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Midrash.

By ALAN WALL.

Part One.

1

Having no son
I knew I must sacrifice him.

Otherwise be condemned to take
leaf by leaf
the Hebrew scripture
into my mouth
and chew
till all was ashes
wormwood digested
masticated pap.
Without even the heavenly manna
of mango chutney
to add piquancy
to this mess of pottage
they’ll call for ever now my genealogy.

In the midst of heaven
stands a stone psalm
jagged as a shark’s mouth
when only teeth remain.
Here you will find
lingua adamica
no alibis
no sugar
no Valentine.

Every sacred word is salt.

Text is teeth and
what teeth chew.
Text the eating and the eaten.

The Lord devours his own
dark words
without a single one returning.

Selah.

2

Isaac Luria of Safed
crouched in the tiny synagogue
half a millennium back
comtemplating tzimtzum.

The owner of the tetragram
(blessed be His Holy Name)
did not construct creation
methodically fastidiously
as a Mesopotamian subcontractor might have done.

He took the biggest breath inwards
ever recorded
contracted His absolute immensity
by the merest fraction
and thereby ejected
this mighty catastrophe of space and time.

We perch above the whirlwind
a man on a surfboard
atop a fifty-storey wave
leaning
balancing
toppling.

Sun came pouring through a grimy window then.

Isaac swallowed it.

3

Kabbalah rebukes Noah:
so glibly setting to work on his Ark
hunting out gopher wood then splicing it
as clinkers for that mighty hull.

Telling his wife and sons to get to work
on so many al fresco meals to come
up there on deck amidst the breakers
while he’d grimace in his yolky sou’wester
hunting true north on a salt-eyed compass
eugenically selecting the prettiest pairs
out of his farmyard menagerie.

Why not argue
as Abraham argued on the road to Sodom?
Ten good men are surely worth a city, Lord.

Instead Noah sailed off to his sinless future
where amnesia and viniculture both awaited him
leaving Yahweh to ponder:

For five chapters (short ones too)
He’d invented
made things up daily
employing a creator’s whimsy –

land water light dark
stars planets good evil
Adam, his offspring
cities, their darkening alleys
creeks bayous post-partum depression –

Come Chapter Six of His own creation
one last invention
to bestow upon his children:
genocide.

How the future beckons.

Then as an afterthought:
a rainbow.

4

In Aleppo Safed Smyrna
women shriek themselves to prophecy
uttering pregnant paroxysms
automating verses of a curious beauty.

Sabbatai Zevi.

A fresh Messiah for a tired earth
a vision proliferating
orgies from Amsterdam to Cairo.

His third wife fornicated
all the way through Europe
always achieving glory
on her one-night stands.

All this was part of the plan.
For those from the Pale
nothing was now
beyond the pale.
If Pan is no more than an inch from panic
Venus is never too far from her mount.
Stars shine naked tonight
having shed
every accoutrement of decency and myth.
Even scripture slips its silky garments.
Shekhinah naked struts her stuff.

In great style our man arrived in Istanbul
announced himself Messiah
to the Caliphate.

One Turk smiled his cryptic eminence and recommended:
either bend the knee to Allah
and Mohammed his prophet
or be tortured to death
on a manifold of sharpened devices
slowly.

Zevi donned the fez.

Dialectics once more
sharpening its blades.

Between tzimtzum and tikkun
catastrophe’s exordium
and restitution
the breaking of the vessels
lets light force out at speed through fractures
by which at last we read
renewed
these first few words of Genesis
promised scripture
of our days.

5

Apostasy to Islam:
now there’s a turn-up for the books.
But be fair:
it was that or dying slowly
over blades and flames
and Torah should be uttered
never screamed.

In any case
his third wife had been so wildly
promiscuous
(ecumenical, she’d have said)
so why not Truth, her sister?

6

The rich sold up and gave it all away. Anything to egg on time towards its terminus, and call it a day. Yes, they made mistakes: the cottonwool blizzards, waterproof rain, the vegan butcher whose shop was always empty. But the Messiah was here among us, the sacred and profane had once more joined hands. If only to start arm-wrestling. A time to empty the bottle; dance naked in the dawn. Encounter finale’s melody, and join in.

