One of the tasks I set my advanced creative writing students is to have them, one student a week, find three poems to read and then unpack from whatever anthology I happen to be using. We do this not only for meaning but also for craft, the technical and strategic elements that create the psychological atmosphere of the poem. Poetry, to me, is an act of attention. And I think that the reader’s attention to the poem, his or her engagement with the words of the poet, can allow access to the poet’s attention to the Power of Things. The best poems—those that evoke what used to be called the Good, the True, and the Beautiful—can reward this attention with something akin to spiritual communion: a direct access to a deeper reality. Other poems, unfortunately, render little more than access to a poet’s website. But that’s another story. This week, my student Phylicia brought this poem to our attention:
by Abraham Abulafia
When Yaweh spoke to me, when I saw His name
spelled out in blood, the pounding in my heart
separated blood from ink and ink from blood,
and Yaweh said to me, “Know your soul’s name
is blood and ink is the name of your spirit.
Your father and mother longed with all their hearts
to hear my Name and title given to every generation.”
When I heard the clear difference between my spirit
and my soul, I was filled with great joy,
then I knew my soul took the hillside
under its own colors, in the mirror red as blood,
and that my spirit stood its ground in the mirror
that is black as ink, and that there raged
a ferocious war in my heart between blood and ink.
The blood was of the air and the ink was of the earth
and the ink defeated the blood, and the Sabbath
overcame all the days of the week.
translated by Stanley Moss
Abraham Abulafia was a thirteenth century Sephardic kabbalist who tried to reach Christians as well as Jews through his prophetic mysticism and concentration on the arrival of the Mašíaḥ. I had never read this poem, but I am grateful to Phylicia that she brought it to us.
Every poet, certainly every poet who takes seriously the dialectic between the blood of the soul and the ink of the spirit, can feel a resonance with Abulafia’s words. The contamination of the blood of self and the ink of scripture’s indelible presence surely contend on the battlefield that is the poet’s heart. For me, though, the power of the poem resides in the triumph that I think is the triumph of every poet: the triumph of surrender. As George Herbert, for one, knew only too well, no one is equal to the task of writing about the mystery of God, which is why “the ink defeated the blood, and the Sabbath / overcame all the days of the week.” Blood may wash away, but this ink can never fade.