Now I Beheld the Living Creatures
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Little dustbowl brightly lit for Ramadan
with your peppermint minaret tops and cannon-fire,
greetings from an aging utopist, an orientalist manqué
on his evening jog along the path girding the Hill of Evil Counsel,
with its listing pine grove and its cyclamen, and burial
chambers buried in litter, Ramadan karim, I call out
to the fast breaking family at their picnic table perched far
above their homes, my heart pumping good-will,
my flared nostrils shrinking from the aroma
of skewered kebab, one more vanity of vanities;
could be they take me for another oddball from Amri-ka
though this very morning I plugged into the kitchen
socket an electric cord slung across our courtyard
by a day-laborer from Jabel Mukkaber, and the construction site
next door lit up (did you know the word appears
in the O.T.: And out of the midst thereof
as the color of electrum) with activity and for the entire day
we grooved on one current, and when you moved,
I moved, like Ezekiel's wheels, but my endorphins
must have kicked in, for I'm thinking in contraries
as I pound the old route wholly unknowable,
dear Sion, circling your bottomed out dustbowl,
your broke-backed roads and corrugated goat-sheds,
dear old Jabel, forgive us our follies. – Yalla, urkod!
a voice snaps at my heels, Come on, run! – Whereto?
I'm tempted to lob back, even as my Nikes bear me along,
hither, at nightfall, with this amalgam of gold
and silver some call electrum and others amber, and we,
out of the midst of the fire, its enfants terribles.
Gabriel Levin, the son of an American father and French mother, lives in Jerusalem. He has published books of translations from Hebrew and Arabic as well as his own prose and poetry in English, most recently “To These Dark Steps” (Anvil Press Poetry, London 2012), from which this poem is taken.
The title is from verse 15 of Chapter 1 of the Book of Ezekiel, the description of the exiled prophet’s vision of the fiery chariot drawn by wheels consisting of four mysterious living creatures, each of them with four faces. Over the years this vision developed into an elaborate branch of Jewish mysticism – just one of the many layers of associations hinted at in this description of an evening run along the Tayelet, a stretch of three contiguous hillside promenades in southern Jerusalem offering a splendid view to the east and north.
The Tayelet was completed back in the days when Teddy Kollek was the mayor of Jerusalem (from 1965 to 1993). Kollek was interested in developing the city – rather along the lines of his childhood home of Vienna – as a livable, sustainable place with a fine zoo, a world-class museum and green parks that would always be available to the city’s residents and only improve with age.
The Tayelet, unfortunately, hasn’t been kept up to the earlier standards. Kollek’s successors have not shared his conviction that Jerusalem is and always has been irrevocably “on the map." While neglecting the Tayelet – which is far shabbier today than it was in its glory days, though still beautiful, they have been more interested in flashier (and schmaltzier) projects like the Calatrava Bridge, supposedly in the shape of King David’s harp, and in traffic-snarling circuses like Jerusalem Marathon and the recent Formula One motor sport event.
As he runs, the speaker in the poem lets his thoughts roam in a kind of stream of consciousness. If all goes well and the new moon is visible this evening, the Islamic month of Ramadan will begin tonight, July 9; if not, it will probably start tomorrow. During this month, between dawn and sunset believers abstain from food, drink, tobacco, sexual relations and swearing.
This poem is set at nightfall when families break the fast with a meal called iftar. In Jerusalem, the end of the fasting portion of the day is traditionally signaled with a shot fired from an Ottoman-era cannon.
“Dustbowl” refers to the fact that the Tayelet overlooks the watershed: To the west, the landscape is relatively green, and to the east it is dry and arid, even in winter. We know the poem is set in winter because of the reference to the cyclamen. (Ramadan can occur at any season of the year – the Muslim lunar calendar, unlike the Hebrew lunar calendar, is not synchronized periodically with the solar calendar to ensure holidays fall in a given season).