7

Brothers at Qumran
fleeing the Gentiles
their profanations
also the Jews
profaned by gentile profanations
till even water in the bowl
without requisite blessings and curses
was profaned.

Wash yourself
you grow a little dirtier.

8

Apocalypse got started
every time you cut
into a fresh légume.
A carrot pregnant with revolution
as Cézanne had predicted.

Each door marked Exodus
every woman’s belly
Genesis
Torah printed in coloured inks
on your bicep tattooes.

Standing so long hungry
before revelation
you made a meal of it at last.

Apocalypse domesticated
like your cat.

Messiahs went down in history:
clay pigeons at a weekend shoot.

9

In the Wunderkammer of Emperor Rudolf
close by his palace in Prague
amidst the rotting carcasses of kraken
forty feet in diameter
several mermaid wombs
dehydrated beyond impregnation
hung the skeleton of an angel
fallen mysteriously out of use
on a mission somewhere between paradise and earth
not made of bone exactly
but an unknown silky white substance
that shone so luminously
(lux and lumen both)
whenever lamps coughed
candles guttered.

10

When Yahweh created Adam
He gave him thirty years
intestines full of masticated food
fingernails filed down
memories divinely implanted
(we all need a past
for the present to lean on.
Otherwise our life is bound to fall for ever
through eternal darkness.)

Without all this the first man would have died
even in Eden.

Rousseau insisted we are all of us born free
who sent all five of his children
down to the foundling hospital
where they could assess the virtues of equality
out of earshot of our man
busy scribbling liberation texts.

11

Midnight.

An appellation of the Holy.

When accuser angels
finish their inquisition
pursued throughout dark hours.

David would rise now and sing
knowing judgment had been accomplished.

Punishment blades all sheathed
at last
at least till day and its hard light
come round again.

Part Two.

1

My shadow ran away from me last night.

I couldn’t catch it
even with the speed a dream affords.

That’s Lurianic Kabbalah
freezing the primal scene
a scriptural encounter
horns in a tangled hedge of meaning.

Isaac sighs
Abraham sighs
text sighs.

An exhalation lifts up from the page.

Returns at dawn, that shadow
sieved free of darkness
invisible now to any but an adept’s eye
pellucid as a parable
whispered once by candlelight
recounted later through a microphone at noon.

2.

The Lord saw the shadow in Sara’s womb.

His gaze made it fecund.

Sara felt darkness grow inside her.

Shadow grew and grew
though she had long since
passed the time of women.
Abraham looked on in silence and wonder.

When the shadow reached its term
it laughed once on the threshold and was born.

His name was Isaac.

3

A mystic is the product of the world’s insanity. Who must interpret the cryptic text of himself over and over against extinction. A mystic is a live fish in a septic tank. The liquid in the tank is history; and he must learn to thrive on poison. The way Gregor Samsa wakes each day only to loathe the cockroach he’s become, his perceptions sharpening by the second.

Gematria: mathematics of linguistic revelation
linguistics of mathematical delight.

Each time a Kabbalist
coughs
a beautiful equation
discrediting Paradise
formulates a singularity.

Each blank sheet
announces our nativity.
The empty page
an arctic circle
a polar bear’s blizzard of words:
untranslatable.

Law to its victims appears
obscure excessive
for it thrives in darkness
like amorous entanglement
oneiric promiscuity
and rats.

A single raven cancels heaven
when heaven is defined thus:
the absence of any raven.

4

Step out of your shadow
into flame.

Each shadow a compass needle
quivering towards true north.

Its memory grown longer
as day declines.

Reaching back at last into the cave
daubs on the wall
first flames conjuring
their dancing shadows.

Between shadow and flame
a royal progress has been made.

5

In the first days of creation
light was so pure
Adam could see from one side of Eden
to the other.

Eden was everywhere then.

After the Fall
light was hidden away.
Talmudists say He slipped it
like spots of time
into the Torah.

