IN THE INNER COURT: A PURIM MONODRAMA
Purim has special meaning for those who bear the name Esther. For me there is a story connected with that name, which I am going to try to tell here. The poem you are about to read is something of an “ancient mariner” performance (back in 1982 I wrote a poem called “The Routine of the Ancient Mariner,” and I am still at it).
The Ancient Mariner, as I hope most of you know, is an extended ballad by Samuel Taylor Coleridge about a person to whom something soul-shattering has happens that he carries with him for the rest of his life. Toward the end of his narration to a guest whom he is detaining from entering a wedding hall, he says:
I pass like night from land to land,
I have strange power of speech.
The moment that his face I see,
I know the man who must hear me —
To him my tale I teach.
I feel the need to add one statement that is intended both as fair warning and as a plea for openness: this is in some ways a disreputable story. It involves a spiritual encounter which takes place in a very dubious realm. In a sequence of sonnets to Paul Celan, about whom you’ll hear if you so choose, I once called him “the prince of twilight”.
But in Judaism there is a certain tradition of events that would not be considered a priori desirable, but from which something redemptive springs; the origins of Ruth and the actions of Tamar are cases in point; and so, indeed, is the story of Queen Esther (“Mordechai” and “Esther” are derived from the names of the most important idols of Mesopotamian culture).
The real question of this poem is whether the story told in it can be considered in that light.
I’d like to tell a Purim story here.
I’ll tell it in blank verse, the medium
Of drama. Recently a correspondent
Reminded me of that line from “Penny Lane”
We’d liked in the ‘60’s, about the sense of being
In a play. Perhaps some year when donning
Costumes, people will think about that line,
About the characters they play in life
And what the Prompter wants them to say next.
So without further ado, here is the story.
My father’s mother’s mother’s name was Esther.
Had I been named by Jewish custom, likely
I would have been named Esther from the start
And thus, been spared this journey. But my parents
Weren’t Jewish. So instead my father’s mother
Suggested that they call me Beatrice
After the “heroine,” as she quaintly put it,
Of the Divine Comedy. Rather odd
Since Dante’s Beatrice is not a heroine,
She neither acts nor suffers, just appears
As symbol of Divine Intelligence
Or something. (There’s some Kabbalistic influence.)
Wow, did I hate that name, even before
I hit first grade and it became a source
Of humor to the kids who hated me.
I won’t repeat the variations
They played on it. Eventually I clipped it
To “Bea,” although that did not wholly solve
The problem, for that name has homonyms,
All of which, by the time this plot begins
To thicken, I had been reminded of
Many times. In a French dictionary
Of names, for “Beatrice” I found the warning:
“A promise of beauty and happiness, difficult
To keep.” About my looks, when I was young,
Opinions differed, but that I was not
A candidate for happiness, was clear.
I was the girl on the sidelines at the dance.
My other problem was that I aspired
To be a poet but did not believe
I had sufficient talent. So I thought
I’d teach the thing I loved the best–but then
Found that I didn’t like the atmosphere
In academic studies. Malcontent,
I got sucked into the maelstrom of the ‘sixties
But being just a little overage,
Also much too cerebral and judgmental,
Found myself on the margins there, as well.
So I was like a vessel no one needed,
A stone which there was no one to turn over,
When Paul Celan–a Holocaust survivor
Who wrote in German and is widely held
(That is, within poetry’s narrowing domain)
To be the foremost poet of the years
After that end–was introduced to me
As a prospective dissertation topic.
The poems spoke to me. They speak to many
(I mean, of course — to many of the few),
Although they are not quickly understood.
You feel you’ve received an urgent telegram
You can’t quite read. There’s something you must do.
Of course, the background is that utter darkness
Which he refused to name. He tried instead
To summon something else out of the depths
That could salvage what was left and give new life
To human hope. He gave that hope a shape–
You see her now and then behind the words–
And now and then he hinted at a name,
Not so much in the German which he wrote
As in the English he knew how to read.
Among the possibilities of language,
Which he explored with unmatched thoroughness
Are interlingual puns.
I didn’t hear them
At first, or want to hear. My mind was blank.
Then my professor prompted me to read
A book on Kabbala, which introduced me
To the sefirot Binah, or Understanding
(Dante’s Beatrice has traits of both.)
I met Celan once, and at a certain moment
It seemed to me he hinted at that name,
As though he saw in me the one who’d answer
To that impossible identity.
I froze and gave no answering sign, which in
That moment and long after seemed to me
Like the failure that could never be forgiven.
But then I didn’t have an answer ready.
All this was just loose pieces in my head
Till a year after Celan had made his exit.
Then, after turbulence I won’t describe,
I faced it in a spirit of assessment.
I had received an offer of employment
Of sorts: to try and play this character
On the stage of the world. To try to say what She—
This figure I had glimpsed in Dante’s verse
And in Celan’s, who seems to represent
Both understanding and community–
Would say were she to put on flesh and blood
And step forth from the shadows of concealment.
I knew I was no natural for the role–
No one would be, of course. It was absurd.
But then Celan had said something about
“The majesty of the absurd,” and I could see
That the attempt, however maladroit,
Would be at least a way of bearing witness
If only to the fact that poetry
Can still make one thing and another happen,
That words, in this world of numbers, still have meaning.
