Lightning for a Pen

The Water Garden, by Childe Hassam, 1909.

It is the rainy season in Beersheba, Israel, where I live. After the long, hot, dry summer, I relish now the time of rain. Jewish liturgy notes the change in the “Amidah,” the “Standing Prayer.” The summer words in the second blessing—“He causes the dew to descend”—change to the winter version, “He causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.”

A few mornings ago, after a previous evening’s rain shower, I noticed some beautiful, delicate, white flowers in our front garden—the garden’s response to the rain. The sight of them brought to mind a poem by Solomon ibn Gabirol, the medieval Jewish poet and philosopher. Gabirol lived in Spain, in Andalusia, in the eleventh century.

At the suggestion of an acquaintance, I recently bought a book of Gabirol’s poetry titled, Vulture in a Cage: Poems by Solomon Ibn Gabirol. The poems, originally in Hebrew, are translated into English by Raymond P. Scheindlin. Here is the poem, in Hebrew, that the flowers in my garden called to mind.

Here is Scheindlin’s English translation:

WINTER WROTE with rains and showers for ink,
with lightning for a pen and a hand of cloud,
a letter on the ground in blue and violet,
a work no artisan could match with all his skill.
So when earth was longing for the sky,
she wove upon her flower beds
something like the stars.

Gabirol, Solomon Ibn. Vulture in a Cage. Steerforth Press.

To me, one of poetry’s fascinating qualities is its ability to transmit multiple meanings with a single set of words. One sees this clearly in translated poems. A translator must choose one way of stating the poet’s words. But, then, the result is itself a poem in another language. As a result, interpretive fecundity continues, grows. Below is an alternative translation of the “same” poem. The translation is by T. Carmi. He titles the poem “Earth’s Embroidery.”

With the ink of its showers and rains, with the quill of its lightning, with the hand of its clouds, winter wrote a letter upon the garden, in purple and blue. No artist could ever conceive the like of that. And this is why the earth, grown jealous of the sky, embroidered stars in the folds of the flower-beds.

Carmi, T. The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse (Penguin Classics).

I find the contrast in meaning between the two translations intriguing. The first one speaks of the earth’s longing for, the second one of its jealousy of, the sky. Did heaven send down a love letter or a challenge to an aesthetic competition, or both? Was earth, perhaps, insensitive to heaven’s advances?

Either way, my life is richer for reading the poem, and I am grateful to Gabirol, Scheindlin, and Carmi, for making it so—not to mention heaven, earth, and rain!

Best wishes,

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.