the old scriptures but it has a powerful spring that sets the line shooting towards the stars. The first verse sets our limits: we are to move between the desperate curse on the one hand and the cry of belief on the other.
The poem shifts temporally between the between reflections on the past (Every seer's words were rash), the immediacy of the danger (they are finishing us off) and the praise of light as in the chorus.
Not so much chorus in fact as response. The poem is, after all, liturgy. So the congregation that, throughout all this is dancing in a circle, is confirmed in its communion with itself as also with God. It is the rabbi that does the intimate negotatiating and arguing for which Jewish prayer is famous. In that relationship God is addressed in tutoyer terms and is presumed to be reasonable and willing to listen, much as a real father might. This is the personal God to whom Christians too address their prayers but with whom they are less inclined to wrangle (though George Herbert wrangles all the time.)
So we move through the poem, all seventeen verses of it, bringing up instance on instance of humiliation and peril. Give it a limit, cries the fifteenth verse before the sixteenth rises in rapture through majestic, awesome heavenly. And the light remains and is constantly reiterated.
I don't think I can talk about the Sixteen Poems in this post. Space and time is short and I am setting off to Bath in an hour or so. The next post will be set side for the Sixteen Poems.
Maybe there is just enough time to think a little, not so much about the poetics of Put a Curse on My Enemy, but about the heart from which the poem arises and the heart to which it is addressed. Heart is not a respectable literary term but we have reasonable agreement on what it means. We think it means something like the deepest-seated feeling or sense of being.
These people are always complaining, someone might complain. Can't they just shut up? They say that about those famous events generally referred to as the Holocaust. It is simply bad manners to refer to sufferings that were not directly yours, they think, the past is past, the dues have been paid, and we will not stand here to be regularly clubbed with guilt (cf Norman Finkelstein's The Holocaust Industry) especially when some people suggest it never even happened.
It would certainly be nicer if it hadn't happened, and it might be comforting to agree with those who suggest as much. Besides, there is Israel and doesn't that prove what a bad lot they are underneath?
Enough. Game Over.
Speaking for myself, I can quite see that claims of victimhood are annoying to those who have to hear them. They are annoying to me. Cries of victimhood humiliate the victim. I think that of all claims of victimhood. One gets on with life and tolerates no special pleading. Isn't that right?
The cry of Meir ben Eliahu, poet, is very much in its own urgent present tense. Its plea for God to punish his people's enemies is not uncommon among the beleaguered. As for us readers we read both historically and in the eternal present tense. That is the paradox of taking any reading to heart.
The only tense of art is 'is'. Meir's present arrives very belatedly in our own present.
More on Monday, I hope.