The Last Poem of Michal Bat Shaul

Four years have passed since the death of of the king,

I mean David my husband whose son reigns;

May the king live for ever, Solomon,

The child of one of David’s other wives.

 

I was a year of two younger than David,

But now I’m a little older. Time is short.

I have this mischief in my blood

And various other related symptoms

 

I don’t want to cause boredom or offence

So, like Forrest Gump, ‘That’s all I’ll say about that.’

I’m in bed as a write this on an ostracon

My wrist isn’t strong so my mems look like tets.

 

I’ve survived all my nieces and nephews

And I never had children of my own.

A couple of maidservants should ease my end

With supplies of mandrake and olive leaves.

 

But I’ve had a most unexpected visit!

You’ll never guess. Go on, give it a go.

I’ll give you a clue, ‘High and mighty,’

Yes, it was Solomon the king.

 

He wasn’t at all what I expected.

He was so friendly and unassuming.

I’d last seen him at his coronation,

Where his mother, Bathsheba, was queening it.

 

I tried to stand up but that didn’t work out,

Solomon said, ‘Can I sit on the bed?

I’ll try not to squash you.’ I just nodded.

I think the surprise took my breath away.

 

Then I said, ‘The King does me a great honour.’

‘Not at all,’ he replied, ‘You were my father’s wife,

You helped him escape, he owed his life to you,

Which means that, indirectly, so do I.’

 

I very much wanted to be sitting up

And gestured to my servant for a pillow.

She put one behind my back which helped a bit

But I still wasn’t perpendicular.

 

I spoke self-deprecatingly,

‘Oh, that time when he got out through the window –

All I had to do was open a casement

Which I’m sure he could have managed himself.’

 

I was staggered that he even knew of it

Because David was always furious

When I reminded him how I’d helped,

Deceiving my father’s men while he fled.

 

I probably mentioned it too often

But repetition must have done the trick

As here was his son, recounting my version,

My essential role in the making of a king.

 

Who had told him? Was it Bathsheba

Or, as I preferred to think, David himself?

‘How do you know about that?’ I asked,

Essaying a laugh, just to seem casual.

 

‘It was Zadok the priest as I recall,’

He answered, ‘but he got it off of Nathan.

Nathan knew absolutely everything.

He was the annals of King David on legs.’

 

I was perking up at the scent of gossip.

‘Wasn’t Nathan very discreet?’ I asked.

‘I don’t do lashon ha-ra,’[1] said the king,

Then, with a small sigh, ‘but, since you ask, no.’

 

His eyes brightened and he leaned towards me,

‘But I’ll tell you who does do lashon ha-ra,’

And then laughed, so I realized it was a joke,

Solomon sitting on my bed cracking jokes.

 

In my wildest dreams, I wouldn’t have believed it.

The next thing, I was waking up and he was gone.

‘Was King Solomon here? I asked my maid.

‘Yes ma’am,’ she said. ‘He sat just here, on your bed.’

 

‘Where is he now?’ I asked, a bit fretfully.

‘He left ma’am, after you fell asleep.’

Then it seemed David was sitting on my bed,

So, even unconscious, I knew it was a dream.

 

I speak first. ‘Solomon was here,’ I say.

David: ‘I know, I sent him. To comfort you.’

Me: ‘But you didn’t even like me.’

David: ‘You were the bride of my youth

 

And I know you loved me to the end.’

Me: ‘That’s a no-brainer. Everyone loved you.’

I find my servant is feeding me olive leaves

And something else so I know I’m awake.

 

She gives me water but there’s a bitter taste,

I think it’s my tongue. David used to say

I had a bitter tongue when I criticized.

He said that was why he didn’t… Must sleep.

 

I’m looking through a window and David’s there.

He’s a bowshot away but he sees me,

Then he’s entering through the window

But it’s confusing because now it’s me

 

They – who? – are putting me through a window,

It must be on the floor because I’m lowered…

Here’s my servant with something for me to drink

From a spoon. ‘You gave me already,’ I say.

 

She says, ‘That was at noon. Look, the sun has set.’

My eyes follow her pointing finger: the window.

David – or Solomon – climbs out through the window.

‘Gird up your skirts so that they don’t trip you.’

 

Who said that? Maybe it was me. That makes sense.

There’s a wall, our high stone wall and he’s there,

Behind the wall, Solomon, no, David,

Gazing through the window, peering through…what?

