I, Kohelet, was king of Jerusalem,
I really was.
Treading over a thousand flowers on my way to the white bed
where my wives waited to remove the crown from my head–
made of marzipan in the biting of sweet tongues–
my silk rubbing against their silk, my flesh would choose among
them, and my flesh was already sweet in their flesh.
Kohelet, I held a thousand women
and I didn’t have a single one
I could recognize by smell
or by her skin or her feet,
her steps as she walked away from me: David’s lament.
Her steps toward me: his song.
I am Kohelet, Solomon,
my linen is the mystery of shrouds
and my bitten crown is above me.
אני קוהלת מלך הייתי בירושלים
דורך על אלף פרחים בדרכי למיטה הלבנה
שם חיכו נשותי, שהסירו את כתר ראשי
העשוי מרציפן בנגיסת לשונות מתוקות, משיי
מתחכך במשיין, והייתי בוחר מתוכן לבשרי,
ובשרי כבר מתוק בבשרן.
קוהלת החזקתי אלף נשים
ולא היתה לי אישה יחידה
לזהות את ריחה
צעדיה ממני: קינת דוד
צעדיה אלי: שירתו
אני קוהלת שלמה
סתרי תכריכים של סדיני
וכתרי הנגוס מעלי.
(Today’s poem originally appeared in The Bakery, was published in the collection Esrim Ne’arot LeKane [Twenty Girls to Envy Me] (Sifriat Poalim, Tel Aviv, 2003), and appears here today with permission from the translator.)
Orit Gidali is an Israeli poet. Her first poetry collection, Esrim Ne’arot LeKane [Twenty Girls to Envy Me], was published by Sifriat Poalim in 2003. Gidali is also the author of Smikhut [Construct State] (2009), and the children’s book Noona Koret Mahshavot [Noona the Mindreader] (2007). She is married to poet Ben-Ari Alex, and is a mother, writing workshop facilitator, and lecturer in the Department of Communication at Tel Aviv University.
Marcela Sulak is the author of two collections of poetry and has translated three collections of poetry from the Czech Republic and Congo-Zaire. Her essays appear in The Iowa Review, Rattle, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. She directs the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University, where she is senior lecturer in American Literature.
Editor’s Note: Kohelet is the original Hebrew name for Ecclesiastes, one of the Writings that comprises a portion of the Hebrew Bible. The book is an autobiographical account of Kohelet’s search for the meaning of life and the best way to live. Kohelet introduces himself as “son of David, king in Jerusalem,” and is therefore sometimes believed to be Solomon. This book, however, was written anonymously and is believed to have ben penned late in the 3rd century B.C.E., while Solomon’s reign was circa 970 to 931 B.C.E.
In today’s piece the poet associates Kohelet with King Solomon and explores the notion that “heavy is the head that wears the crown.” To get to his marriage bed the king must trample a thousand flowers. He has “held a thousand women” (Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines and may have had an affair with the Queen of Sheba), but “didn’t have a single one / [he] could recognize by smell / or by her skin or her feet.” His wives remove his crown from his head—perhaps an allusion to his wives’ polytheism which influenced Solomon and displeased God—and at that his crown is “made of marzipan” and therefore vulnerable to “the biting of sweet tongues.” In the end he is left shrouded in mystery with a bitten crown.
As fascinating as the midrashic element of today’s piece is, it is the vibrant and lyrically explicit language that brings the scene to life. The beauty of the lyric is itself almost biblical: “my silk rubbing against their silk, my flesh would choose among / them, and my flesh was already sweet in their flesh.” It was no small effort on the part of the poem’s translator, Marcela Sulak, whose original work was featured on this series last week, to translate today’s poem from Hebrew into English while still maintaining elements of rhyme, meter, and lyric beauty. This is a piece as rich in English as in the original Hebrew, and which carries as much depth and beauty in both languages.