14 September 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/37

An Arab Shepherd is Searching for His Goat on Mount Zion

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion

and on the opposite mountain I am searching
for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
both in their temporary failure.
Our voices meet
above the Sultan's Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants
the child or the goat to get caught in the wheels
of the terrible Had Gadya machine.

Afterward we found them among the bushes

and our voices came back inside us, laughing and crying.

Searching for a goat or a son

has always been the beginning
of a new religion in these mountains.

Yehuda Amichai, translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch

The two men here may seem opposites: a Jew and an Arab, wandering on what has long been contested ground. The speaker is the Jewish man, but he begins by describing not his own plight but the other man's. The Jew is a father and presumably an avatar of the poet, and therefore someone connected to the larger world of literature and scholarship. The Arab is a shepherd, therefore presumably a fairly poor man (why else would he be searching for a single goat?), one affected by but not directly connected to the larger currents in the world. His very profession hearkens back to the pre-Biblical inhabitants of that land (shepherd is an emotionally loaded and significant term in the Hebrew scriptures – among many examples, think of the celebrated Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd" – and it remains a resonant term in the Gospels, particularly in the image of a shepherd searching for a single lost animal, as this man is). The Jewish man, despite his social voice as a celebrated poet, is presented here in an intimate, personal capacity, as a father. The Arabian man, despite his low social status and prehistoric profession, is connected to the world through his work: he is one of those supplying food to the city. He is wandering on Mount Zion, sacred to Jews for millenia. The Jewish father is on the opposite mountain. The Sultan's Pool is between them: the Sultan's Pool is a basin of water dating back to King Herod, later enlarged under the Ottoman Sultans, after whom it is named. It's a reminder of the many layers of history and contradictory possession that lie invisibly over this region.

There are many contrasts between the two men, but at heart, both are searching. (Both are searching for a kid, actually). Both share a "temporary failure": they have lost what they need to find again. Their voices mingle in the space between them.

The speaker refers to "the terrible Had Gadya machine." But Had Gadya (also transliterated Chad Gadya) is a playful song in Hebrew and Aramaic traditionally sung at the end of the Pesach seder. (The polyglot nature of the song in itself furthers the poem's representation of two cultures inextricably intertwined.) It's a cumulative song, in the style of The House That Jack Built, starting off with "one little goat" (you may find lyrics and some analysis of the song here): the goat that the Father bought gets eaten by a cat, that's eaten by a dog, that's beaten by a stick, that's burnt by a fire, that's extinguished by water . . . and so on until at the end Messiah puts a stop to it all by killing the Angel of Death. So why is this playful nursery rhyme sort of song called a terrible machine? And why would it affect the Jewish child as well as the little goat who might be its subject?

There are several possibilities. One is simply the relentless cumulative nature of songs like this: there's no escape from the ever-lengthening chain of creature finishing off creature. Then there are several allegorical interpretations of the song. The one that is probably most relevant here sees it as a history of the various conquerors of the Jewish nation: in other words, the song implies the inescapability of cumulative history. Both men are aware of the lurking potential for terrible tragedy for those who wander searching in these sacred and contested grounds.

The beginnings of that history are suggested when the lost goat and son are "found among the bushes": presumably not the same bushes, since the men are on separate hills, but the phrasing makes it sound as if both make the discovery in the same place, part of a pattern of connections between the searchers. The discovery brings to mind the patriarch Abraham, ordered to sacrifice his son Isaac as a proof of obedient faith in his God until divine intervention halted him and substitutes a ram caught in a thicket. After their discoveries, we get a burst of human emotion: laughing and crying.

Their voices return inside of them once they find, respectively, the son and the goat. Perhaps the voices projected outward during the searches are part of why these searches can end up as "the beginning of a new religion." (There's not only the suggestion of Abraham here, and of the wandering tribes that gave birth to Judaism and Islam, but perhaps also a suggestion of Mary going to the Temple to look for her lost son.) Both men live in a place of ever-present historical pressures and dangers; the poem implies that they are well aware of this, and want to recover what they've lost before things escalate to tragedy. Perhaps there is a delicate suggestion here, given the pairing of the two men searching for precious living things, that a new religion might form simply through a shared sense of compassion over the "temporary failures" that make up our lives.

This is from Poems of Jerusalem by Yehuda Amichai, collected in a bilingual edition with Love Poems. It looks as if a major edition of the poet's work, The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, edited by Robert Alter, will be issued in early November.


Shushu said...

Perfect poem for the New Year! I also read The Real Hero and The Eve of Rosh Hashanah, from my City Lights sojourn. Thank you!

Patrick J. Vaz said...

l'shana tovah to you! Which book were those poems in -- also Amichai?

I was thinking about you this evening! I went to Sweeney Todd at the opera. I just got back, it's after midnight, and I have to work tomorrow, so sorry if this is incoherent. Peace & blessings!

Shushu said...

Yes, they are all Amichai. I have The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, with translations from both Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell. It references 11 different collections of his, from 1955 through 1989. I'm glad we were at City Lights during poetry week!

Peace & Blessings & Sweeney Todd!