 

Harakh.[2] It’s scorched. No, peering through the lattice.

My beloved spoke thus to me, ‘Arise my love,

My fair one, come away. For lo, the winter…’

The winter, the window, for lo the window.

 

Below the window. And he looks up at me.

I look down, but now I go through the window.

Now the window is past. Strange word, winter.

Solomon’s word. They say he’s wise, wiser,

 

He’ll build the Temple in Jerusalem.

David couldn’t, you know. I sought him,

I sought but I found him not. I must rise.

And roam the town. I must rise. I must.

 

[1] Malicious speech

[2] Lattice or scorch

November 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Malicious speech

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Poem for Balfour 100

 

Balfour letter

I thought the historian wept,

At least, his voice cracked,

As well it might: his words for the past hour

Had exceeded the speed limit

The lecture hall was his fast lane.

Now, in his closing remarks, he spoke of tears –

Not specifying who shed them,

Nor did he need to, our tears and his,

 

And the tears of our enemies

And of our fathers and mothers,

Of martyrs among us and of victims we made,

Of top hatted politicians

And the indigent Eastend Jews

Who gathered in Fieldgate Street

Outside the synagogue (established 1899)

And sang Hatikvah, ‘The Hope.’

 

Now here’s the thing:

A recording shows, not ‘tears’ but ‘tsuris’

Was the word. Yiddish for trouble,

Sorrow, literally, narrow straits,

Rabbi Nachman’s narrow bridge

Is our footpath, the way through the world.

Nachman  counselled against fear

But fearlessly one may weep.

 

November 1917, the Balfour letter

Spoke with favour of a homeland

On excessively holy ground

Overflowing with history

And conflicting rights from time immemorial,

So this, after the  rootlessness,

The pogroms and the libels,

Rekindled the dormant spark.

 

A century passes and hope mutates;

Hope of reconciliation

Hope of affirmation

Hope for the abiding nation.

‘Notwithstanding all the tsuris,’

The historian said and halted,

I thought he was overcome,

But he picked up his burden

 

Like the prophets of ancient times:

‘Notwithstanding all the tsuris

It seems right to celebrate

The Balfour Declaration.’

The audience rose up and applauded.

Perhaps many thought as I did

Of the remnant of Israel

And the Guardian of that remnant,

 

Of beachside hotels, milk and honey,

Venality of power, Iron Dome,

The dispossessed neighbour

The blood lust of enmity

Digital innovation, medical progress,

The borders, the strictures, the wall,

The West Bank Barrier, sprayed

By Banksy’s mandatory enlightenment.

 

And the other wall, where we pray,

‘Suffer not Israel to perish,’

Tangled and tenacious flora persist,

Obtruding between the bricks.

Visitors pressing their hands against the wall,

Feel the heat of  accumulated prayer,

Some wail aloud but some are silent

Always weeping, always hoping.

 

2 November 2017

The Beginning of Saul’s Troubles

Rembrandt

What do you do when a judge is unpunctual,

When your valued mentor shows up late?

When a battle’s outcome hangs in the balance?

Do you just sit on your hands and wait?

If you’re me, suburban grandmother,

You can spare ten minutes or half an hour,

But it’s not like that if you’re a king,

General of an army, a man of power.

So you’ve guessed where I’m going with this,

I always come back to this biblical drama:

Saul’s wishful eyes scanning the horizon

For the tardy prophet from Ramah.

The Philistines assembled in Michmas;

They had chariot, horse and sword,

They outnumbered the Israelites

Who saw them as a fighting hoard.

No wonder some men of Israel slipped away,

Saul could see his meagre army dwindling.

What do you do when your troops lose courage?

When their élan vital needs rekindling?

A battle had to be consecrated;

An animal, likely a ram or a calf

Was sacrificed; usually Samuel’s job.

In his absence, Saul did it on his behalf.

And wouldn’t you know it, the very moment

When Saul’s eyes were smarting from the smoke

Which rose from the altar, along came the judge,

Seer, prophet, wearing his signature cloak.

Whenever Samuel looked censorious,

Saul, based on experience, was fearful.

Sure enough, Samuel said ‘You should have waited,’

And proceeded to give Saul an earful.

