And back it comes, the great Rift
unpacked of its darkness, widening
to the old oblivious smile.
On the far side a plateau so steady
a finger can trace along the top
unwavering but for its own pulse.
A different country, that.
Often too hazy to believe in.
Except that once I saw a light
blink and wander there in the small hours.
Familiar, it looked. – Like a stray thought
suddenly shared and beamed back.
From "Swift," Anvil Press, 2012
Jennie Feldman, who lives in Jerusalem and Oxford, grew up in London and studied French at Oxford University. Her first collection of poems was "The Lost Notebook" (2005) and her most recent collection is called "Swift." She has translated Jacques Réda's poetry, including "Treading Lightly: Selected Poems 1961-1975" (2005) and his autobiographical work, "The Mirabelle Pickers" (Aller aux mirabelles), published last year. She also co-edited and translated "Into the Deep Street: Seven Modern French Poets, 1938-2008" (2009), from Anvil Press.
The “Rift” in the first line refers to the Great Rift Valley – a geological fault extending from northern Syria to Mozambique. It separates two large land masses that are in constant friction, something that is visible to the naked eye only during earthquakes.
The rift, of course, is also metaphorical, on levels ranging from the political to the most emotional and personal. The smile seems “oblivious” because the landscape looks stable: There is no immediate hint of cataclysmic change, and “the far side” – the Golan Heights, from the north of Israel, the Kingdom of Jordan from the Sea of Galilee southwards – appears steady and often not quite real, or “Too hazy to believe in.”
At the start of the third stanza, the word “Except” signals a surprising intimacy, “Like a stray thought / suddenly shared and beamed back.” In an email, Feldman wrote: “I have always been intrigued by the view from Jerusalem's eastern edge across the Jordan Rift Valley. Over there on its plateau, almost a mirror image of this side, is Jordan. Remote yet kindred -- the old riddle of human relations.”
The poem looks over Jordan from west to east, rather than the traditional view from east to west – the view Moses saw in in Deuteronomy 34:1-4, when he glimpsed the Promised Land to which he was denied entry in this week’s Torah portion (Vezot Haberakha read on Simchat Torah). The poem’s radical new perspective also perhaps offers a glimpse – of a mending of the rift that will change the old history.
The Promised Land became a symbol of salvation to black slaves in the American south – and the old east-to west-outlook is the direction in the popular black spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which for reasons lost in the mists of popular culture became the fight song for England’s national rugby union team.
Listen to the late Etta James sing an upbeat version here.
*Could the poem also be read as a metaphor for relations between Ashkenazi (“Western”) Jewry and Mizrahi (Eastern) Jewry, or as a wry comment on the traditional Diaspora Jewish longing for the “East” in the sense of Zion?
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