The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain
I’d given everything I own for that gazelle
who, rising at night to his
harp and flute,
saw a cup in my hand
“Drink your grape blood against my lips!”
And the moon was cut like a D,
on a dark robe, written in gold.
I’d pictured your poem like the king’s daughter,
a man’s delight, a woman of pleasure;
or a burning fire set by the hearth—
in its corners calamus, cassia, and myrrh.
And I found it exquisitely copied—
all the vowels were precisely arrayed.
In the past, I’d seen poems by your friends,
but they were obscure, while yours amazed.
Your discourse flowed like the purest water
for ablution—but this new one’s a stain.
You’ve been for me like a precious son,
whose standards I’m obliged to maintain.
So, hone your poems and their subjects,
and know that each in its way moves toward
a day of judgment. And fear the critics,
whose tongues are polished and sharpened like swords.
What’s Familiar Is Sometimes Distanced
What’s familiar is sometimes distanced,
and the distanced sometimes brought near—
and the cavalier rider in fetlock-deep water
who falls finds it up to his ears.
The Multiple Troubles of Man
The multiple troubles of man,
my brother, like slander and pain,
amaze you? Consider the heart
which holds them all
in strangeness, and doesn’t break.
SHELOMO IBN GABIROL
(1021/22 – c. 1057/58)
Winter with Its Ink
Winter with its ink of showers and rain,
with its pen of lightning and palm of clouds,
wrote a letter of purple and blue
over the beds of the garden.
No artist in his cunning could measure
his work beside it—and so,
when earth longed for the sky
it embroidered the spread of its furrows like stars.
The Altar of Song
Your answer betrays your transgression,
your words are empty, your verse is weak—
you’ve stolen a few of my rhymes,
but your spirit failed: you’re meek.
Try taking on wisdom’s discipline,
instead of poetry’s altar and pose:
for as soon as you start your ascent,
your most private parts are exposed.
I Love You
I love you with the love a man
has for his only son—
with his heart and his soul and his might.
And I take great pleasure in your mind
as you take the mystery on
of the Lord’s act in creation—
though the issue is distant and deep,
and who could approach its foundation?
But I’ll tell you something I’ve heard
and let you dwell on its strangeness:
sages have said that the secret
of being owes all
to the all who has all in His hand:
He longs to give form to the formless
as a lover longs for his friend.
And this is, maybe, what the prophets
meant when they said He worked
all for His own exaltation.
I’ve offered you these words—
now show me how you’ll raise them.
MOSHE IBN EZRA
(c. 1055 – after 1138)
Weak with Wine
We woke, weak with wine from the party,
barely able to get up and walk
to the meadow wafting its spices—
the scents of cassia and cloves:
and the sun had embroidered its surface with blossoms
and across it spread a deep blue robe.
Let Man Remember
Let man remember throughout his life
he’s on his way toward death:
each day he travels only a little
so thinks he’s always at rest—
like someone sitting at ease on a ship
while the wind sweeps it over the depths.
Men of the world have the world in their heart,
God set it in them when they were born—
it’s a flowing stream that won’t suffice
though the sea becomes its source,
as if its water turned to salt
when a parched heart called out to them—
they pour it from buckets into their mouths
but their thirst is never quenched.
(c. 1075 – 1141)
That Day While I Had Him
That day while I had him on my knees
he saw himself there in my eyes and tried
to trick me. He kissed them ever so lightly—
kissing himself, not me. . . .
To Ibn Al-Mu’allim
Gently, my hard-hearted, slender one,
be gentle with me and I’ll bow before you.
I’ve ravished you only in looking—
my heart is pure, but not my eyes:
They’d gather from your features
the roses and lilies mingled there.
I’d lift the fire from your cheeks
to put out fire with fire,
and then when I was thirsty,
it’s there I’d look for water.
I’d savor the lip that glows like ruby—
like coals in the tongs of my jaws.
My life hangs by scarlet threads;
my death is now concealed in dusk . . .
