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" Jacob Wrestling with the Angel" at Penuel
by Eugène Delacroix.
The notion of "struggle", of "wrestling", runs through all my work, rooted in the epic of Biblical Jacob and particularly the tale of his night-long wrestling until stalemate with the "man" of Penu-El. Whether in love or art or politics, or simply the banalities of our daily lives, it is this which truly distinguishes humankind from the animals, but Man from man and Woman from woman as well. Two ironies emerge from this poem, neither of which I was aware of when I wrote it. The first is the inference of the necessity of exterior struggle to complement the inner struggle: the inevitability and inexorability of armed conflict when the exterior struggle is about geography, tribal rivalry, political disagreement, economics. The second is the translation of both the word and the concept of “struggle”, complete with the above inference, into Arabic; for in Arabic the word is Jihad.
They carried me to Egypt and made a slave of me,
squared my beard, curved the fringes of my hair,
dressed me in the clothes of an Egyptian -
till I was nothing more than wood and stone,
incense on an altar, fire in an olive tree,
a drunken feast, a brother’s love for sister,
a timid shackle and a foul abomination.
See how they cowered before some human face,
calling it my face, naming it my name,
horror in their hearts and bowels mingling
with my own horror at such vile degradation,
my humiliation in their midst, a slave of slaves,
proud nakedness reduced to clothed indignity,
my loins bound with cord, my blood sapped by labour,
my will tethered like a rooster in its chains.
But will will be done, and done will be proven.
For their sakes I threw down the puny idols,
threw off the human mask, threw back the chains,
tormented my tormentors with some easy plagues,
cast some simple miracles into their midst,
bent back my wings and soared into the freedom
of the desert - for their sakes, not for mine.
Come, my children -
now, at last, to live and grow,
now to forge a will of iron
stronger than any shackle.
What of the sea - I who have turned back
whole firmaments? The sea parted like a harlot’s
thighs submitting to my rod of iron.
What of the desert - I who have made
worlds out of voids? The desert is already dust.
What of the hordes pursuing? Come, my children!
Could Sodom or Gomorrah stand against me?
Desert of blistering heat, waterless, foodless;
desert of ice cold night, woodless for a fire;
desert of endless space, caveless for a refuge -
come, my children, I shall feed you,
my blood shall quench your thirst,
my love shall nourish you,
my body light your journey,
my spirit be for you a sanctuary.
Each of you with my own hand
I shall smuggle out of bondage -
tell it to your children,
how with my own hand I warmed and nourished you,
lit your way,
made of my spirit a sanctuary for your spirits.
Though others tried to supersede me,
none had forged a will like mine,
and one by one they fell before me,
melting in the sun like golden calves.
Enemies I brushed aside.
Rivals were crushed beneath my fist.
Fear lit up my children’s eyes - fear and reverence.
How they longed to learn the secrets of the fire!
Do not look at me - I burn.
Do not touch me - I consume.
Do not question me -
I too have learned to fear the fire.
Faceless, my flesh assumed the spirit of the fire,
flame by day, ember smouldering by night,
lighting the journey like a reflection of my will.
In stone I carved a law so harsh and so implacable
that only such as I could possibly obey it.
In sand I forged my children,
turning slaves to soldiers, peasants into priests.
Who would dare to know me?
Who would dare to stand before me?
Are you strong enough, bold enough, vigorous enough?
I too would fear to stand before me.
Then will you wrestle with me, Israel,
here on this high mountain
where Israel wrestled with me?
Those who come cowering I blow away like chaff,
those who come snivelling I spit upon,
those who come kneeling I make to grovel.
Will you wrestle with me, Israel,
here on this broken ladder
where Israel wrestled with me?
I too would fear the iron in the fist.
Strong enough to survive my desert,
to endure my fire;
arrogant enough to pierce my cloak invisible;
man enough to look and touch and live;
ready enough to fight or be consumed.
Why are you limping, Israel? I have not yet
touched the hollow of your thigh,
I have not yet put it out of joint.
Come, my children, wrestle with me,
thigh for thigh, ladder for ladder, fear for fear.
At the edge of the abyss I made judges
out of prisoners, lawyers out of liars, warriors
out of snivelling children. In the craters
of volcanoes I forged giants out of dwarves.
In the trembling of an earthquake
my own voice trembled,
and I shattered every idol who contended with me.
Come, my children, answer - are you worthy of me?
Which of you is capable of envisaging Paradise,
of marching towards it sword in hand,
conquering it, inhabiting it,
building my palace for eternity?
What - did you expect me to take you by the hand
and lead you over Jordan like some shepherd?
Where are your swords, my children?
Where are your teeth, sharpened on paschal lamb?
Where is your will of iron,
wrought in the desert fire and in my iron will?
Must I destroy the sheep as I destroyed the calf?
Climb to the fiery summit of your soul
and wrestle with me, Israel, will to will.
I have made my children strong enough to wrestle,
I have taught my children the arrogance of fire,
I have formed my children in my own likeness,
limping not from the chains they drag behind,
but from the undefeated agony of a dislocated thigh.
I am a rod of flaming iron,
a lion who leaves the sheep-pen bloody,
a flame invisible searing the dark night,
a white moon gleaming out of deepest nothingness.
I am, as this desert made me.
I am - that I am.
Come, my children.
Children, Israel, wrestle.
"Apotheosis" is published in "Welcome To My World, Selected Poems 1973-2013", The Argaman Press. Click here to purchase the book.
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