Poem of the Week / Again You Give Us a New Year

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Honey.Credit: Vivian Eden

A Slender Promise

Esther Ettinger

Again You give us
a year anew
with the scents of honey,
cinnamon, cloves and a few
yellowing leaves
on a silvery poplar.

Again You give us
a year anew. Hands we knew
this past year
how weary their expression now
and only a slender promise is kept
in fingers of poplar or pine.

Again You give us.
a new year.
What is forgiven, what is shriven
the pain in its rocking cradle
on the wings of a poplar
and a new, fragrant rejoicing.

The scents of honey and cinnamon
the beating of wings and delight
and a slender promise. How many hues
between green and green
You bring us anew
in leaves of poplar or pine.

From Yarok Efshari (“Possible Green,” M. Neumann, Tcherikover, 1981). This translation from Hebrew by Vivian Eden was first published in Print in Haaretz Books Supplement for September, 2010.

Reviewing the past year and looking ahead with mixed weariness and hope, this poem develops around perceptions of time. The first stanza relates to the constant and the cyclical in the culinary year and in nature, the second seems to look at the past of an aging individual approaching death, the third, in “forgiven,” “shriven,” “pain” and birth, offers a complex sense of the possibly better future that follows suffering and the fourth is once again cyclical in a nuanced acceptance – “How many hues between green and green” -- of the slender, variegated and resigned hope for a better year, every year, again.

Writing (in Hebrew) in Poetryplace, poet and Talmud scholar Admiel Kosman  commented on this poem from the first of the five volumes of poetry Esther Ettinger  has published: “It is in fact a prayer. Such a limpid prayer that if the generation were worthy it would certainly have added it into the old High Holiday prayer book … And in the manner of true prayers the speaker has a specific countenance, so much so that even on the first reading of the poem it is immediately evident that we have here a very feminine work.

"The speaker addresses God but she does not speak of huge things, nor does she pester the Creator with the burning political questions on the agenda; rather she addresses Him with images taken from everyday domestic life: the scents of cinnamon and cloves, hands whose touch becomes weary, a rocking cradle, the fragrance of honey.”

Kosman’s conclusion: “The slender promise is universal and it fills the entire space of God’s world. It is intended for every living thing in Creation. And why is it slender? Because it is so delicate and imperceptible at first glance that when we look at the leaves of the tree moving above us we – unlike the poet – are not able to recognize the eternal and tender divine promise hiding in their midst.”

*Musing: Is it indeed obvious that this is a woman’s poem? What makes a poem a prayer?

*Bonus: Regarding buying a last-minute honey cake or baking one of your own. Try coffee instead of tea in the first recipe.

Here at Poem of the Week, we wish everyone a very much better New Year.

Esther Ettinger. Credit: Avigail Ettinger Ben-Simhon