‘If only you’d waited, like I told you,’

He said, ‘your reign could have been dynastic,

But now, God isn’t pleased, not pleased at all,

I know He’s planning something drastic,

Lining up another king.’  ‘But,’ said Saul,

‘I’m the king –  it was you who appointed me;

I was just looking for my father’s asses,

When you got a vial of oil and anointed me.’

‘Well it was a mistake,’ Samuel answered.

‘You’re the one they call seer,’ Saul protested,

‘What’s the point if you never see?’

’The point is, I did what God requested,

It’s called obedience, you should try it.’

He’d given instructions which Saul didn’t heed,

Now disappointment made him speak harshly,

Truly, Samuel had wanted Saul to succeed.

Samuel had a way of leaving abruptly.

As for valedictory niceties,

They were unknown to him; he went on his way,

Parting from Saul without benedicites.

Saul’s men, lacking state-of-the-art weapons,

Beat back the Philistines, against all odds,

The most valiant being Jonathan,

Who said ‘The glory isn’t ours but God’s.’

These words appear in one of the later psalms,

‘Non nobis domine.’ The battle was won,

But, for Saul, the kingdom was already lost.

The story of his successor had begun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stars and Constellations

Jericho

The children of Israel may not touch

The arts of occult divination

Which other nations practised much

By means of star and constellation.

But Joseph could interpret dreams

And Daniel too possessed that skill,

And miracles occur, it seems,

The waters part; the sun stands still.

In Babylon, an almanac

Explained the changes in the sky

With symbols of the zodiac

Which last a month and then pass by.

The water signs, the fish and crab

The bigger beasts, the ram and bull,

The lion in the month of Ab,

Yields to the virgin of Elul.

But we are not allowed to plunder

The seductive wisdom of the mages,

Though scientists suppose with wonder

Infinities of  monkey cages.

A synagogue in Jericho

Displays a Zodiac mosaic

From fifteen hundred years ago,

Both enigmatic and archaic.

Unleavened bread and paschal lamb

Remind us we were Pharaoh’s slaves,

Went free beneath the Aries ram

And walked dry shod between the waves,

Received twin tablets of the Law

When the sign of Gemini prevails

Our deeds judged in the Days of Awe

The season of the Libra scales.

We read of Noah and his ark

When winter’s near and clouds hang low,

The afternoons are growing dark

The astral archer draws his bow.

The necromancer’s eerie art

Is banned, for that way madness lies,

But astrophysicists may chart

The restless motion in the skies.

Elul 5777

Two Adversarial Twitter Poems

THE REDDER FLAG

 The people’s flag which flew so red

Now flutters from a Twitter thread

Which lauds the Shadow Cabinet

And doesn’t trust the rabbinate.

Mendoza, Mason, Owen Jones

Have generated Twitter clones,

Averse to Jess and Alastair,

Benn fils, the Coup and Tony Blair.

So post a smirking Corbyn gif,

Say ‘When he wins’ but never ‘If,’

The revolution’s on its way,

And then they’ll make the Centrists pay.

Select the red emoji flag,

Revere Ken Loach and Billy Bragg,

Devise a Twitter thunderclap

And buy the new Momentum app.

Tweet angrily of leaders past,

New Labour wasn’t made to last,

So mute the melts and salt the slugs

And fill your CLP with thugs.

 It’s Labour Conference Seventeen

Embrace the whole Momentum scene;

JC’s on all the merchandise

In gaudy and iconic guise

Remainers aren’t allowed much voice,

Their silence is the People’s Choice;

Though Blairites, Jews and Centrists grieve

The Cult won’t rest until they leave.

 So raise the scarlet banner high

While Jezza rules, dissent must die,

And social democrats of yore

Won’t raise the red flag any more.

 

 MINDING YOUR PMQs

At Wednesday noon in PMQs
The Parties are embattled
Some say that Corbyn’s smashing it,
That May is sounding rattled,
Or that Corbyn doesn’t speak ad hoc
But looks down at his notes
And all sides say their party
Will be scooping up the votes.
The SNP sound feisty,
In Holyrood they trust
LibDems these days are tentative
Their numbers not robust;
Backbenchers frame their questions
To support a leader’s claim,
And all sides quote statistics
But no two of them the same.
John Bercow, Mr Speaker,
Calls for chuntering to cease
When the members get too hyper
And the decibels increase,
Some MPs are telegenic
But most, like you and me,
Aren’t folk you’d give a second glance,
If they weren’t on your TV.
A few will be on Question Time
A few are KBEs
And some will end up in the Lords
If they keep well clear of sleaze.
Democracy, said Churchill,
As a system, is the worst,
But compared to the alternatives
It always comes in first.

