Out of the Depths: Poetic Midrash Gives Voice to Silenced Women

Lorna Knowles Blake

Veronica Golos, A Bell Buried Deep
Story Line Press, 2004; 86 pages; $14

Historically, midrash was the province of scholarly rabbis who produced volumes of legendary, legal, and exegetical writings to animate the Torah for current generations of Jews. More recently, liberal forms of contemporary midrash have excited the imagination of women writers (among other formerly marginalized groups) who seek to fill in suggestive gaps in scripture through imaginative retellings of traditional stories -- Anita Diamant’s novel, The Red Tent, is just one of many popular examples. Contemporary poets, like fiction writers and students of biblical text, have not been immune to the pleasures of this living tradition.

Of course, Scripture itself is already famously filled with poetry and song, ranging from the Psalms to the Song of Songs to the Book of Isaiah. Yet Biblical stories, with their rich and dramatic casts of characters, have invited midrashic poetry for generations. (See the anthologies Modern Poems on the Bible and Chapters Into Verse for hundreds of examples.) Biblical tales are particularly suited to the form of the persona, or mask poem, where a poet speaks through, or as, her subject, providing a voice where there was once only silence. Filling those epochs of silence is what Veronica Golos has set out to do in her debut collection of poems, A Bell Buried Deep, co-winner of the 16th annual Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize.

A Bell Buried Deep is intense poetic exploration of faith, myth, betrayal and redemption, beginning with the title poem, which establishes the book's central metaphor: a bell “buried deep” in the form of the stillborn son of the speaker. Though silenced in life, the son's voice continues to resonate in the mother’s “grief full of tongues,/ full with his name.” The raw sorrow of the stillbirth prefigures another theme that haunts the book, the capriciousness of fertility and the powerlessness of motherhood: “I lift my eyes and am chastened/ by the angry heartbreak this world can bring.” Both themes recur as Golos explores, through lyric, meditative and narrative poems, the relationship between mistress and slave, barrenness and motherhood, sexual power and helplessness. This is an ambitious undertaking, and it succeeds because Golos -- who teaches writing workshops for the 92nd Street Y in New York City, as well as for Poet’s House and Poets & Writers, and who has twice been awarded artist residencies at the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico -- writes with a quiet authority, a poet’s eye for the convincing detail and an insistence on the integrity and dignity of her characters.

After the title poem is a section called "Creation," which includes three poems that invoke ancient female manifestations of the divine: the Koré, the ancient Greek fertility goddess; Mami Wata, a water goddess of the African diaspora; and the Mother, who, the poet tells us, has “left the language of populations,/ consequence, variety—even the clamor/ of need, she forgets.” This Mother “stands at the center/ of endless concentric circles, at the navel/ of the world, from which infinite lines emerge.” Thus, a context is established from the outset—no matter the temporal and historical setting of the poems, we are in a spiritual realm governed by the goddesses of moon, water and tides. The patriarchal world represented by Abraham (Abram), the Master (slave owner) and even the God of History, is not really individuated; the male characters create the context in which the women act, react and interact.

by Veronica Golos
from A Bell Buried Deep

I am Sa’rai – the one who hears
the off-rhythm of bells, the ululation of war rising into sky.

There is fire, and carcasses of bees.
I am parched, my lip split open.

I have rubbed at the dry, flat
flesh of stone; promise pulling at my breasts.

Fragrant, in veils and coins, Ha’gar
is brought, shimmering green, gold, turquoise, red;

a brilliant cloth bartered for wheat; a gift –
a child for Sa’rai.

I hear her girl’s voice:
It is the Nile leaking from her throat.

To me will belong her long neck,
her nervous hands plucking at my rings,

her small arched foot, upon which I must
mark the blue stain, slave.

Thorn trees are here, so green their color warps.
Inside, the brittle spikes. Wild birds of the desert

aim for its leaves; then screech, impaled.
Once I saw an owl,

its beak imbedded in its own heart,
trying to break free.

From there, the book moves to its three primary sections: “Genesis,” a retelling of the story of Sarah (Sarai) and Hagar; “Exodus,” the story of Harriet, a slave in the American South, and her mistress, Sarah; and “Coda,” their modern day echoes. Paradoxically, for a collection of poems that articulates the silenced voices of women, A Bell Buried Deep manages silence to great emotional effect. Often the poems are internal monologues, a device that allows the poet’s imagination to soar while the narrative remains true to its roots in scripture or slave narrative. In the “Exodus” section, for example, the slave Harriet uses silence as the only power she controls: to speak or not, “I’ve used my silence as a twine,/to warp my soul inside.” Sometimes silence is power, the poet tells us, and the “white space” around words speaks volumes.

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November 2005

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Out of the Depths
Lorna Knowles Blake

Adam Lavitt

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