What does a Jewish man, born in Israel and raised in the United Kingdom, have in common with an American woman raised in The South and The Church? Poetry and God, of course, but not necessarily in that order. And, to that list, we also need to add humor and mutual interest in swapping review copies of our new books of Bible-based poems.
Just so you’ll know up front, I felt a lift of relief on finding the poems of award-winning poet Atar Hadari an insightful book to read and re-read.
In Rembrandt’s Bible, published in the UK by Indigo Dreams, the poet began with “Lot’s Wife,” a subject I didn’t get to until later in “Lot’s Wife Visits Genesis 19.” You could read both poems, however, (yes, please do!) and get two different but not conflicting views – mine focusing on the fact that the poor woman remained forever nameless and his poem expressing this extraordinary perspective:
And the moment
when she saw it
rising in flames
was the moment her hands kept
in their yellow,
of her youth.
In subsequent poems, the poet accompanies Isaac “…out to the fields to pray for forgiveness” then slips into the skin of Moses, whose “teeth ached from clenching,” and the skin of Michal, daughter of King Saul and wife of King David, who’s still ticked that “He paid for me – he paid in steam/ and blood – and on my father’s stone/ it says ‘The father of Michal’/ and in my heart it says ‘The Queen of a Dead Man’.” Hadari even slips into the mail of Goliath with wit as he faces the young David, asking himself, “Shall I wear the hat? Nah. For this one/ I don’t think I really need to bother with the helmet.”
As you’d surely expect, our perspectives on the Messiah differ in my closing poem “For You,” and his provocative “Baal Shem” that says, “We used to say you were Moses, / only with sunflowers in your eyes.”
Thought-provoking, too, is “Silence” where the eight-year-old “I” of the poem came to a school room in England and “sat while they said the Lord’s Prayer/ And did up my shoe-lace” only to be thumped on the back by an ignorant (my word, not his) woman, who chided him, saying, “That prayer was written by King David./ You have no earthly reason not to say it.” Say what?
The poem “Jerusalem” also presents an it-is-what-it-is perspective with no rancor: “Many dead. A few pots/ littered with figures from the centuries./ First layer Moses,/ painted with orbed Gold to a Christ,/then Mohammed with a scimitar/ and black beard –/ so much paint on one pot –/ you’d think the Lord had no shard to shed.” There’s a sense of coping humour in that, although “None of the figures…/ can put life back/ in the hands that dropped the pot.”
Divided into four sections with one part “Honey” (pun intended?), the third part “Father Tongue” begins with a contemporary scene of a near-death experience followed by “Three Hasidim Dancing” with “shiny shoes” that “lift to meet the room” as the “Blessed One/ riots in the tears/ that hang off of the chandeliers.” Those lively lines end with a thought that I and an Internet search found mystifying, but, if I got the gist, that Father Tongue either ate the dancers or swallowed them like a pill.
Most of the poems, however, are very assessable and inviting with their fresh perspective (“I saw my aunt again last night/…sculpturing a Picasso”), exquisite metaphors (“tears that come like petals from the wind”), and empathetic voice for the voiceless (wearing “Old Clothes” that “cried out for them/ just like your open hands.”)
These are poems you can identify with and want to read again. In the fourth section, “Rembrandt’s Bible,” for example, it’s easy to picture “Satan in the Desert,” saying, “Look kid,…it’s like this – / I make you an offer, you make a counter offer – / really, we shouldn’t even be talking/ you sure you haven’t got an agent?” Or, picture the title poem where the Philistines might someday approach the artist and “…come to bear him away/ And he’ll pull their house down on their tongues/ By putting his hand through their paint.”
As I said, I want to read these poems again, and, most likely, you will too. So be it.
Rembrandt’s Bible, paperback