Taking the Bride to the Henna Night
You sat in the evening light, shawled in gold and cream
and white. Your hair which you try so hard to tame
with unguents, was playing around your face
like tendrils of amber. You caught the late sunshine
in your eyes, in the milk of your skin, in your curls.
Then you caught the late sunshine on your swaddling silks
and it reflected into the glow of you, which in turn
created a pointillism of radiance. Who would ever believe
that a London taxi cab could contain such a moment?
. . ‘
Last night we dressed in the silks of the orient, we rang
bells and banged cymbals and screamed into the dark.
Last night we ululated with ecstasy and we reflected
on our marriages, on our babies, on our mothers.
Last night we met like women in a harem and my mother
said she envied her friends who were widowed with a hefty inheritance.
. . .
It was a night when silks flew, whirling with their wearers,
glistening with real gold threads in creamy whites.
It was a night when girls were to become women
and when women recaptured girlhood. The septuagenarians
danced like houris and showed the virgins how to please a man
and the virgins danced without understanding radiant in their innocence.
. . .
It was twilight in that room, like an unlit bedroom at dusk,
spirits darted, darted and glittered. It was a room full of pasts
and presences, it was a room where a future was being invited,
like an honoured guest. It was a room where a future was being ignited.
From “The Assay,” Smith/Doorstop Books, 2010. Tal Nitzan has translated this book into Hebrew as “Hanisui,” Am Oved, 2013.
Sometimes a poem revolves around a killer line or sentence that sets it spinning like a gyroscope. These are most interesting neither at the beginning nor at the end of the poem, but rather somewhere in the middle. Here, that axel is “Who would ever believe / that a London taxi cab could contain such a moment?” The joyful disbelief stems not only from the beauty but also from the powerful (and womanly) superimposition of an immigrant heritage onto something as quintessentially British as a London cab.
Cultural superimpositions are very much on people’s minds today, with renewed anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Europe. Nazi Germany, of course, attempted to wipe out the possibility of such superimpositions. While for the sake of the national rebirth narrative, Israel ‘s official Holocaust remembrance day is in the spring, eight days before its Independence Day, in Europe it is remembered on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army.
The commemoration today, writes poet, activist and retired barrister Yvonne Green, who is of Bukharan Jewish heritage, “is poignant in England for its communal resonance. Paris drove Jew and non-Jew to further recognize ISIL as a common threat to Western values, personal safety, and as fuelling anti- Semitism. Traditions maintained are being both savored and questioned. This poem's a snapshot of a British-born Orthodox Jewish bride-to-be whose maternal grandparents, (the Ribacoff's and Mammons), left Central Asia in 1920. The Ribacoffs found themselves in London via Egypt, the Mammons via Europe. This poem's women translate memory into food, color, dance and myth in a rite of passage that synthesizes love, both extant and evoked, and transcends geography, history and politics.”
Though the objects and practices depicted in the poem are unfamiliar to most people in Britain, including the Ashkenazi majority among its Jews, the craft of the poem relies comfortably on the modern English mode of internal rhyme (light/white) and assonance (tame/face), as introduced in the first lines and maintained throughout. The last lines, however, seal the poem with a series of identical words that differ only in the consonant groups between the first and second syllables of the tri-syllabic end-rhymes (invited/ignited), a kind of bravura valued in the poetries of the Muslim lands.
*Bonus: A reading by Yvonne Green.