I find that nights have no end,
where once no dark divided my days:
For Time then was clay in my hands
and Fortune— the potter’s wheel.
A Dove in the Distance
A dove in the distance fluttered,
flitting through the forest—
unable to recover
she flew up, flustered, hovering,
circling round her lover.
She’d thought the thousand
years to the Time of the End
about to come, but was
confounded in her designs,
and tormented by her lover,
over the years was parted
from Him, her soul descending
bared to the world below.
She vowed never again
to mention His name, but deep
within her heart it held,
as though a fire burning.
Why be like her foes?
Her bill opens wide
toward the latter rain
of your salvation; her soul
within her faith is firm,
and she does not despair,
whether she is honored
through His name or whether
in disdain brought low.
Let God, our Lord, come
and not be still: Around Him
storms of fire flame.
AVRAHAM IBN EZRA
(c. 1093 – c. 1167)
The heavenly spheres and fortune’s stars
veered off course the day I was born;
if I were a seller of candles,
the sun would never go down.
I struggle to manage and even succeed,
but I’m thwarted by the stars in the sky;
if I were a dealer in shrouds,
no one so long as I lived would die.
If I had a scheme to profit
from arms and going to war,
all the foes in the world
would be friends and fight no more.
Who could I turn to in my distress?
The flies have plundered my home;
they will not leave me a minute of peace,
attacking me fiercely like foes.
Across my eyelids and eyes they race;
in my ears they recite their poems;
like a pack of hungry wolves they devour
my bread when I’m eating alone,
and as though I’d asked them over like friends,
they take what they want on their own.
It seems they’re only seeking their share
when I offer them lamb and wine—
but that, it turns out, isn’t enough:
they also covet what’s mine.
If I summon guests to come and dine,
at the head of the table they swarm,
and so I long for winter lest
I starve because of them.
Its cold and rain will wipe them out—
thank God, who dwells with the cherubim.
The Arabs write of love in boasts,
and the Romans of vengeance and battles—
the Greeks of wisdom and cunning,
and the Persians of fables and riddles;
but Israel sings—in psalms and hymns—
of God, the Lord of hosts.
Sent Out from the Glory
Sent out from the glory of God, your Creator,
over the four creatures who bear you;
within and about you are all of His wonders.
How could you hide when He also fills you?
What would you do? He searches your chambers,
and always hears you and knows where you are.
Before His works don’t ask how—
with Him whose discernment is pure be pure.
All you have is your word and prayer.
Who were you till His mercy came?
Know that the heavens and earth endure
to bless your Creator and Maker’s name.
(1247 – after 1300)
I’ve Labored in Love
I’ve labored in love and brought nothing forth,
and I’m trapped in the trap of that fawn
of an Arab girl.
so craves a kiss from her mouth,
that I long to turn myself into a woman:
for women she’ll kiss—
but I’m lost as long as I’m male.
She Said She Wanted
She said she wanted to run when she saw
the gray scattered with white in my hair:
“Dawn’s already come up on your head
and I’m the moon—you’ll drive me away.”
“It isn’t true,” I said, “you’re the sun—
and can’t, by nature, hide by day.”
“You’ve lost your power to run after love,”
she replied. “What good would it do to stay?”
“Nothing’s changed,” I told her, “except
for the gray. I’ve got the heart of a lion
to do your will.” And she offered: “OK,
you’re a lion. . . . Then I’m a gazelle.
Would I lie down in the lion’s den,
bright gazelle that I am?”
Strong Poet, Weak Poet
Your song, friend, is born of a woman,
and the heart of a girl is what it has.
My poems take it daily to bed,
and drive their standards up its ass.
The Sea Casts up Mire and Mud
The sea casts up mire and mud,
but sinks its pearls to the ocean’s floor,
and Time’s way is to raise the vile—
demeaning the precious, exalting the boor.
Good and evil it turns on their heads,
while fools think their state will endure,
but the wise toy with Time in their way,
finding in maybe and if some pleasure.
In the end, there’s a balance in heaven whose pans
the pure will lower, as the empty ascend.