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“Did, perhaps, God say: you should not eat from any tree of the garden?” (3:3) This is a common translation of the snake’s opening words, seemingly innocuous, to Eve. The word “perhaps,” in particular, creates an unthreatening atmosphere. But what did God actually say? “From all the trees you may eat, but from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, do not eat from it” (2:16-17). The snake appears to be contradicting God’s rule, which was that Eve and Adam were free to eat from all of the trees except one. The snake knows that Eve is aware of... Continue reading
Posted Jun 3, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Like poetry, the Bible often leaves out important information. Character and plot description are kept to a minimum, and emotions are often hinted at but rarely stated directly. And both sometimes contain what seem like disconnected fragments. The Bible’s narrative, Rashi wrote, is not necessarily chronological or linear. It has been said that when Moses wrote down the text, he was taking notes and did not include all of the information he heard. Perhaps this is why it is the white spaces between the words that throb with meaning and provoke questions. It is these pregnant silences that hold the... Continue reading
Posted Jun 2, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
The speaker in Emily Dickinson’s poem, “A narrow fellow in the grass,” describes her response upon each time she meets a snake: ...never met this fellow, / Attended or alone, / Without a tighter breathing, / And zero at the bone. Are these last lines from Dickinson's poem absorbing the aftershock of Eve’s encounter with the snake? What essential snake quality tightens our breathing, creating a sense of fright to our very bones? Even when the snake is not fatally threatening, its presence can be daunting on a deep psychological level. “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” A snake embodies... Continue reading
Posted Jun 1, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
If “Imagination is evidence of the Divine” then, as John Keats wrote in a letter, “What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.” When something beautiful captured Eve’s imagination, she knew it was “truth.” This link between the imagination, beauty, and truth is surprising, even counterintuitive. We would normally expect an instinctual response to beauty to involve a sense of feeling good, satisfied, a sense of enjoyment in what is pleasing to us. We don’t think of beauty as “true.” Beauty is subjective, not objective. What was Keats suggesting by this link? The Rambam (Maimonides, or Moshe Ben Maimon,... Continue reading
Posted May 31, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Yesterday I wrote that the biblical Eve lived in, as Goethe called it, “the poet’s trance.” But then the snake seduced her out of that place of passionate clarity. Rabbi Moses ben Naḥman, otherwise known as the Ramban or Nachmanides, the leading Medieval Spanish scholar who later settled in Israel, commented on the following language from the text: “Let us make humans in Our image and in Our likeness” (1:26). He wrote that the word which means “Our likeness” in Hebrew, “kidmutanu,” finds its root in the word “dimyon.” This word means “imagination.” Human beings are defined by the power... Continue reading
Posted May 30, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Last week, C.K. Williams gave the annual Poetry Society lecture in London where he quoted Goethe who said (this is paraphrased – Williams said the words quickly, and I scribbled down what I could): “The poet’s requisite trance is the most fragile element in his armory." I have been thinking about the poet’s trance—that room we enter (or room that enters us) in the middle of, or just before, writing a poem: a necessary space fusing silence and music, detachment and emotion, calm and energy. It’s a room of stirring clarity and peaceful vitality. The Goethe quote is not unlike... Continue reading
Posted May 29, 2011 at The Best American Poetry