Not only spiritual leaders, but also the moon can teach Bible.
Lovers of Zelda’s work emphasize again and again that she was a religious person. Israeli writer Lea Aini downplays the biographical and finds a surprising political vision in her reading of the poet.
Admirers stress – here too, on this evening in her memory, in the midst of the [Passover] holiday of spring and freedom – that the hidden thread between Zelda and the Creator, even if it trembles with bitter doubt at times, or stretches thin in dark despair, will never break. Forever, for good and for bad, whether the thread is concealed or revealed, it joins the poet to God. To me there is no greater contradiction: “A poet tied with a thread!”
Her admirers also concentrate on the fact that she was a daughter of Jerusalem, surrounded by hills and walls, geological as well as metaphysical fortifications that limited her poetic flight while at the same time purifying it on that same thread, just one thin thread. It is as if, while she had “hours of ocean”, Zelda played her music on a single string. She wrote: “The sickness brought two women, distant strangers,/ to one room, and ordered friendship to play music before them.” And one must ask: What is this sickness? Perhaps just a passing human ailment. But perhaps also the obsessions of art? The demanding nature of artistic creativity? Art which borrows from here and there, from distant strangers, mixing surprising symbols with exceptional images and ideas, and makes it so that all dwell together in one room, in one stanza of a poem. “And in pain you shall bring forth children.” In this way, in sorrow and loneliness, at the mercy of a command which is more powerful than you are, you, the poet, will bring forth poems . . . and the player is friendship, perhaps aesthetics? The spark of inspiration? That which brings forth the poem from the source into being, into action, so that the two, alienated and distant from each other, will reconcile in the power of music and beauty.
Let us return to the autobiographical level, because those who speak about it focus on Zelda’s unending dialogue with Jewish sources in general and Kabala in particular. It looks as if the same thread, no matter the condition it is in, will remain curled up in the very same bundle. And they go on and blur the meaning of the opening line in the poem ‘The Moon Teaches Bible’. One must re-read and realize: ‘The moon teaches Bible’ means that not the delicate poet or her beloved grandfather or another great rabbi teaches the Law but rather the moon! One may well ask, what is the worth of a book, or a thought, or the human heart or the nation – whether we are dealing with the tablets on Mount Sinai, or the beauty of the Song of Songs, or the pages of the Zohar – and including the treasures of wisdom of other peoples, “the other plants”, in Zelda’s words – if the mediator, the one who delivers them to others, does not deserve them, and does not uphold their values?! Therefore, in Zelda’s opinion, the moon is equal to them. A star which dates from the first day of the Creator’s labors is at the same time also an astronomic object, independent of us, shining light on all worlds, on all people.
Finally, the fact that Zelda was a woman is always emphasized. A woman and a widow. A shy person, a traditional one. She lived with much grief within the walls of her home, moving from one book to another and creating her poetical world as one who is limited by her way of life: sitting in the yard or on her little terrace, looking out the window, watching the neighbors . . . that is, depicting the world in her miraculous, Zeldian words which are at the same time also a bit limited. Except that these discerning eyes acquire their authority, not via the one who watches through them, but by the ones who look at her. For Zelda, eyes are always a big blue glance taking in the heavens. A glance which is heaven.
What am I trying to say? I, a thoroughly non-religious person, am sorry I never knew Zelda, except for the poems which served me as building blocks. And indeed, two years ago I wrote a painful story called ‘The Chinese Farm’, [an area in the Sinai peninsula, the scene of a bloody battle between Israel and Egypt in the 1973 October War], which, as its name implies, burst out of the blindness which gripped us thirty years ago and brought us into a damned war which is etched like a blue number on the arm of one small soldier, in Zelda’s words – that is, us. That is to say, we who do not turn our faces away . . . The story tells about a shell-shocked soldier who awakens one morning and erects a new puppet government, literally, with puppets, to correct the injustice, to prevent what was coming. But this does not prevent the war. The soldier takes his dolls and leaves for China, where he starts a Jewish farm – China, the next superpower. But he doesn’t do this alone. As he sails into the chaotic space of his hollow leaders, his fallen friends and the hole in his heart, he relies on Zelda’s poetry; at first, in the social sense, and afterwards, in the political sense, profoundly connected to one line of one of her poems: “Every rose has one sapphire bird whose name is ‘And they shall beat [their swords into ploughshares’]”.
