Friday, January 30, 2015

Deuteronomy 7: In Writing

Strong as death
harder than hell
engrave me in your heard
brand me on your breast.

Let me be
a searing flame
a whirling wind
uprooting trees
scattering dead words
 like leaves
till only my voice
in the silence

let me be
the rushing current
that sweeps the shore
rises in sap

and buds in the bright fruit

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Deuteronomy: Chapter 7

Dedication and devastation
Devouring desire

[For full chapter, click here
The past chapters have revolved around the recreation of the covenant at Sinai, building towards a relationship in which "you shall love God your Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might." Now we move to how this covenant will play out "when God brings you to the Land to which you will come to inherit." There is a tautology in this definition: God brings you to a land defined by the fact that you come there.
This tautology is thematic to the chapter. Love is defined by the fact that one was chosen; one was chosen because of love. Relationships are not defined not by objective parameters--"God did not choose you because you were numerous, for you are the smallest of all people" Rather, they are created by choice and commitment: "but because God loved you, and because He kept to the oath that he swore to your fathers..." This commitment must be absolute and  reciprocal: "God your a faithful God, who keeps the covenant...with those that love him and keep his commandments." The key words of the chapter highlight this: "keep" (sh'm'r); "covenant" (brit); "face" (p'n'm); love (a'h'v).
Here, the implications of a "jealous God" become apparent: The relationship must be all consuming. There can be no competition. All other gods of the land must be utterly destroyed: "smash their altars, break their high-stones, uproot their Asheras, and burn with fire their statues". "You shall make no covenant with them"--the only covenant is with God, and any unfaithfulness will lead to utter devastation. The implicit metaphor is of a jealous marriage. There can be no bigamy: "you shall not marry them... for they will remove your son from following Me, and they will serve other gods. Then God's anger will flame out against you, and will quickly destroy you."
Being "holy" is being dedicated, set aside. Any adulteration will not be tolerated. Destroy, or be destroyed: "the graven images of their gods you will burn with fire. You shall not covet the silver or gold that is in them...they are an abomination to God, your Lord... you shall utterly detest it. you shall utterly abhor it."]

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Deuteronomy 6: In Writing

The light through the drapes
the thread of road winding away
the warm smell of sunned olives
the heavy vines that shiver and sway
against  hair and arms

Are binds that bite flesh
twining the heart,
flinging forward to net
the fluttering wind,
making all words one:
I am here.

Sinai of the body
of sloped belly,
of heavy haunches 
sinking and springing, 
to trace the bonds
we weave each day

Monday, January 26, 2015

Deuteronomy: Chapter 6

The bonds that tie
And consume, 
Hand,  body,  soul 
How do you bind the heart? 
Make my name your word

[For full chapter, click here

"Hear, therefor O Israel"--this chapter continues Moses' anaphoric exhortations to the nation, culminating in the most famous need to "hear": "Hear, O Israel: God is our Lord, God is One." From actions ("the commandment, the statutes, and the ordinances") we have moved to being and emotion: " and you shalt love God your Lord, with all your heart, with all thy soul, with all your might."If the previous chapter established the need for distance, this chapter establishes a new kind of closeness: not to an external voice and perception that overwhelms, but rather a bond that comes from within, from inside  the human heart (one of the key words of the chapter): "these words that I commanded you this day, shall be on your heart." This is the chapter of presence/ Rather than consuming, God's presence here permeates: "you shall speak of them when you sit in your home, when you walk on  the way, when you lie down, when you rise." It becomes a self-engendered bond, both literal--"you shalt bind them as a sign upon your arm"--and figurative-- "you shalt ...swear by His name." God's name becomes the way  to bind yourself, and make your word your bond. It creates a bond between generations, as the chapter repeatedly highlights what must be "said to your children."

Yet presence is still dangerous. God is a "jealous God," and betrayal of the bonds can lead to a taking away of what was "given"]

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Deuteronomy 5: In Writing

Faced with your face
who retains a face?

What eyes are not
dissolved in your flame?

Immolated to
ash-laden air

burdening clouds,
clustered with flocks

livid flame,
blinding as black

Crushed by a weight
I can’t escape

Tremble in dark dense
fingering a way away

From the vocative

that compacts the flesh
wakes decayed corporality

in the still of my palms

sere as a smoking pyre
I feel the brand

Your face fills the hollows of my face

Deuteronomy: Chapter 5

The extended presence
here and not here

distance or death

In a world of consummation
who will stand between
and leave a space within?

