Poem of the Week: Scorpions Rising

Dan Pagis uses scientific tools to tackle existential questions.

Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden
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An eyeless scorpion of a previously unknown species discovered in in 2013 in a cave near Ramle.
An eyeless scorpion of a previously unknown species discovered in in 2013 in a cave near Ramle. Credit: Dan Keinan
Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden

In the laboratory
Dan Pagis

The givens in the glass flask: a quorum of scorpions
from various families, a languid, compromising society
seething with equality. All who tread are also trod upon.
Now the experiment: Inquisitive Personal Providence blows
the noxious fumes into the flask
and instantly
each and every one is alone in the world,
hoisting its tail, seeking
another moment from the glass wall,
its sting already superfluous,
its pincers not comprehending,
its dry straw body erect for its hour of reckoning.
Afar in the dust the Angels
of Premature Death are alarmed.
It’s just an experiment, an experiment, not the
law of a toxin for a toxin.

From Dan Pagis, “Kol Hashirim” (Collected Poems), Hakibbutz Hameuchad/Bialik Institute, 1991. Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden.

***

Technion Professor Daniel Schechtman, the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in chemistry, recently threw his hat into the ring for the presidency of Israel. Perhaps he will apply the scientific method to his campaign and deal with the scorpions known to exist in Israeli politics: As Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon noted in 2005 upon leaving the position of chief of general staff: “Do you know why I wear those tall shoes on the lawn of the general staff headquarters? Because there are dangerous scorpions and snakes there.

Dan PagisCredit: Wikipedia

Dan Pagis (1930-1986) was born to a German-speaking family in Bukovina, Romania, and spent several years in a concentration camp during World War II. He came to Israel in 1946, studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and became a professor of medieval Hebrew literature there. In addition to academic works, in his lifetime he published seven volumes of poetry and a book for children.

Here, as in a lab report, the subjects and conditions of the experiment are followed by the procedure, the results, the implications and a discussion. However, the poem is not about scorpions and scientists but rather about humans and God. In Hebrew, this is indicated in the very first line by the word minyan which traditionally refers the public prayer quorum of 10 adult Jewish males. “Personal Providence” refers to the belief that God takes a detailed interest in the doings of every individual. “A toxin for a toxin” renders the ancient lex talionis, the law of retribution, as set forth in Exodus 21:2 23-25: “… then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, /burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

For most of the poem,” the speaker’s tone is dispassionate, in keeping with the title, and the note of agitation is sounded only in the final two lines, with the repetitions of the words “experiment” and “toxin.”

Musings:

*Medieval Christian symbolism likened to scorpions Judas of the treacherous kiss, as well as the Jews who refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah. Who are the scorpions here? Why are they from various taxonomic families? What is the speaker urging us to think about God?

*A nod to events last week – in memory of Pete Seeger and in honor of International Holocaust Memorial Day: “Bach at Treblinka"

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