September 2017

The Arrows are Beyond You

Regarding Jonathan, my brother,

I’m fed up, being asked if he was gay;

‘He was married and he had a son,’

Is what I always used to say.

Then they say ‘So was Oscar Wilde,

So did Alexander the Great,’

Anything anachronistic like that,

Because, in Torah, there’s no early or late.

As I was married to King David

They think I know all the ins and outs.

They say, ‘What with their souls being knit,

You must have entertained a few doubts?’

David’s glamour was indescribable

After he slew the Philistine giant;

He could have anything or anyone.

My whole family became compliant.

My father Saul offered me in marriage.

You know your bible. It’s all been written,

How, regrettably, I adored David,

And yes, Jonathan was also smitten.

Even Saul was ambivalent back then,

Sometimes doting on the son of Jesse,

At other times, waxing homicidal,

Which may be why my marriage got so messy.

Jonathan gave David his cloak, his princely cloak,

As if relinquishing the succession;

He gave David his bow and his iron sword,

Back then, a rare and valuable possession.

What is it with my family and clothes?

Saul wanted to give him a suit of armour,

Would have done, only it was extra large,

And swamped the little Bethlehem farmer.

Before long, Saul saw him as a rival;

Let him marry me, to contain the threat,

Then sent his Givati spooks to kill David

Whose escape I was happy to abet.

That’s enough about me. You know my story.

But what of Jonathan’s self-abnegation?

It was as if he cared nothing for kingship,

Like Edward VIII, putting love before nation.

David clocked that Saul intended murder

He sought out Jonathan and started to whine,

‘It’s so unfair, blah blah.’ My brother swore

To protect my husband and arranged a sign:

In three days time, David should be at a place

Called Ezel, a standing stone, but stay concealed,

Meanwhile Jonathan would speak to our father

Then meet David at Ezel in the field.

Somehow he had knowledge of spies’ tradecraft

And arranged to communicate in code

During a routine archery practice.

He would shoot the arrows, his quiver’s payload;

A servant would be with him, a sort of caddy,

To retrieve the arrows from where they fell.

David would hide among the arid bushes

Until the moment when Jonathan would yell

To his servant, ‘The arrows are behind you!’

These words were to give David the all clear,

Whereas the words ‘The arrows are beyond you’

Meant, ‘Stay hidden, you have everything to fear.’

It was like a novel by Le Carré –

Not something either of them would have known –

These men of action are seldom great readers,

Least of all when they occupy a throne.

You never saw a monarch wearing glasses.

The only king who liked to read was Josiah.

Rehoboam said he’d read Moby Dick,

But we knew he was a bit of a liar.

Next day was the festival of the new moon,

Saul sat down to eat with members of his court,

Commenting in due course on David’s absence.

Jonathan thought it judicious to report

Some issue had come up in Bethlehem

And family business claimed David’s time.

A snub always made Saul incandescent

And, from David, it was a major crime.

In his rage, he shouted at Jonathan,

Calling him son of a bitch and traitor,

Even aiming a spear at his own son,

An act certain to annoy the Creator.

In our family, it wasn’t only Saul

Who suffered the melancholic condition.

Personally, I’m depressed in the mornings.

My brother also had that disposition.

Next day, he had the face of a mourner,

No doubt he hadn’t slept and wouldn’t eat

Although it was still the feast of the new moon,

But he bathed because he had someone to meet.

He took the caddy and went out to the field,

Telling him, ‘Find the arrows that I shoot.

The arrows are beyond you,’ he then called,

‘Now fetch them,’ and the lad ran in pursuit,

Gathered up the arrows and brought them back.

Jonathan said, ‘Quickly, take them to the town,’

And watched him go. David emerged from hiding.

Three times, before Jonathan, he bowed down.

Then they kissed. Jonathan told me that they kissed;

Tears stood in his eyes but David wept aloud.

I bet. He was an effortless cryer,

With sensitivities of which he was proud.

I can see it. My manly, stalwart brother,

Erect in posture, striving to be brave,

And my husband, bowing, clinging, sobbing.

Give me that man that is not passion’s slave.

