Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Song for Flavius Josephus

"The Face of Death, Kovno, June 1940"
© 2016 David Prashker 
To listen to an audio recital of the poem, click here

I came to visit you in your country house
   a man from Nachri bred on mountain-milk

You told me your name and I accused you of lying
   because I knew you no longer had a name
      but only the image of your greed
carved in blood-red ciphers on a city wall

And we - we have erased the ciphers
   we have torn down the wall
      we have struck our countless dagger-blows
one for each of the Furies you unleashed


“My father’s blood cried from the ground
     and I travelled,
          exiled and outcast
 serving another man’s house
     for the sake of my own roof”

Thus did you whinge and whimper
     bleating like a Passover lamb

You showed me your great book
   told me the great burden of your age
      and I accused you of lying
because your great book is just
   the great confessing of your crimes
      and as to your great age -
why, your crimes are ageless

And so I closed the book
   I recited the psalm of History
      I catalogued your crimes
I read out the list of charges:

Joseph, son of Mathias
   a leaf of grass is no less
      than the journeywork of the stars
and one kiss can betray a generation
   and one hand can turn the key
      and one lie
      one lie is quite sufficient


I exchanged my squalid shack for your royal residence
   and sat for hours
      weaving you a death-shroud

You told me of your loves and I replied
   “You have never loved
      for you do not understand love
you who have never hated”

And I swore vengeance in my father’s name
   in the names of all our mothers
      and I unleashed my own Fury
         until I had created perfect love
                                                 perfect hatred

Then you spoke of your anxieties
     and I accused you of wallowing in them

You spoke of your enemies
     and I accused you of betraying them

You spoke of your dreams
     and I observed that you were awake
                           recounting them

You spoke of your visions
     and I called you prophet

You spoke of your strategies
     and I branded you a genius

You spoke of your friend the Emperor
     and I labelled you a sycophantic dog

You told me everything you knew -
     name place detail -
          and I was not surprised how little
and how much it was

You spoke of your integrity
     and I knew that you were lying

You spoke of your humanity
     and I recalled how you had killed for it

You spoke of your remorse
     and I wondered
               that you had never learned to laugh

Then at last you made your full confession
     and I led you to the Temple
          manacled your hands
     made you kneel down between
          the cedars and the ivory

mocked you
     forced you to drink vinegar
          plunged my dagger through the palms
of your feet and hands
     gave you your thirty coins -
          and then sentenced you:

Joseph, son of Mathias
   a leaf of grass is no less
      than the journeywork of the stars
and one kiss can betray a generation
   and one hand can turn the key
      and one lie
      one lie is quite sufficient


Before the method of your sacrifice
     had been agreed upon
I found you before the mirror
     counting your shekels
          and smoothing out your hair

You asked me to bow down before you
     and when I hesitated you said
          it was only to let you kiss me

So I leaned forward
     as you raised your face to me
          and I slapped you on both cheeks

Then I wielded my axe above your head
     and brought it down -

with what insensate fury did I drive myself
     to take my grand revenge
erasing the ciphers of your name
     tearing down the walls
striking countless dagger-blows
     one for each of the Furies you had unleashed

Flavius Josephus was originally Joseph ben Matityahu (37-c100 CE), before he defected to the Romans after surrendering the siege of Jotapata to Vespasian. He later wrote “The Jewish War” and “Jewish Antiquities” for the Emperor under his Roman name. The poem was written for a man whose name is unknown, one of the leaders of the failed insurrection at Auschwitz which is described in "The Flaming Sword", the first volume of "The Argaman Quintet".

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Copyright © 2016 David Prashker
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The Argaman Press

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