And no one else had found a use for me.
So I decided I would take the part,
Though knowing I’d be awful, and indeed
The blunders that I made at trials lasting
Decades, are mortifying to recall.
The summer after I came to this decision
I came across an ad — in the back pages
Of a collection of essays on Celan–
For a certain treatise on the book of Esther
That sees the Purim story as the emergence
Of a hidden dimension existence
Manifested by the leading figure,
An order other than that represented
By the dualities of Medes and Persians.
Then at the dentist’s office, paging through
An issue of McCall’s, I found a story
By Sylvia Plath, about someone named Esther–
It said she wished that she had been born Jewish.
(I’d read Plath just before I read Celan,
And they had always seemed to me akin.)
I dropped in at Hillel a few months later
And met the rabbi, who had just turned in
A dissertation on the book of Esther.
This focused me on a poem by Celan
In which he seems to give this character
Which he had shaped and pinned on me by hinting
at the name I so uneasily had borne,
The name of Esther (who also had two names).
So I began to feel as if I had
A Hebrew name, though it was not yet clear
That I’d convert. Celan’s work seemed addressed
To all the dwellers in this darkening world;
I heard in it a call to come together
And try to think as everyone, sort out
Our knowledge of the world and of ourselves
And draw conclusions, plot a course of action
That could affect the process of the world
More favorably than thoughtless agitation.
Over the course of several years I tried
To gather people for that purpose, pull them
Into a center that I thought I saw.
But the vessels that I fashioned shattered quickly–
I couldn’t start community from scratch.
Between successive flops I started learning
Hebrew and coming by on Friday nights.
I came to understand I was beholden
And bound to the tradition he had seemed
To move away from, and in any case
I wouldn’t last outside it. So again
I said OK. And after I was in
My mother looked in an old family record
And found my great-grandmother’s name. So this
Had evidently been plotted from the start.
But then, and afterwards, arose the question
Whether I should forget what brought me here
And simply try to be a Jewish woman,
Which is work enough for several incarnations,
Or if there was some reason why I had
To take that devious and dubious path,
Something Celan had run away to find
And want to send back, although he couldn’t
Come back, himself?
I will try here and now,
Before that hook comes out of the wings to drag
Me off the stage I’ve occupied too long,
To answer briefly. I will say: perhaps
The poem always is that queen commissioned
To come unbidden to the inner court
Of the ego obsessed with rank and power,
Caught up in realistic calculations,
Subject to promptings of the darker impulse.
Amid that court the poem must appear
As manifestation of a different law,
A different order, which could come to life
If the golden sceptre were held out to it.
Rav Kook thought poetry could play a role
In the reviving state, which thought has yet
To be unfolded fully by his students.
O now that in the secular domain
The voice of poetry is almost silenced
Beneath the pandemonium of distractions,
Could it find shelter in the beit midrash
It could unfold a vision of the world
Where Israel is indelibly inscribed
In voice reverberating to the ends
Of course it’s possible I’m crazy.
It’s also possible that sanity
Is what is killing us. The sages link
The Tree of Knowledge to Haman. Perhaps
Poetry’s one branch of the Tree of Life,
Separated from Torah by mistake,
Under the pressure of those scattering forces
That make it hard for Israel, too, to gather
Itself and make a stand. By the way, those last
Words are almost a quote from Paul Celan
Whose words still keep on surfacing in my thoughts.
He knew the ancient hatred would resurge
And Israel would be hard-pressed. I wish
He could have stayed around to back me up
Instead of leaving me to fight alone
Against, among other things, the supposition
That this is just a fantasy of mine.
But let me make this clear: I never thought
That anything he said was meant for me
Alone. The one he called by name was merely
The midpoint of the circle of his hearers,
Of all those who could think the pronoun “You”
Means him or her, each one in whom a spark
Of the Shekhinah waits for its redemption.
So let me here call out to — Mordechai,
To anyone who could take on that role,
Or knows somebody who might take it on–:
Knos et ha-Yehudim! Gather the Jews
To think about this play that’s being played
And what role each could act in it, the ways
In which each one could manifest the order
That needs to rise here, for the whole world’s sake.
I’d also like to say: come to my feast!
Thoughts poured into my mind in that encounter;
In the ensuing years I have tried to think
Those thoughts as far out as my mind could stretch,
And my Collected Works on amazon–
Most of all The Consciousness of Earth —
Are the result of nearly half a century
Of multifarious study and reflection.
Read me, and give my work a chance to speak
To you. Believe that it will speak to others.
I know it must seem late to dream such dreams.
I’m waking every morning with the sense
That time is carrying us like a freight train,
Toward an election, one Gregorian month
From now, behind which dispossession looms
On either side. What can we do about it.
The world unrolls by the laws of the Medes and Persians,
Though Darwin is the name you hear these days.
But as the events I’ve told impressed on me,
There is an alternate causality.
There have been miracles here, as we all know.
Perhaps the miracle that’s needed now
Is a resolve that could face down the doubt
Of ourselves and of our meaning for the world
That our revealed leaders seem often prey to —
Doubt, say the sages, is what Amalek stands for.
Perhaps you’ll think of me on Esther’s fast.
I pray that only good come of this telling.