Those words are Hamlet’s, not mine, but I concur,

I’ve seen the damage caused by the zealous,

The ardent, avid and  fanatical,

Obsessive, fervent, passionate and jealous.

David then fled to the priestly city, Nob,

Which was, as it turned out, unfortunate.

Meanwhile, the priests gave him consecrated bread,

Because hunger made him importunate.

When the priests were killed for harbouring David,

Jonathan said he should have brought provisions

For David, who might then have bypassed Nob,

But who knew? We’re not blessed with psychic visions.

David and Jonathan met one more time.

David and his men were living in Ziph,

A wilderness, to escape Saul’s attentions,

In a stronghold built on a limestone cliff.

Jonathan went unescorted, to see him

And there, spoke fateful words of abdication:

David would be king over all Israel;

It was a strangely selfless declaration.

For about three years, I was a grass widow,

Although, in point of fact, I got married again

As David was missing, presumed insurgent,

In the wilderness, with his merry men.

Then he worked for a Philistine prince in Gath.

Was in some skirmish when Jonathan was killed:

An archer got him, on Mount Gilboa.

They say Philistine archers are highly skilled.

Two more brothers of mine died in that battle.

It’s believed that my father fell on his sword,

Taking his own life to avoid capture;

Something the biblical authors record.

I’m not saying that David didn’t mourn.

He wrote a very beautiful lament

And set it to music, as with his Psalms,

The later ones they call Songs of Ascent.

He was even nice about my father –

The eulogy I wanted, he provided:

‘They were lovely and pleasant in their lives,

And in their death, they were not divided.’

He then began to reign, at first  from Hebron,

Well equipped with wives, militia and fame,

I don’t want talk about my nephew,

Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth by name –

Nobody comes well out of that story.

Any hint of homoeroticism

With Jonathan was played down by David,

Troubled enough by family schism.

When he said ‘Passing the love of women,’

He was speaking of Jonathan’s love for him,

Not the reverse. Poetic but weasely.

He wasn’t prepared to go out on a limb.

Jonathan was probably well out of it

Likewise Saul, my dad, if you take the long view.

Most of those kings were like The Sopranos:

‘Blood will have blood.’ So whaddya gonna do?

 

 

June 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Family and Other Short People

10031940

It’s remarkable to me with my four surnames

That, for seventy years, my parents were wed.

They got interviewed by Justin Webb

For the Today programme. Mum said,

‘It’s a matter of give and take.’ And then,

‘Jack  gave and I took,’ she quipped.

It’s true, he was the worshipper

From their teens,  and she the worshipped.

He, intellectual, short, dark, angel-faced,

She, timid but sociable, pretty, short, dark,

She was a homemaker, he a schoolteacher,

Wanting us daughters to make our mark.

For the record, my sister is short, dark-haired, beautiful;

I am short, fair and inclined towards religion,

Yet, in some ways, possibly less dutiful.

There was also the baby whose premature birth

Occurred two years before I was born

He died, so remains a great mystery,

But some fabric of my parents’ life was torn.

They married early in World War Two.

In the army, he had many close shaves;

She, in the East End, took to the shelters

Those crowded, subterranean caves.

Their parents, born in Europe

Had migrated to this Sceptr’d Isle

And here they flourished,

Working with machine and textile

Poor in Whitechapel,

But thriving in the postwar boom

Families in suburban semis,

No longer sleeping  in one room.

My grandparents were tiny

But my mother’s brothers were quite tall

And male pattern baldness

Appeared in them all.

I always think my son is five foot eight

But he says no, five seven or maybe six.

His boys could grow up tall

As their mum brings tall genes to the mix.

When one of my daughters studied theatre

They got her to play Hermia, in the Dream,

Where matters of height and size

Are a part of the play’s theme.

The thing is, she’s taller than her sisters,

Tall enough to have joined the police

When they still had a height requirement,

If such had been her caprice.

To this day, I’m put in mind of my father

When I see certain short, good-looking men,

Usually on a screen: actors or journalists

Who appear every now and then.

My Zodiac and Chinese star signs

Are associated with the element ‘earth,’

Virgo and Earth Ox,

If such categories have any worth.

Obviously, as my feet touch the ground,

I am nearer to the earth than the sky,

But I’d  prefer ‘air’ for my element,

To fix the gaze aloft on something high.

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