Tuesday, May 29, 2007

SKV #3

In a comment, Daniel suggests poem 50 from Cohen's Book of Mercy. I found it on line, so here it is!
I lost my way, I forgot to call on your name. The raw heart beat against the world, and the tears were for my lost victory. But you are here. You have always been here. The world is all forgetting, and the heart is a rage of directions, but your name unifies the heart, and the world is lifted into its place. Blessed is the one who waits in the traveller's heart for his turning.
I do love that last line. There are others in the sequence that hit me harder, maybe because this one is more purely consoling by the close. I wonder: might Cohen's "here" gloss the Hebrew "haMakom," as in the Passover song? (Baruch haMakom, Baruch who? Baruch Shenatan, natan Torah....)

(A typo above, but I think I'll keep it. I like the ha-Hu as a Who.)

Peter Cole's New Anthology

I don't know how many of you have already seen it, but there was a glowing review of Peter Cole's new anthology The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492 (Princeton UP) in the New York Times a few weeks back. Quoth Eric Ormsby:
One day in 10th-century Baghdad a visiting foreign student named Dunash Ben Labrat showed his teacher, the revered scholar Sa'adia Gaon, a poem he had composed in a novel style. Sa'adia handed the poem back with the comment ''Nothing like it has ever been seen in Israel.'' This dubious compliment, which all teachers of creative writing might wish to employ, failed to discourage Dunash. He took himself, and his new poetry, back home to Muslim Spain. There, despite the dismay his mediocre verses prompted in other aspiring Hebrew poets, his style caught on. Within a few decades, from these unpromising origins, a brilliant and original body of Hebrew verse began to take shape. Virtually stagnant since late Biblical times, Hebrew poetry and the language itself would be transformed by a succession of poets of genius and their imitators. In Peter Cole's rich new anthology, the extent of their astonishing achievement is fully revealed for the first time in English.
It's a beauty, this book, and I hear tell that even though Amazon says it will take 4-6 weeks to ship, they have them in stock. Find it somewhere, buy it, and let's talk!

Celan in Eric's Siddur

Norman Finkelstein

Despite my doubts about the project--Eric and I have had on an on-again, off-again debate about the uses of modern poetry in liturgy--I would say that given the hybrid nature of this strange beast, Paul Celan's work would be a must. One thinks immediately of his "Psalm" ("Praised be your name / no one"), from which comes the title of his volume Die Niemandrose (1963). But perhaps just as powerful and appropriate to the occasion is this untitled poem, also from that volume:

Being beyond in the night.
With words I fetched you back, there you are,
all is true and a waiting
for truth.

In front of our window
the bean-plant climbs: think
who is growing beside us and
watches it.

God, so we read, is
a part and a second, a scattered one:
in the death
of all those mown down
he grows himself whole.

our looking leads us,
with this
we keep up relations.

This is the Michael Hamburger translation; the one by John Felstiner also has its virtues. The first stanza in particular has always struck me as a perfect expression of the modern Jewish religious sensibility.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Siddur Kol Hevel, part 2

Rachel sent a link to this, which Catherine Madsen (author of the essential, fascinating book on liturgy, The Bones Reassemble) drafted some years ago:
Our father, our king, we resent fathers and kings.
Our mother, our teacher, we resist mothers and teachers.
Our eclipse, our no-one, renew us for a good year.
Our figment, our construct, hear us, pity us, and spare us.
Our guess, our denial, seal us in the book of pardon.
Our hope, our dismay, speed our liberation.
Our doubt, our division, temper us to your need.
Avinu malkeinu, for your sake if not for ours.
Our limit, our secret, remember us 'til we live.

Our rock, our redeemer, give us endurance in pain.
Our place, our midst, root us in the cracks of your being.
Our breath, our life, evade all our theologies.
Our midwife, our surgeon, bring out of us what is in us.
Our infant, our patient, demand from us 'til we provide.
Our lover, our consoler, lie down beside us in loneliness.
Our enemy, our catastrophe, goad us to act justly.
Our mugger, our rapist, shatter our lives with your claims.
Our maker, our destroyer, build us again from the ground up, carefully.
That's more specifically liturgical than I had in mind for SKH (Siddur Kol Hevel), Rachel, although I'm very grateful! I'd been thinking of things like Blake's "All deities reside in the human breast" or scraps of verse, like Cohen's "I draw aside the curtain. You mock us with the beauty of your world" (from Book of Mercy). And I must say, much as I admire the first two lines here, I deeply dislike the penultimate one. Not to sound like Job's wife, but if you're going to call God a mugger and rapist, why not call him "Our Hitler, our Stalin," or "Our sondercommando" and be done with it?