Kabbalah was manufactured as an information manual
for finding that occulted light
its menses and its seasons.

I spent an hour or two
with my next-door neighbour
hunting through fragments of hidden brightness.

Later that evening he looked up
at the print on his living room wall:
Alma-Tadema’s Tepidarium.

Saw instead an auroch from Lascaux.

A better painting, he admitted.

6

When Jacob looked into his head
one day
he saw a modernist interior
geometric designs
so splashed with light
that every deed he’d ever done
displayed itself
an illuminated carcass in an abattoir.

Leah whom he’d mated
without love
Rachel whom he’d waited for so long
love almost drained itself of hope.

A father who mistook him
a mother who contrived
a blind old man’s mistake.

And a brother so brutish with affection
mind slow as a clunking farmhouse clock
spirit sluggish as his hands and blades were swift
cheating him of his birthright
turned the rest of your life
into one sour taste
no pottage no venison ragout
no charred holocaust however tasty
could ever erase.

And still they call me Israel.

7

Like Jacob I am an untidy dreamer.
He left the doors of darkness open
so angels could come in and out
always ready for a wrestle.
Some climbed mighty ladders
to clean heaven’s windows.

Last night I covered
every stone in Westminster Abbey
with foul papers.
When the Palace cohort arrived
ready for their coronation I asked if
maybe
they might choose another venue
while I finished off my drafts.

I woke at dawn to gaze on
sheets pillow duvet on the floor
all lying askew.
For how long now
have I been shivering?

8

Johannes de Silentio
(on other days Søren Kierkegaard)
argued in his dialectical lyric
how faith begins where reasoning ends.

A faith so lethal
it could kill your son.

The shadow grown
miraculously
in Sara’s withered womb
that fond old man’s now ordered to return
to shadow.

Imagine being told to
murder laughter
especially when it’s your own boy
smiling up at you.

For I who give life
shall take it too.

Selah.

You have no language
strong enough to contradict me.
Still we venerate
this muttering dotard
on his way to slaughter his beloved son.

Because a voice inside his head
he believes is not his own
ordains it thus.
These days we’d section him
calculate the cocktail of medications required.
Speak kindly during intervals
nod gently
promise a further visit soon.

Still he stood there
knife in hand
faggots and fire at the ready.

Isaac: the name means he who laughs.

He wasn’t laughing then.

And never laughed again except uneasily
thereafter.

9

The chronicle of matter is catastrophe.
Explosions chaos bifurcations
settling down at last to entropy
a sea of torpor
lit by a dead moon
to no known purpose.

So the pathology of matter
primes up as a riot of atoms
while the party lasts.

Revelation happens to the unredeemed
often as they sleep
before those sounds start up again outside.

Ah, the warring languages in Babel
Hebrew Aramaic Greek
Gaelic Polish Esperanto
squabbling for terms
out there on the scaffolding:
Clio’s first stab
at urban construction
a skyscraper
built askew
by warring parties in a civil war.
Next time, she thinks
I might try Pisa.

Or Xanadu.

Part Three.

1

He had come to this door as a dutiful believer, with respect for the Law, as a man might go to Mecca or Jerusalem once in a lifetime. To show the world that for him at least belief is not a toy, or a fashion accessory to hang around the neck and glitter. And here he had stayed ever since, never gaining entry, though catching glimpses once or twice of the shadowy world behind that door. The attendant had grown used to him; they would complain laughingly together about the cold. Right at the end, when he knew he was dying, he asked how come, since this was the door to the Law, no one else had ever arrived before it. The attendant explained that this door was for him alone. ‘You could not gain entry, of course. The few sights you had of what is behind me here were a portal at least on to your life’s great goal. But you could never have come through. Even these few inches between us would take you an eternity to cross. I see that your eyes are closing now, so I will close this door for ever, my task at last completed.’

2

By the terebinths of Mamre we welcomed three visitors
one the disguised creator
able to make a dead womb laugh.

Sara soon withdrew her laughter
out of fear.

A heaven-probing ziggurat
provoked His wrath a few chapters back
and made Him fracture language.