The Hill of Evil Counsel is traditionally the site of the home of the High Priest Caiaphas, where it was decided that Jesus would be put to death. In 1933 an elaborate official residence was built there for the British High Commissioner for Palestine, and since October 1948 the compound has served as the United Nations Observers headquarters (until June of 1967 it had a great view of the border between Israel and Jordan).
The runner calls out a friendly traditional Ramadan karim greeting – Have a great (generous) Ramadan! – to the family picnicking on the Tayelet, which overlooks their home village on the other side of the valley. But then he wonders what they think of him – another oddball from Amri-ka (America as pronounced in Arabic and a kind of anagram of karim).
“Vanity of vanities,” of course, is a reference to Ecclesiastes 1:2 – the speaker is disgusted by the smell of broiling meat and is critical of his own hyper-sensitivity.
However, the speaker muses, the Arab family would be wrong to think ill of him – only this morning he let a laborer from Jabel Mukabber – the village across the valley – run an electrical cord from his home to the building next door. How can we understand “the word in the O.T.: And out of the midst thereof as the color of electrum”? The recollection of the electrical cable brings to mind the passage from Ezekiel, specifically 1:4 and 1:27, in which the Hebrew word hashmal – "electricity" in modern Hebrew – appears.
Translators of the Bible have had a hard time with this word. The Septuagint Greek translation used the word "electron" and the Latin Vulgate used the word "electrum," both referring to a naturally occurring amalgam of gold, silver and traces of other metals used in coinage in ancient times.
The poet refers back to this translation problem in the third stanza – but it’s handy to skip ahead here and put in a little spoiler: The Anglican King James translation (1611) and the Catholic Douay Bible (complete version 1635) translated hashmal as “amber,” but the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation has it as “electrum.” The association between amber and electricity comes from amber’s property of attracting light objects like feathers when rubbed; Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was the first to use the word “electric” in English to describe objects with this property.
Sharing the electricity, muses the runner, “we grooved to one current,” like the synchronization of the wheels turning on Ezekiel’s chariot – a kind of hopeful vision of coexistence. The verb “to groove” here is a signal to readers to pay attention to the way not only the landscape and the references in the poem are multi-layered, but also the language itself, in registers ranging from biblical to slang to pre-20th-century English (Sion for Zion), with excursions into Arabic and French.
And yet despite the vision of East and West, Arab and Jew, moving together, in the third stanza “the old route" – referring both the path on which he runs and to the whole history of the place – is “wholly unknowable.”
“Dear Sion” is described in strangely American terms – “dustbowl” was the name given to the terrible drought in the Great Plains in the 1930s, and “broke-backed” can’t help but bring to mind the film “Brokeback Mountain,” Ang Lee’s 2005 revisionist western with a gay love story.
This reverie is interrupted by another phrase in Arabic – “Yalla, urkod! A voice snaps at my heels, Come on, run!” – which sharply reminds the runner where he is and what he is doing. He refrains from asking where he should run to – having already said the answer is “unknowable.” It is no accident that the running shoes are “Nikes” – named after the Greek goddess of victory, who is also winged like the living creatures in Ezekiel’s vision.
The colors gold, silver, electrum and amber are indeed representative of the extraordinary light on Jerusalem’s stones at the hour described in the poem.
In understanding the line “we, out of the midst of the fire are its enfants terribles,” it is helpful to look to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines an “enfant terrible” as a French expression for "a child who embarrasses his elders by untimely remarks," "a person who compromises his associates or his party by unorthodox or ill-considered speech or behavior," or "one who acts unconventionally" – in other words, Sion’s poet.
In a review by Benny Ziffer of Levin's prose work, "The Dune's Twisted Edge: Journeys in the Levant", the Israeli author and journalist notes: “It was especially heartening to see that Levin does not slavishly follow the trends set by the post-colonialist scholars, who excommunicate anyone who dares to look at the Middle East as an exotic place. This book is all for exoticism, involving a kind of self-discovery by means of repeated excursions outside the self. Levin contends that sometimes a sense of ‘defamiliarization is necessary to truly understand this place called the Levant.'" His poetry does this too.
*Why has the poet written this as one long sentence, broken up into three stanzas?