[For full chapter, click here,
Beginning again, Moses once again recounts the story of the covenant at Sinai/Horeb. This chapter continues, develops, and departs from the previous one. The keywords remain the same: an emphasis on sight and sound (re'eh, eynayim, sh'm'a). "Voice" "kol", "come close" (k'r'v); and "guard, keep" (sh'm'r). Now, however,  another root gains prominence:  "life / alive" (hayim). 
If the previous chapter revolved around the dangerous power of direct perception--and so focused on the Second Commandment's prohibition on graven images--this chapter focuses on the aftermath of that perception. It lists the full Ten Pronouncements, but as told over by Moses, highlighting his part. If the previous chapter dealt with the danger of translating an overwhelming experience into a limited pictorial form, this chapter deals with the danger of overwhelming experience itself: 
when you heard the voice from the midst of the darkness, while the mountain blazed in fire, you came near me…and said: ‘…We have seen this day that God speaks with a human, and he may live.  Now why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we keep hearing the voice of God our Lord more, we will die.”  

The consummation of a relationship with the Divine is literal consummation. Nothing is left from the conflagration of sound and sight. Give me distance, or give me death, Israel demands: "You go close and hear all that God our Lord will say, and tell us…” The text enacts this transformation of Moses transition into a living translator between the people and God: “Then God heard the voice of your words when you spoke to me, and God said to me: ‘I have heard the voice of the words of this people which they have spoken to you. They have spoken rightly..'” The people speak to Moses and God responds, Moses a transparent membrane between.

This chapter is about the value of distance. Moses' position as intermediary translates the divine word into human terms that can be "taught" (l’m’d, another key word of this chapter). The generation of direct perception indeed “die.” This generation of the “living” is still branded by the fires of Horeb, but at a remove. They are virtually both there and not there, both face-to -face and separated:
“God our Lord made a covenant with us in Horeb. …not with our fathers, but with us, those who are here today, all of us who are living.  God talked with you face to face on the mountain from the midst of the fire. I stood between God and you…”
 God’s command to return to the private spaces of “your tents” creates a protective space for human continuity.  Moses, who remained “standing with Me” alone on the mountain,  still remains alone on the mount of Nebo, never to truly come down. He is not one of the “living” but remains in the liminal space between the living and the dead, between the land and the wilderness, between the human and the divine.]

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Deuteronomy 4: In Writing

Watch yourself
with gimlet gaze
as you look
at fleeing deer
at ox that lumber
at fowl that flock the sky
at the scuttling earth
and the swarming fish
that bear the mountains on their flitting fins

At the heart of heaven
that cobalt dream
at blinding sun,
cool moon
withdrawing stars
and the hordes that haunt the clouds

When fire roars
in lashing flames
the gold cackle of the consumed
that licks your guts
and rises within
ashes in your mouth
gusted on the wind
to sink to the sea

Watch and see
the shadow
the air within the wings
the ice-blue heart of flame
the dark between
And the silence stretching beneath sound

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Deuteronomy: Chapter 4

What you see
And what you don't see.

Can you still the fire
Within bonds of form?

See the voice in the heart of the sky
in the depth of the fire

The silence on the other side of Being

[For full chapter, click hereFollowing directly from the description of Moses' view over the Promised Land, this chapter focuses on the power--and danger--of the visual. "Your eyes have seen," Moses says, ""Look!"he commands. "Guard yourself! Carefully guard your soul, lest thou forget the things that your eyes saw, lest they depart from your heart all the days of thy life."Side by side with the need to carefully remember and preserve the "witness" is the equally urgent need to guard against what was not seen.  The presentness of the visual makes it dangerous, leads to drive to "create forms" to hold what cannot be held. 
"You came near and stood under the mountain; and the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven,...And God spoke to you from the fire: you heard the voice of the words, but saw no image; only a voice....Therefor guard yourself, for you saw no image on the day...lest you become corrupted and make a graven image, the picture of any figure, the likeness of male or female,  the likeness of any beast on the earth, the likeness of any winged birds that fly through the air, the likeness of any thing that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that swims the waters beneath the earth lest thou lift up your eyes to the heavens, and when you see the sun, and the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you should be driven to worship them..."
What is seen is a voice, not a form, a fire that defies any direct gaze. This dangerous tension between seeing and not seeing, having and not having, runs throughout the key words of the chapter: "see" vs. "listen"; "guard/ take care" (sh'm'r) vs. "come close" (k'r'v).Even as Israel prepares to enter the Promised Land, to have and possess, Moses' dispossession echoes beneath, in a triple negative: "God was angry with me for your sakes, and swore that I should not cross the Jodan, that I should not go in that good land...that I  die in this land, and not be (eyneni, lit., nothingness) crossing the Jordan.You shall go over, and possess that good land"
 The delicate balance between seeing more than you see, or forgetting what was seen teeters: "Guard yourself, lest ye forget the covenant of God, your Lord, ...make you a graven image...For God your Lord is a consuming fire, a jealous power." Not having and dispossession looms at the horizon, a loss of both sight and sound: 
"I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that you shall perish from off the Land...God will scatter you among the nations, and you shall be left few in number...And there you shall serve gods, the work of men’s hands, wood and stone, which neither see, nor hear..."
What is left is only Moses' promise that there is a way out of the "furnace," that what cannot be truly seen can nonetheless be found: "You will seek God your Lord, and you will find Him, if you search for him with all your heart and all your soul."The chapter ends with a chaisatic closing that returns us to the opening of the book: this is the initial message that Moses gave the people. A message laced with pain and resentment--Moses blames the people three times for his death!--yet also with the hope that Moses himself is denied. Unlike Moses, who was told to be silent, Israel will be heard.)

