From OLAM SHANA NEFESH
By Jane Medved:
They think it is the young girls singing
you see, we pull them to us as smoothly
as oiled rope uncurls into golden braids.
It only takes a few minutes before everything
they see is woman. The pale skin of the sails
spreading like thighs, the thick knots
that tie the anchor turning to strands
of dampened hair held by a lover
before she shakes it free. The salt tastes
as sweet as sweat and soon the ship’s thrust
into the sea becomes unbearable.
This would be enough for galley slaves,
soldiers who tattoo fortunes on their scars,
the simple, parched sailors. But they are not
the ones we want. When we see the heroes
whose fierce deeds fall like hammers, we lay
aside our nocturne of desire. We sing instead
as a mother holds a dying child until
the horizon is the circle of our arms, the wind
a cloth wrapping them in its whisper, the waves
a gentle hush upon each creaking of the deck.
“Do not be afraid. You will be remembered and reborn.”
There is a cable and it reaches
from the side of loving kindness
to the cold window across the room
taking over the function of your heart
which is tired of trying to make blood
out of air. Some days it’s just too hard
to keep on lifting, to appear in a robe
which keeps on falling, exposing
all sorts of intimate matters and the
little whispers beneath. Do not worry.
You are the hand, the page, the white fire
and you cannot be erased. The black letters
will burn and sing and declare themselves
but they are nothing without your silence;
which is not the absence of words, empty
as the howl of a bowl, but the promise made
between all words before they are spoken,
that they will reach across the black lines
and know each other again, even
if they no longer recognize themselves.
LEAVING A NOTE AT THE WESTERN WALL
There is a splintered door leading
nowhere and a lot of women crying
today I can’t even get near the wall.
Luckily I have my own tricks.
I place my arm over a young girl’s shoulder,
sigh sympathetically as she bends
her head in prayer, then edge myself
into her space. Everyone wants to touch
God’s face, to press their forehead
against his slippery cheek and brush
the pitted marks beneath, thank you
for my eyes, my legs, my arms, my breath.
Herod did a good job, the ancient stones
hold solid. They outweigh the base
of the great pyramids and nothing moves
them, perhaps they are even held up
by pleading, since every crack is filled
with scraps of blue-lined paper, torn
index cards, a piece of yellow legal pad,
a folded napkin, sealed envelopes, airmail,
express, please, listen, thank you for my eyes,
my legs, my arms, my breath, excuse me,
a woman pushes past me, excuse me please,
when she reaches for the wall a handful
of notes loosen and fall at our feet.
The chair behind me is piled with prayers
as morning, evening and darkness
make their requests, songs from the sons
of Korach even though their father moans
in the earth thank you for my arms,
my legs, my eyes, my breath, women beg
the matriarchs and children press letters
into fists of stone while God sends back his answers
– No and no and no.
Today’s poems are from Olam, Shana, Nefesh (Finishing Line Press, 2014), copyright © 2014 by Jane Medved, and appear here today with permission from the poet.
Olam, Shana, Nefesh: “‘Olam, Shana, Nefesh’ is a Kabbalistic phrase used to describe the three dimensions of Place, Time and Person. Olam is most commonly translated as ‘world.’ But in Hebrew olam comes from the root of the word ‘hidden.’ This implies that place always has an unrevealed element to it; that we are surrounded by a reality beyond what is immediately visible. Shana literally means ‘year.’ It invokes an image of repetition, re-visiting, return, a never -ending cycle of months. In the Jewish calendar time is not a passive backdrop to human endeavor, but an active force whose windows of opportunity open and close, blossom and die just like the seasons. Nefesh can be translated as ‘person’ but it refers to the spirit as well as the body; the infusion of the divine into the physical. This is an inherently volatile combination, since a human being always contains a push and pull between the material and the spiritual, the body with its appetites and fears and the spirit. This is ‘person’ as the container of the animal and the divine.” – From Olam, Shana, Nefesh (Finishing Line Press, 2014)
Jane Medved is the poetry editor of the Ilanot Review, the on-line literary magazine of Bar Ilan University, Tel Aviv. Her chapbook, Olam, Shana, Nefesh, was released by Finishing Line Press in 2014. Her recent essays and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Lilith Magazine, Mudlark, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Cimarron Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Tupelo Quarterly and New American Writing. A native of Chicago, Illinois, she has lived for the last 25 years in Jerusalem, Israel.
Editor’s Note: Olam, Shana, Nefesh is an absolutely stunning collection. A rare assortment of meditations on myth and history, religion, spirituality, sensuality, gender and place. The questions posed are epic, the answers as small and as critical as breath. The poems themselves are absolutely gorgeous in their own right; lyric delights that any reader would feel indulgent slipping into, with moments like “The salt tastes / as sweet as sweat and soon the ship’s thrust // into the sea becomes unbearable,” “The black letters // will burn and sing and declare themselves / but they are nothing without your silence,” and “Everyone wants to touch / God’s face.” But this book is even more rewarding for those readers familiar with the rich landscapes the poems call and respond to. How rewarding is “Sirens” for those well-versed in Greek mythology, how brilliant “White Fire” for those who know and love midrash, and how masterful “Leaving a Note at the Western Wall” for students of religion and history, for Jewish women, for those who have been to Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, who have “press[ed] their forehead[s]/ against [God’s] slippery cheek and brush[ed] / the pitted marks beneath, [saying] thank you / for my eyes, my legs, my arms, my breath.”