This, on the other hand, also by Madsen, helped give me the title for my project:
For liturgy, God is always a moving target: we pray to him and get equivocal answers, or none; we ask to see his glory and are shown only his back. Any assertion we make of God's grace and mercy is at once undercut by the contingency of our daily experience. Any assumption we make of God's indifference or hostility is eclipsed by the appearance of mercy and grace in our lives. The declaration from the burning bush, ehyeh asher ehyeh ("I will be what I will be"), is a promise and a threat in equal measure, and hints at the simultaneous presence and absence of God at the other end of our prayers. Yet whether God is present or absent is not a final or even an answerable question, only a sort of spiritual brain-teaser by which our minds stay alert. With or without God, what is unequivocably present is the human other in need.
"Kol Hevel" is, after all, a pun: "all is vanity," but also "The Voice of Abel," which is to say, of your brother's blood, of "the human other in need."

But keep them coming, everyone! Show me what you're working with, as the (utterly inappropriate) song says.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Siddur Kol Hevel

Eric Selinger

Hi, everyone. I've made the joke so often it's not funny anymore--which is to say, I am now officially working on Siddur Kol Hevel: A Prayerbook for the Rest of Us. Not a prayerbook, exactly: more a set of readings. Poems, tags of prose, you name it, all of them contrapuntal to normative Judaism, whether from a secular, heretical, philosophical, mystical, or literary point of view. Jews and non-Jews welcome: in this book, Blake rubs shoulders with Scholem, Duncan with Deutcher with Dickinson, the Kotzker Rebbe with Leonard Cohen and Marc-Alain Ouaknin. You get the picture.

What I need now is your help.

What are your favorite, most inspiring, most unsettling passages? The ones you turn to, or that shaped you, for better or for worse? Ones you've stumbled across, and that haunt you--or tickle you, for that matter, with their sass and heterodoxy.

I'll post mine, one by one, as the summer goes on. Please post yours, as comments or (if you're a contributor) as a post: the passage, and some sort of attribution, so that I can track it down if need be.

I don't know what all of this will end up being: a book, a website, who knows? But it's a project worth doing, I'm sure of that, and we're the folks to do it!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Poem By Heschel, Music by Pharaoh's Daughter

Woke up this morning...

...and realized I'd given that last post the wrong title.

It should have been

Min ha-matzav karati Yah--

A psalm from my Siddur Kol Hevel.

Time for

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

All the News that Fits, Alas

The Diameter of the Bomb
The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimetres
and the diameter of its effective
range—about seven metres.
And in it four dead and eleven wounded.
And around them in a greater circle
of pain and time are scattered
two hospitals and one cemetery.
But the young woman who was
buried where she came from
over a hundred kilometres away
enlarges the circle greatly.
And the lone man who weeps over her death
in a far corner of a distant country
includes the whole world in the circle.
And I won't speak at all about the crying of orphans
that reaches to the seat of God
and from there onward, making
the circle without end and without God.

--Yehuda Amichai (trans. Stephen Mitchell)

(A young Ethiopian Jewish immigrant sheds a tear as he takes refuge in a bomb shelter from Qassam rockets fired by Palestinians into nearby Gaza Strip on May 16, 2007 in Sderot, Israel. By David Silverman/Getty Images.)

(A Palestinian boy holds the side of his face as he lies wounded in Al-Shifa hospital following an Israeli strike against the house of a Hamas leader in Gaza city, 20 May 2007. Four people were killed and five people wounded in a the Israeli air raid against Gaza targeting the home of Hamas leader Khalil al-Haya, who was at the time of the attack away from his home. By Mahmud Hams/AFP.)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A sample of poetic discourse around Jewishness from 1912:


The impudence of his artistic swank
More fragrant somehow do I find than rank,
Who paints upon his subtly purple banner,
“1 am the Oxford plus the Yiddish manner.”


Exalted cheekbones and a prattling smile,
A touch of mischief and a childish guile,
With teeth that twinkle and with lips that please-
In short, a Bayswaterian Viennese.


So overwhelming breathed her powder’s reek,
So loud her dresses and her hats would shriek,
That you would entertain a false impression
And murmur an ineffable expression,
Until you realise your wish is vain
By looking at her visage chastely plain.

These are nos. 4, 5 and 6 (though they're not numbered as such in the text) of 8 "Epigrams" by "H.S.B." (no idea who that is) in The New Age 11.22 (26 Sept. 1912): 516. I found them when I was trolling for Pound material; they follow immediately on section IV of EP's serial essay "Patria Mia."

"Bayswaterian Viennese" seems very Eliot somehow.

Alan Golding