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Deuteronomy 3: In Writing

Look out 
on unfurled longing
rising from the east, 
outstretched to the south,
winding to the setting sun
a lodestar of desire.

I am surrounded
by caverns of craving
wellings of want.
To see, and not to have
not to have and not to hold
not to hold and not to touch
not to touch and not to taste

Gritty and parched,
my mouth is a desert
never to be quenched.
my flesh,
is wavering, evaporating
as even your face melts away.

My call is lost in the heights
an eagle circling in lonely flight.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Deuteronomy: Chapter 3

Stand and gaze

At the limits of longing

To see, and not to have

[For full chapter, click here
After the long list of all the land that has "not been given" (n't'n --the key word of these two chapters) to Israel, we come at last to the land that is "given": "And God said, fear him not, for I have given him into your hands." We come to  Og, the last of the "remnant of the Rephaim"--that mysterious race of giants whose country Israel wanders. He is the giant who has been been left in waiting until Israel arrives to inherit. 
Yet to truly have what is "given," one must also actively :take"--va-nikakh. Only after an active involvement can give over the gift, as Moses does when "gives" the land of Og to Reuben and Gad; or rename the gift, as the tribe of Manasseh does, making the land truly theirs. 
The refrain of multiple names developes the key theme of retelling, recounting--the "deuter (second, retelling) nomos (of the law)" that gives this book its name. Renaming is retelling in the deepest sense,highlighting different perspectives, the alternate realities.  
Yet the chapter that begins with "giving" and inheritance ends with denial, and with absolute limits:"It is enough for you(rav le-kha! Do not continue (al tosef) to speak to me on this matter." We return to the refrain of limits, the "rav le-kha" that began this journey. Moses will not be allowed into the Promised Land. 
His longing is palpable. It paints the land in idealized shades: "the good land" "the good mountain." Even when recounting the story of the spies, Moses can only say the favorable aspect of the report: "the Land is good." However, despite this love, Moses, like the generation that rejected the land, will die in the desert: "God was wroth with me because of you." 
But if the nation would not even "see" the land, Moses is allowed to look: "Climb you to the top of the mountain, and lift  your eyes westward, and northward, and southward, and eastward, and behold with thine eyes." This is a gaze with no consummation. It is Joshua  who will be granted the fulfilled eyesight: "And I commanded Joshua at that time, saying: 'Your eyes have seen all that God your Lord has done to these two kings; so shall God do unto all the kingdoms where you cross over."
The final verse, with its reference to being "across Peor,"  sets up an implicit link between Moses, in his longing  lonely lookout, and Balaam's earlier all seeing gaze, looking over the people of Israel. Broad scope that comes at the expense of having. Like Balaam, Moses' voice is ultimately silenced: "Do not speak of this matter again" This "book of words" is also the book of the  limit on human speech in the face of divine decree]

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Deuteronomy 2: In Writing

As you walk the haunted land
Don’t turn off the path
Don’t pick the fruit
Don’t suck its succulence
Don’t wing your fingers through the waving wheat
Don’t cup the pool
Don’t drink deep
Don’t long for its wet icy sweet
Don’t press the springy soil
Don’t lie in its embrace
Don’t want
Don’t take.

