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 or 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 I 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

Poem for Balfour 100

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.’

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 tsures,’

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 tsures

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