A Poet Says 'No' to Prayer

Gaza is arid and now me. / You called and I didn’t come. Lisa Katz talks to God as an equal.

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Praying, and not praying, at the airport.
Praying, and not praying, at the airport.Credit: Alex Levac

Call to prayer 

Lisa Katz

Don’t call me, I can’t come.
What once was a well
is dry as a wadi. I never
guessed it would be like this
my father said and I agree.
The wind is sere. Now me.

Gaza is arid and now me.
You called and I didn’t come.
You say you disagree.
You’re looking for an angel.
Samson was born of this.
And he asked God for water.

The meaning of forever
is eternal thirst for me.
Is that the prophecy?
Love called and I came,
water drawn from a well,
honey made by bees.

We’re Philistines, don’t you see.
Bondage is forever.
Delilah’s no angel.
And the oasis is empty.
You call and I don’t come.
Forever is like this.

I’m not promiscuous.
Not the bee and not the honey.
You call and I don’t come.
Dew doesn’t last forever.
You have the spirit, but not me.
I’ve plumbed the last of the well.

Religion dried the well.
I always expected this.
I didn’t want to age, not me.
There is a hell, I agree,
for the non-believer.
You call and I can’t come.

Agree or not, it’s come to this.
That good well is gone forever.
The spirit wills, just not in me.

From “Are You With Me,” forthcoming June 2016, Finishing Line Press, New Women's Voices Series, Georgetown, Kentucky

Prayer, even in an “egalitarian prayer space”, involves unequal sides, God and a worshipper who can’t refuse.  Here a woman talks to God as though they had been lovers in an equal relationship that didn’t work out, and says “No.”

Lisa Katz takes a secular look at prayer, not dismissing it as necessarily dangerous, wrong, or primitive but rather as impossible at this time in her life: "What once was a well /is dry as a wadi.”

Lisa Katz.Credit: Tineke de Lange

“Gaza” is (also) in the context of Samson (Judges 13 through 16), whose mix of fleshly love and love of God led to many deaths, including his own.

The woman in the poem has a more controlled take on both kinds of love. The Samson association continues in “honey made by bees (Judges 14:8-18), and “Delilah.” “I didn’t want to age, not me” – is the hell for the unbeliever, particularly if she is a woman. She is not sending anyone else to hell.

Prayer has engendered beauty in customs and the arts – as well as ugliness, in religious wars and individual deeds aimed at consigning non-believers to hell. With this aim, on February 24, 1994 – Purim that year – American-born physician and settler Baruch Goldstein shot and killed 29 Muslims at prayer in the shared holy site of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, believed to be the burial place of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah (Muslims add Ishamel), wounded another 125 and was beaten to death by survivors. Perhaps Goldstein’s final thought was Samson’s last words: “Let me die with the Philistines.” Hearing of the massacre, settler leader MK Rabbi Hanan Porat (National Religious Party, precursor of todays’ Habayit Hayehudi) exclaimed: “Happy Purim!” – eliminating any residual affection some secular people might have felt for the holiday that is coming later this month.

Lisa Katz, who edits the Israeli pages Poetry International Rotterdam Israeli pages and contributes to Haaretz, has published books of English translations of poems by Agi Mishol and Admiel Kosman.

*Musing: The poem’s shape is based on the sestina – six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a three-line “envoy,” with the lines of the first stanza reappearing in a set pattern in the subsequent stanzas. When did you notice that something formal is happening? Why did the poet choose a closed form to talk about prayer?

*Bonus: To whom is Aretha Franklin talking in “Say a Little Prayer?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KtBbyglq37E

Aretha Franklin Say a Little Prayer? Credit: YouTube