Poem of the Week / Agi Mishol Drifts Toward an Archimedes Moment

Poem of the Week launches with a new translation and a holiday gift of four water-themed works by contemporary Hebrew poets from the Haaretz print archive, never before published online.

Many Waters

Agi Mishol

Come to me, caress me, give me

A contour to separate me

From water, from air and from night depths

Where the soul cascades, cascades

From the sprays of pleasure flowing to the soles of my feet

I’m calling to you come but also go

You who with twain covered your face

And with twain covered your feet

And with twain did fly

I swear upon my kneecaps steaming

From the water –

Pink Ararats:

I admit:

There’s not a moment, not even the most void,

That is empty of you

No doubt tomorrow this frenzy my love

Will be a shipwreck sunk to the heart’s bottom

Lying heavy in the jaws of mute fish

But here I am overflowing my banks

From so much being

I see clearly

With no whitewash

You kneading words there

Measuring the distance

From the absence

Beyond which nothing is more present

For you I whisper the word owl

Because I love what it does to my lips


Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden.

***

“Many waters” is a phrase from The Song of Songs 8:7: “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.” It has been evocative for many Hebrew poets, whether as a reference to divine love, corporeal love or both.

Agi Mishol’s riff on it here (from “Moment,” Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2005) is ironic. It works as a kind of reverse metaphor in which water literally washes away love. Taking the biblical phrase as its title, the poem describes a woman in a bathtub thinking about an absent lover – and not being entirely sure she wants him.

In the first stanza, the moonstruck speaker summons her lover in her mind as though it is he who defines her – as distinct earthly elements of water and air, but also deriving from the subconscious mind, “the night depths” of dreams. 

The ambivalence is clarified in the second stanza: “I’m calling you to come but also go.” Here another biblical reference appears, a vision of God sitting on a throne (Isaiah 6:2-3):

Above Him stood the seraphim; each one had six wings: with twain he covered his face and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.

And one called unto another, and said: Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.

This allusion is packed with both explicit and implicit information. From the fragment “with twain did fly” we learn explicitly that the lover is far away. From the following verse in Scripture, we glean an underlying image of prayer: The seraphim’s recitation – “Holy, holy, holy [Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh] is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of His Glory” – is recited by observant Jews three times a day as part of the Amidah (Standing Prayer). This prayer is accompanied by one of the few bits of choreography in a synagogue service, a rise on tiptoe at each iteration of the word “holy,” as though to catch a glimpse of God on the throne. The poem’s juxtaposition of the act of worship with the depiction of a woman in a bathtub thinking erotic, if perhaps somewhat skeptical, thoughts is comical to the Hebrew ear.

The next biblical reference is more familiar – Ararat, where Noah’s ark landed, but as twin peaks. In this case, the pink knees upon which the reader takes an oath are decidedly less erotic than other twinned parts of the female body. And though the speaker admits, again in moonstruck-lover mode, that she thinks about “you” all the time, by this point in the poem it is clear to the reader that the speaker is deliberately verging on the ridiculous – indeed, in the next verse she predicts the end of love.

After the speaker declares that her banks are “overflowing,” she shifts from considering her own situation to focusing on the absent lover specifically. She still longs for him, perhaps, but here she sees him as he is, a bit obsessive, kneading words and measuring the absence.

It is a fortunate coincidence for the translator that the pronunciation of both the Hebrew word for “owl”(yanshoof) and the English word both involve a puckering of the lips, like a kiss. In 2004 a selection of Mishol’s poems was staged with singing and choreography under the title “Owl Ladies” (“Yanshoofot”). Of course the owl has long been a symbol of wisdom – and one can’t help but recall that the most famous utterance in a bathtub was Archimedes’ “Eureka.”


Musings

* What does this poem accomplish by focusing on the moment just before disillusionment/illumination, rather than on the “Eureka” moment itself? How do other works of art represent the moment prior to revelation?

Kobi Kalmanovitz
Wikicommons