Poem of the Week |

Cain, the First Patron of the Arts?

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Felis chaus, the swamp cat. Some say the poet resembles this feline. Credit: Wikipedia

The Poet

Israel Bar-Kohav

In the place where the holy and the tortured live,
in the place of the perfectly pious, there he'll not stand.
There are those who identify him with the swamp cat:
He has a sharp eye toward the inner mirror
toward the illuminated end, toward the shackled and still.
By morning he has lost his beloveds.
Because he is ill with moon-sickness
his place is not among those awaiting redemption,
among the perfectly pious who cross their legs.
He raises his voice in song, roaming
like Cain, a moon engraved on his forehead.

From Selected Poems 1975-2010, Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House and the Bialik Institute, 2010.

Translated from Hebrew by Rachel Tzvia Back

Israel Bar-Kohav. Credit: Katya Swarthman

The opening lines twist a quote from the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 34b): “In the place where the repentant stand, the perfectly pious cannot stand,” meaning a penitent ranks higher on the scale of righteousness than someone who has never sinned.

At this point in the poem, the twist could go one of two ways: Is the poet superior to the righteous because he is a repentant sinner – or is he not on that ladder at all? By the end of the poem, we know the answer.

Like T. Carmi in last week’s column, Israel Bar-Kohav associates the poet with delinquency and the moon.

Line 3 suggests that the poet is like the swamp cat (felis chaus – also known as the jungle cat), a solitary nocturnal feline native to low-lying areas in Europe and Asia, including Israel. Both cat and poet look towards an “inner mirror” at an image of that is immobile, like trapped prey (“shackled”) or carrion (“still”). In other words, the poet is able to envision an immutable image amid the flux of reality by looking inside himself at a reflection of the outside world.

“His beloveds” translates a longer Hebrew phrase meaning “what his soul loves most” – not necessarily persons but also dreams and possibly treasured ideas or phrases; novice writers are often advised by instructors or editors to “kill your darlings” in the interests of clarity and directness.

Experience shows that “by morning” – in the light of day – this often seems essential, if cruel. Does this murder or anything else require repentance, thereby placing the poet high on a scale of morality?

No, he is off the scale: The poet is “ill with moon-sickness” or, is like a lunatic not culpable for his acts, and therefore not qualified for redemption. Hence he and by extension all artists should not suffer penalties for their output.

The linkage to Cain supports the “beloveds” murder hypothesis: Cain, the original peripatetic outcast (if we don’t count Adam and Eve cast out of Eden, a killer marked by the moon, might in some sense be the patron of artists.

Israel Bar Kohav is a Gestalt psychologist who lectures and leads groups on creativity at Hebrew University and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He has published 12 volumes of poetry and has won a number of literary prizes.

*Musing: Who are “the perfectly pious who cross their legs?”

*Bonus: Listen to a cool cat “Blame it on Cain