Poem of the Week / Moses Gives a Snappy Reply

Karen Alkalay-Gut discovers why Moses seemed to stutter.

C-c-c-c-c-c-c-c

Karen Alkalay-Gut

“Spit it out Moses,” I tell him impatiently.

“Give me the whole word at once!”

“It isn’t stuttering, you know,”

He says, suddenly clearly.

“Every letter could go, on its own,

Many different ways.”

“I have to be so careful

Not to say something

That those Israelites

Will interpret

In some extreme direction.

“That’s why I needed to get the laws

Etched out for them

In stone.”

From “Layers,” Simple Conundrums, 2012.

***

Karen Alkalay-Gut was born, she says, “on the last night of the Blitz” in London and grew up in Rochester, New York. She has lived in Israel since 1972. Though her mother tongue is Yiddish, for many years she has been a major figure in English poetry in Israel, as a writer, translator, performer, critic, organizer of literary events, poetry editor, and professor of English at Tel Aviv University. She is retiring this June from the university, but without a doubt she will maintain a major presence on the poetry scene here. 

In “C-c-c-c-c-c-c-c” the first speaker – the “I” – appears to be a teacher admonishing a student to speak up properly. Surprisingly, Moses answers back clearly and definitively, with much more spunk and confidence than he answers in the Bible when God speaks to him from the burning bush in chapters 3 and 4 of the Book of Exodus. There, God bids Moses in no uncertain terms to go confront Pharaoh “that thou mayest bring forth My people the children of Israel out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10).

Moses demurs and argues, Why should Pharaoh listen to me? God shows Moses a series of wonders to convince him that He means business, and then Moses pulls what he thinks will be the winning card to get him off the hook: It’s not you, Lord, it’s me – I am really bad at public speaking: “And Moses said unto the LORD: 'Oh Lord, I am not a man of words, neither heretofore, nor since Thou hast spoken unto Thy servant; for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.'” (Exodus 4:10). Traditionally, “slow of speech” is taken to mean that Moses stuttered.

Needless to say, God wins this argument and in a move typical of Israeli literature – and not only in English – Alkalay-Gut yanks the biblical character into a familiar present and confronts him. Moses explains that he isn’t stuttering but rather being extra careful to get the language of the law correct, lest it be taken in “some extreme direction.”

He refers to “those Israelites” rather snappishly; he was raised as an Egyptian prince and perhaps to some extent he still identifies himself as such, in much the same way an immigrant to Israel will in moments of annoyance refer to “those Israelis,” as opposed to “us.”

Oddly enough, Moses appears to be thinking in English, not in Hebrew. In Hebrew, especially if all the vowel points are present, there is no doubt as to how a letter should be pronounced. But in English, as anyone who has tried to teach or learn the language quickly realizes, “Every letter could go, on its own / Many different ways.”

Think, for example, about the letter "C," which could be pronounced as a hard C, like in “cat”; a soft C, like in “ice”; or as "Ch," like in “cello.” In fact, in an interview with Haaretz, Alkalay-Gut at first refused to comment on how the “C” in the title of this poem should be pronounced. Finally, however, she revealed the secret: “Behind this poem is a joke. When God takes the children of Israel out of Egypt, he asks Moses where to take the people. Moses goes 'c-c-c-c-c' until God gets impatient and asks, ‘Canaan?’ and Moses, exasperated, nods. But he really wanted to say ‘California.’”

Though the poem has 14 lines, it is not a conventional sonnet in terms of structure, rhyme or meter. There is a subtle poetic device at work here, however. If you read it aloud and listen carefully, you will hear a kind of hidden under-poem in the steady beat of the assonance – the seven stressed long "O” sounds in "Moses": "whole," "know," "go," "own," "so," "those" and – in the climax – "stones." And in the context, one can’t help but recall how Demosthenes (384-332 BCE), who according to Plutarch also had a speech impediment, improved his oratory skills by practicing with stones in his mouth to force himself to articulate more clearly.

Alkalay-Gut told Haaretz that Moses is her hero because she stutters too, but this is hard to believe. Here she speaks (perfectly clearly) about another connection she has to Moses, and reads a poem in which she plays in a similar way with other characters from the Bible.

Musings

*Fill in the blank: "Moses and X [pick a person from life or art] and I met for coffee and…" 

Ezra Gut
AP