Give the cold glint of silver
watch it refract back
till both hands are filled
and you have with not having

Deuteronomy: Chapter 2

What is given
And what is not given to you
The specificity of belonging
You cannot have what is yours
if they do not what is theirs

The roads you cannot take 
You cannot be the one and only 
Through you wander the haunted land

[For full chapter, click here
Moses continues his retelling of the years in the Wilderness. Once again, it is a personalized, driven narrative, rather than a straightforward recounting. 38 years of wandering are passed over with a single statement--"Enough of you (rav la-chem) circling this mountain. Turn you northward!"
This is a direct echo of God's earlier command to leave Mount Sinai in the previous chapter: "God spoke to us in Horeb, saying: 'Enough of you (rav la-chem) sitting around this mountain. Turn you and journey to the mountain of the Emorites." Thus, with one command, the truncated journey resumes, and the years of wandering are elided. 
Elided also are Edom and Moab's attempted or failed attacks on Israel. For Moses, what is essential is that Israel was not permitted to attack--not these nation's actual response to Israel's presence. We have entered the mysterious "land of the Rephaim"--those terrible giants that  had so terrified Israel  ("Our brethren have melted our hearts, saying: The people is greater and taller than we; the cities are great and fortified up to heaven; we have seen the sons of the giants there!"), and are now approaching the Promised Land. And Israel get ever closer, it becomes more and more essential to define what land is "given" (natan) to them, and what is not. God's gifts are not exclusive. The Land will only be given to Israel  to "inherit" if they respect the inheritance of others. This "land of the giants" is given to broader Israelite family--"your broth Esau", Lot, Abraham's nephew. All members of a family must have their place if any are to have their place. This is repeated again and again:
"do contend not with them; for I will not give you of their land, no, not so much as for the sole of the foot to tread on; because I have given mount Seir unto Esau for an inheritance" 
" 'Be not at enmity with Moab, neither contend with them in battle; for I will not give thee of his land for a possession; because I have given Ar unto the children of Lot for an inheritance" 
" when thou comest nigh over against the children of Ammon, harass them not, nor contend with them; for I will not give thee of the land of the children of Ammon for an inheritance; because I have given it unto the children of Lot for an inheritence."
.The journey through the Land of the Giants is a journey of limits: "it is enough for you" (rav la-hem). Before you can "arise and inherit" you must learn what you cannot inherit. The road is defined by the road not taken, and what is truly yours is defined by knowing what is not yours. ]   

Friday, January 16, 2015

Deuteronomy 1: In Writing

The current runs through my dreams
rise and fall
of waves that dart
as she bears me down 
woven walls
and the quiet beat
of her breast against my chest

I hear the stems sway away
flock of sparrows
landing on my sleep
but when I wake, no
eyes watch
and no arm reaches
across the water to pull me in

Trapped on the far shore, I
entangled in your 
matted roots, beneath your
bunted packs of seed
that burst to the touch,
untouched, alone.
Sinking under the weight
of your endless complaint
in a cradle
endlessly rocking, as the waves roll on

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Deuteronomy: Chapter 1

Who and when and where?

Layers of narration

Before and between and across

Mutability of relation

What lies before your face

[For full chapter, click here
A new book, and what a change of ambiance! If the closing of Numbers revolved around a growing complexity in our relationship to language, the opening of this Book of Words (the literal meaning of the Hebrew name, Devarim) feels almost like a text book play on literary narration. 
We open with am omniscient narrator: "These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel--on the edge of the Jordan, in the wilderness, in the plain, across the Sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tofel...." From there we move to the interdiegetic  first-person narration in Moses' voice: "God our Lord spoke to us in Horeb, saying..." And from there into an intra-inter-diegetic level of narration, in the reported speech: "and you crowded on me, all of you, and said: 'Let us send men before us, that they may search the land for us, and bring us back word of the way by which we must go up, and the cities unto which we shall come."
And with the proliferation of narrative levels comes an almost post-modern play on the narrative strategy and the process of storytelling. For Moses' retelling is a not a straightforward rendition of the stories we have heard before. Speakers change--words that were spoken by God are now spoken by the people, words attributed to Moses are suddenly put in God's mouth, Moses' prayer to God becomes an adress to the people; stories are conflated --the punishment of Moses becomes part of the story of the spies, rather than a separate incident; related events merge into a single cry of pain. Jethro's advice to appoint judges in conflated with Moses' later demand for help "How can I bear alone, your cumbrance, your weight, your strife."
Yet even as the players and events change, they key words remain the same--"alone" "spy" "cry": we can recognize the incident through the indelible presence of the leitwort, which takes on its own reality. A dream redreamed, a story retold. There is a core of truth--the key word--seen through different levels of perspectives (Moses' viewpoint) and time (retrospective recounting).  Not for nothing is the chapter built around multiple coordinates in space and time, a dizzying mix of prepositions:"in" "against""before"  "between".  Robert Alter's comparison between Biblical narration and Cubist art is particularly apt in this chapter.  
The conflation of time frames emphasizes the thematic image of childhood that echoes throughout the chapter: "you saw that God carried you, like a man carries his son, through all the paths you walked, until you came to this place". We return to the childhood of humanity itself:  "your little ones...and your children, who today know not good and evil, they shall go in [to the Land], and unto them will I give it, and they shall possess it."
Implicit is also the return to Moses' childhood. Moses' address is defined by the coordinates of the "Reeds" and the Jordan River--two boundaries of water for the child who was "drawn from the water." If the Jordan represents unpassable water, the "Reeds" returns us to those moments on the back of the water, before the arc got caught "in the reeds", and the later moment when Moses "parted the waters" to allow Israel to escape Egypt. 
Moses' birth, his moment if greatness,  and his end are all held within these boundaries. And the sad irony that the man who split the sea cannot cross the river. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Hello to Deuteronomy