Now we live inside these
endless shards.
The vessels have been broken.

Light leaks everywhere
milk
sluiced from an astral bottle.

Afterwards, speaking a language
I’d not heard for years
she summoned me to bed

according to His command.
Thus did I impregnate the old woman
so belatedly
with Isaac’s seed.

3

Gershom Scholem and Walter Benjamin agreed:
between Lurianic Kabbalah and
Jetztzeit
canonic writing found its singularity
in Franz Kafka
who wrote as if propounding laws
in a world no longer able
to contain a single one of them.

Canonic writer for an age with no canon.

Such writing makes all newspapers
antique, your neighbour Palaeolithic
as he gazes at the cave art on his walls
through wallpaper patterns.

Each day you rise
yawn
wind up the clock towards eternity.

No man plays with light
without a consequence
for darkness is enseamed within it.

‘To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.’
Thus Isaac Newton, who unriddled
a prism’s way with light
unmarried the colours
so entwined they’d merged
in every other eye on earth.

4

Jacob limped away at dawn
inventing asymmetry that morning.

Wrestling an angel all night
carries a price.

As anyone in Soho can tell you
payment is always required.

5

When tradition becomes
a mortician’s cosmetic device
no more than cryogenic maintenance

you must set out to find life anew
in grogshops shebeens
dusty roadside taverns

loud with disreputable drinkers carolling.
Each miscreant here knows he is outside the Law
if only by inches.

6

Where tradition is a grave
filled with mechanics
sharpening their instruments

a man takes care
choosing his words.

Every word betrays you
as Josef K discovers in Der Prozess.

Even the word you never utter
betrays you.

Demonstrates your
reluctance to fill accusing silences
with justifying sounds.

7

Last night I swallowed
the enigma of myself.

My mind’s entire digestive tract
grew luminous.

Torches to guide me through
the present’s midnight.

Every thought a glow worm
glimmering.

8

How zealous Kafka’s characters become
always striving to embody
their profession

even that of cockroach
hunger artist vanishing
or sometime executioner

on the Law’s behalf.
K becomes chief hermeneut
in a world now undecodable.

The midrash
on a
vanished text.

9

Time is your enemy
not its myriad creatures.

Time set its heart
on translating you to preterite.

The past tense
past sense.

Most of us (if anyone’s still counting)
dead already.

10

Present tense the only tense
worth the candle. Any candle.

Even as it gutters.

Is swallows was: life.
Was swallows is: love itself
turns antiquarian.

Leaves nothing
but the romance of the calendar.

We ring the ancient dates
like planets
orbiting a dead star.

11

That early terrorist the fox
slashes the throat of any
words soft-feathered in the snow.

They’d do well to hold their tongues
when dawn wind’s out for blood
and a hill’s white linen

craves roses for its punctuation marks.
Snow bleeds, clots
hunting its paradigm.

12

When the cult of reason
turns irrational
you need Goya to paint the result

in the black room
where he grew deaf
listening to human monsters.

13

A problem. How reconcile the holy text of Genesis with modern cosmology, which we now know to be true? Hebrew scripture being canonical. Well, God makes everything in six days before signing off for the Sabbath. But look hard at the words. A day. How long is that? How measure that? The orbit of one heavenly body in relation to another. In the first three days, before He sets lights in the skies, a day was any length the creator chose it to be. Yom is the word in Hebrew. Before those lights started twinkling yom could be lengthy indeed. 13.8 billion years perhaps.

Midrash.

14

In fashioning text
we fashion ourselves.

Become the text of life we’ve written.

Every loss sustained
since Genesis
transcribed in dictionaries
drama
the breath-taking
lineation of our verse.

Even in dreams
we text ourselves
weaving the words through darkness.

At funerals
we punctuate
our time on earth.
Some use a colon:
others a full stop.

Brave indeed the man
who leaves the final line unclosed…


LandC150aAlan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester, a Fellow of the English Association, and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman Books in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays has now been issued by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, and a second collection, of his Fortnightly essays on Walter Benjamin, is in preparation. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.

 

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