WINTER KEPT its vow
fulfilled its promise to the lily of the valley.
A summer day had waited all through winter.
Then the lightning came, proclaiming
That the earth had given painless birth
and that her babes were nursing at the breasts of clouds.
Look how the earth is laughing, look how soft
her cheeks, just yesterday so hard.
The beds are draped in coats woven of threads
of white and red, interwoven by the clouds of heaven,
To the eye, they look like bits of gold,
their backs resemble jaspers.
The pigeon, crane and swallow rise and boast
That they are better than the doves of the canals.
When they cock their heads and start to hop,
you almost think their feet are caught in chains,
And when the splendid sunlight shines on them,
they seem to put on colored neck rings.
From “Vulture in a Cage: Poems by Solomon Ibn Gabirol,” translated from Hebrew and introduced by Raymond P. Scheindlin, Archipelago Books, 2016. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Here is a reason to feel optimistic despite everything: At long last it has been raining a lot in Israel, so the landscape is looking lush despite depredations of drought and fire earlier in what should have been the rainy season.
This detailed depiction of a winter scene is among the treasures in Raymond P. Scheindlin’s new book of flowing English translations of secular and sacred poems by Solomon Ibn Gabirol, the 11th century poet who has streets named after him in Israel’s major cities.
In a well-known lyric, Ibn Gabirol anthropomorphized winter in southern Spain, where the climate resembles Israel’s, as writing with “ink of showers and rain” (in Peter Cole’s translation). Here, the poet painted the long-waited arrival of rain in visual images of fertility and sensuality. Complementing the ancient image of mother earth, buxom clouds in the sky suckle her babies. His eye for sexuality is clearly present in the image of the earth as a satisfied woman who only a day earlier was frustrated, her cheeks dry and hard, and in the next hemistich (two-part line) colorful and bejeweled clothing is strewn about. (“Beds” is a fortunate bit of translational added value – the Hebrew word means only a flowerbed, a furrow.) Even the birds are alluring in the subsequent lines and strut their stuff, almost kinkily flaunting “colored neck rings” and, in a very closely observed image, cocking their heads and hopping so “you almost think their feet are caught in chains.”
Poet and philosopher Solomon Ibn Gabirol, who wrote in both Hebrew and Arabic, was born in Malaga (maybe) in about 1021 and died in Valencia (maybe) in about 1058. In between he lived in Saragossa and Granada. Orphaned as a child, he was sponsored by highly-placed patrons, lived very comfortably and – like some powerful people in the news now, who also live very comfortably with a little help from their friends - he was known as an angry and bitter man who freely expressed negative opinions about rivals and critics, as is evident in some of his secular poetry: The lines above are actually the start of a longer work that turns into invective against a detractor who ״threw spears” at him; Ibn Gabirol threatens that his own horses – presumably his superior poetic powers – will kick dust into the other’s face. (Great poets aren’t necessarily pleasant or even good people, and pleasant poets are not necessarily good ones.) Concerning the devotional poetry, Scheindlin – a professor of medieval Hebrew literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary- notes he was “the first Hebrew poet (as far as we know)” who as an individual speaker “addresses God in intimate terms.”
* Farewell: This is the last Poem of the Week column. Many thanks to all the readers, poets, translators, publishers, photographers, editors and artists who have been here.
* Bonus: Speaking of both dust and farewell, Woody Guthrie sings “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You”