Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Passover, 2005

Well, it's officially the third day of Passover now, and my left wrist is starting to heal. Still can't play guitar, but the mando's back--and, as my daughter reminds me, I might as well take this as my opportunity to take up trumpet again. And to get back to posting.

In the spirit of the season, here are some Passover poems you could use in classes, or just for your own enjoyment. The first is by George Oppen, and I love the way it turns back on itself, repeatedly, to savor and meditate on its own language, repeating in its form the happy shock of discovery that it talks about via a child's misreading of a time-worn Biblical phrase:

Miracle of the childrenxxxxxxthe brilliant
Childrenxxxxxthe word
Liquid as woodlandsxxxxxChildren?

When she was a child I read Exodus
To my daughterxxxxx'The children of Israel. . . '

Pillar of fire
Pillar of cloud

We stared at the end
Into each other's eyesxxxxxWhere
She said hushed

Were the adultsxxxxxWe dreamed to each other
Miracle of the children
The brilliant childrenxxxxxxMiracle

Of their brilliancexxxxxMiracle
And there it stops--but how many things we could fill in after that "of"! (My friend Maeera Shrieber is, I gather, writing a book that will talk about Oppen's use of words and phrases that call out for commentary, like that dangling "of.")

One of my guests for Passover this year--Irish, Catholic, new to the holiday--asked, quite amiably, whether anyone ever talks about politics at a seder. Well! Next year I'll be ready with this poem, by the extraordinary Israeli poet Aharon Shabtai, from his collection J'Accuse (translated by the master, Peter Cole).

Passover 2002

Instead of scalding
your pots and plates,
take steel wool
to your hearts:
You read the Haggadah
like swine, which
if put before a table
would forage about in the bowl
for parsley and dumplings.
Passover, however,
is stronger than you are.
Go outside and see:
the slaves are rising up,
a brave soul
is burying its oppressor
beneath the sand.
Here is your cruel,
stupid Pharaoh,
dispatching his troops
with their chariots of war,
and here is the Sea of Freedom,
which swallows them.
What haunts me about this poem isn't its politics, which are pretty standard-issue in the left-leaning circles I know best. Rather, it's the way those politics are shadowed by the poem's title. Passover, 2002, you may remember, was the holiday in which one "brave soul" heroically "buried its oppressor" by blowing up a senior-citizens' seder in Netanya, which blow for freedom swallowed up such formidable troops as Alter Brivitch (88), Frieda Brivitch (86), Michael Karim (78), Sarah Levy-Hoffman (89), and a dozen or so more. I don't know whether the poem was written before the attack or after, but it's certainly been republished since then, which means Shabtai stands by it--and the poem thus shivers with a moral ambiguity that mirrors and amplifies that of the seder itself. Brrrr!

As if to balance out the public politics of "Passover 2002," Shabtai includes a second poem, "I Love Passover," beside it to close out J'Accuse. Here we see him as a poet of eros, which is the side of him I generally prefer to the poet of eris, or struggle; he's the poet of private rebellion, ardently withdrawing his consent from the public realm:

I Love Passover

I love Passover,
since that's when you'll be back.
Like every year,
we'll take the car to Kiryat Motzkin
and, over glasses of wine
and bowls of charoset,
Zvi will tell us
of the March of Death.
Then we'll return to Tel Aviv,
and as you drive in the dark,
the car's windows
will fog up,
and I'll put my hand on your knee.
At home, we'll get into bed
and celebrate our own
private Seder.
I see myself putting
my lips to your belly
and thinking of honey,
while in the street below
our angel passes.

The "March of Death" was a forced march of concentration camp inmates the Nazis were determined to keep out of the hands of the Red Army, advancing towards Auschwitz and Cracow in January, 1945. (About 58,000 Jews "were murdered or died en route," says the translator's note.) Against which horrors, the poem sets the sweetness of friendship and making love. It's traditional to read the Song of Songs at Passover time, to celebrate (among other things) the sexual resistance of making new babies in the face of Pharoah's murderous decrees. In this poem, the "honey" of the beloved's body repeats and varies the earlier wine and haroset, just as the fog in the windows of the car is a cozy, bloodless version of the marking of doorposts to keep the Angel of Death at bay. If the public rhetoric of freedom and rebellion in "Passover 2002" is compromised, all-but-fatally, by the unstated murders recalled by its title, this poem offers a contrasting vision of private protest, private freedom, which eases the sting of its comrade-in-verse.

1 comment:

chandella said...

can u please post some comments on
the multipilcity of the self
as precieved by writers ?
i am currently doing research on this will b thankful
ps ur blog is a great help , the name is too long but ah!whats in a name ------