“And they shall beat”, my small secular soldier tearfully demands of his puppet leaders; it is an order. I don’t know if you are seized by tremors as I was when I twisted Zelda’s line into this violent military language, which is an open challenge in my story and a challenge to the definitions above that are intended to ‘grasp’ Zelda, and the poetic, even romantic capability of her poetry. Not only is the Zeldian whole larger than the sum of its parts, its autobiographical parts, and not only does “Each person ha[ve] a name, given by God” but also each person, no matter who, believer or non-believer, has a Zelda, given to them by her poetry . . .
And Zelda? How does she weave my claim into her poetry? She gives signs. And symbols. There is no poet whose language is unique unless it is an original and private collection, in its choices and combinations, of signs and symbols. Jewish ones, even religious ones? Even symbols like Jerusalem, and the symbols of femininity? Yes, but not only. Zelda dedicated a respectable place in the language of her poetry to nature: birds, snakes, rocks and the moon, as I’ve mentioned, and to sunrise and sunset. In the demanding and stormy game of the truth of her existence and non-existence, in the mad scale between the joy of the Creator and the sorrow of doubt, nature plays an equal role in her poetry; as always, one finds close to the butterfly of life and its orange vitality, flying right underneath or hidden within, the butterfly of death and lack of faith.
As all of her poetry leads toward the thinnest of threads, practically invisible, one must be precise: Zelda aimed her prayers at plants. You may say that she took them from the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews, from their enthusiastic herbal melody, and that she took the tree of the field from Genesis, and you will be right. Except that even more important is how the innumerable plants in her poetry answer her back. Sickness and art, I’ve said, brought alienation and distance, two warring entities in the poet’s soul, two world views – or, if you like, two nations – to sit in the same room: they are those who can stand the burden of trying always to be a positive person, just giving to its surroundings like a flower, and the other ones, both religious and secular – those who are unable [to behave this way] . . . Therefore, we find in her poetry not only the nameless flower, like a forebear of innocence and loveliness, but also the blossom of the valleys and the chrysanthemum white as death, the acacia tree and the bed of lilies; all of these – one nation – provide the only way to save the poet, and every person, from the body’s deterioration, and the soul’s weakness:
Beauty detached itself
from the wilting of the plant,
fled from the decree
and did not return to dust . . .
Slowly it turned into an angel,
and forgot the wails of change.
The poet’s human freedom makes out of her poetry heaven and earth, a paradise for everyone. Paradoxically within what is solid, we will find the thread to the upper reaches, to the heart of the matter, the individual place where the poet-person, without regard to ethnicity or religion, and certainly not to gender, will be summoned by the laws of morality, the summons of poetry, and will sail to the fire, to the river of ice – despite all human failings – sorrows, prejudices and doubts, and despite fears of the stranger and the Other – in order to be cleansed and go free. Will rise, be saved and set free. Will erase the human, feminine, social, national ego, and only then will dive and enter the inner point within the Silent Circle: the island in the vortex, which is also the promised eternal isle of peace. The emphasis in the spiritual poem ‘Each Rose’, her mother of all rose poems, is not, in my opinion, about the cosmic madness of the “sea of fire”. The emphasis is on the poem’s “boat”! People don’t need many war ships or cruise ships to be victorious and to be considered human; they only need a boat. For personal use. For individual work. Except when the intention, the readiness, is to cross “the sea of fire”. Go, may the force be with you, cross it.
Unfortunately, these days vision is considered the province of politicians and that’s why we are in such a bad situation. However Zelda offers us, in her kabbalist-spiritualist poetry which is also aesthetic-existential and universal poetry, a wonderful, all-encompassing vision that can solve everything. Naturally and simply, in an uncomplicated way, she says subversively that whoever takes a vision upon herself, crossing the sea of fire alone, may reach a world where the moon teaches Bible, time offers oceans, where the spirit makes mountains crumble, and most important, alongside all the orange and red roses in her life, she will be embraced by and flower from the black rose, the rose of eternity.
Excerpted from remarks made by the writer Lea Aini in memory of Zelda, 10 April 2004, at the Zionist Confederation House, Jerusalem, on the 20th anniversary of Zelda’s death. The longer talk was called “The roses of have and have not” and discussed Zelda’s work in relation to that of Paul Celan and his book The Rose of Nothingness. Aini is the author of two volumes of short stories and five novels, most recently Giant, Queen, and the Master of Games. Excerpts from Zelda’s poems appear in the translation of Marcia Falk.