It’s been weeks since my last post. Scary how quickly the time flies, and how easy it is to slide softly, unnoticeably, from a commitment.
But the preparations for Deuteronomy have been an important lesson too—it getting fixated, and letting go.
On the day I finished with Numbers, I walked out to ceremoniously buy myself a new sketchbook for Deuteronomy. Nothing appealed. (Yes, I have a fetish about my sketchbooks. They have to be the right size, the right texture, the right weight in my hands. Bibliophilia run wild). I leave disappointed, to try the second art supply shop, when lo! There on the bench, right outside the Artist House, is a pile of old books.
One is a crumbling copy of an old German translation of the psalms. It’s love at first sight. Old, yellowish paper. Cloth cover with gold. A perfect size.  The irregular shape of the text running down the middle of the page.

That’s it! I think. Deuteronomy—the “second telling”, or in Hebrew, Mishne Torah: the review of the Torah. This is the book of retelling, when Moses gives his own version of the books gone by. What better medium than a requisitioned book? Do an actual second telling, with palimpsests coming through beneath. Obviously, it was meant to be! Here it was, waiting for me just as I searched (amazing how God always falls in with our plans, isn't it?)
Problem solved, I waltzed back to the studio, feeling destiny was on my side. The plan was to begin Deuteronomy that very day, after I typed up my “Goodbye to Numbers”. A little gesso over the text to blur it, and the drawing above. Alas, the problems began right away. The paper was fragile and crumbling. A bit of gesso, and it began to tear. The ancient ink spread, staining the gesso a dirty grey. But by now I was committed. Obviously it  was meant to be. The answer was to stick pages together for durability, and put on another, heavier layer of gesso. Then I had to wait for it to dry, so obviously I couldn’t begin that day. It’s all right, I though. I’ll wait. Preparation is part of the process. The next day, I realized I would need to prepare several pages in advance, or the drawings would get ruined as I glued papers together. Wait again.

Meanwhile, my trip to Limmud was fast approaching, and I had not yet begun Deuteronomy.
I prepared more pages. Some warped, some tore. I left for Limmud, and convinced myself that it was for the best, that there is only so much you can juggle; convinced I would still get it to work.
Now I’m back, post London excitement, and I've fallen behind, thanks to my grand visions of needing to use this book. Time and distance do much. I got back to the studio, and realized that the book was not the magical bit of perfection I thought it, and that maybe this wasn’t actually meant to be. As I removed the cup I had put to separate the pages as the gesso dried, another page tore.

It was a moment of letting go.
I do love the texture of the gesso and the book, and even of the tears and repairs. But if I keep trying to prepare it, Deuteronomy will move further and further away.
At the end of the day, I think continuity is more important than perfection. So I’ll leave my requisitioned book for another day, and use a plain sketch book I picked up in London, that might not be perfection, but is hard cover, and thick enough to survive ware and tare an ink.
I still want to keep the idea of review and retelling. It is,  I believe, the link between Numbers and Deuteronomy.  Numbers revisited the pivotal stories of Exodus,  retelling them from the broader national perspective of the Encampment. Deuteronomy returns yet again, this time from a personal viewpoint: the words of the man who was “not a man of words”—Moses.

Rather than retelling on a requisitioned book, I will revisit all the media that I’ve used so far: the graphite of Genesis; Conte crayon of Exodus; White charcoal of Leviticus, and the ink if Numbers. My second telling will be a mixed media, bringing together the pictorial voices of the first four books. 

Onwards! (finally!)