Arts & Culture: Apophatic Poetry For a Time of Wordlessness
On Nov. 30, Yeshiva University’s Writing Center held its annual Open Mic event, where students and faculty presented their original writing to a friendly and accepting audience. Anyone and everyone was invited to watch the performances, and/or perform themselves. I sat in awe listening to a series of powerful pieces by so many talented people, from the poignant and shocking short stories of the Writing Center’s Micah Pava (YC ‘23), to Professor Katherine Payne’s evocative personal reflection. Avraham Frohlich (YC ‘25) played an unforgettable original album of love songs, and Benny Klein (YC ‘24) performed a hilarious comedy set featuring advice for dealing with middle school bullies and awkward family reunions. The imposter syndrome was kicking in. What was I doing there? What did I have that could compare to these performances?
This was the second YU Open Mic I have attended. Last year, it was a much smaller event, which I only heard about from Prof. David Puretz. He encouraged our whole creative writing class to go to this random event no one knew much about, and I was ambivalent about going. It wasn’t that I didn’t have anything prepared — a couple of poems collected dust on my Google Drive from a few months prior. I just had so much other work to do, and frankly, I was tired. But after some further cajoling from Prof. Puretz, I decided to try out this Open Mic thing, dust off those poems and give them a whirl in front of an audience. It was an exhilarating experience, one I hadn’t had in years. I suddenly remembered why I loved writing, and why I loved sharing my writing with others. It was a chance to play around with words, their sounds, and meanings. I felt I could finally express myself and activate a part of my personality that had been lying dormant for a long time.
Fast forward a year to this October. Another Open Mic approaches. Again, the ambivalence I felt last year struck. There was so much other work to be done, and so much relaxation and unwinding that would be interrupted by my participation in the event. But I remembered my experience a year prior, and I resolved to dust off another poem or two and perform.
Then Hamas attacked Israel. For a while, it was all any of us could think about. Assemblies. Rallies. Shiurim. Calls. Texts. Media. Social media. Misleading, misinformed media.
Suddenly the poems I was planning to read seemed trite, pointless. Everything did, except Israel and what the Jewish people had endured.
For days and weeks, I tried and failed to write something about Israel. My inability to write was not because I didn’t have any thoughts on the situation. I had a lot of jumbled, angry, confused thoughts, and when I tried to get them down on paper, they all came out equally garbled. I had so many feelings, yet nothing to say.
And then I heard about a sentiment which was circulating in Israel at the time–“Ein Milim,” “No words.” This perfectly described my predicament. So much welling up inside, but no way to express it. And so, I thought, if I couldn’t talk about Israel, at least I could talk about having nothing to say about Israel.
But as I started writing, I realized that really, “Yeish Milim:” We do have words to describe national pain and suffering. So much of our tradition discusses exile, war, loss and confusion. Until this moment, I had never really understood Sefer Eicha or the revenge lust of the go’el hadam. Far from being at a loss for words, Jewish texts and liturgy are packed with an unending litany of discussions of the chachamim of every generation explaining the meaning of and proper response to pain and tragedy.
After this realization, I tried to somehow package the “Jewish approach” to Oct. 7 into my poem. But I quickly realized this was futile. There were just too many discussions and too many precedents and models to pick from. I couldn’t reference one of them without my thoughts shifting to another topic or context from our long history of tragedy. I began to feel mute again. There were just too many images to use, and too many words. I was back to square one. I had nothing digestible or presentable to say.
However, this was different from how I had originally understood “Ein Milim.” It wasn’t that we had no way to express our thoughts and feelings. On the contrary, we have too many words. We could try to talk and conceptualize the events, but we might never reach an end. Now “Ein Milim” almost felt like an apophatic ideal, as if it was a command to be in a state of wordlessness. I realized I had been grasping for symbols and wisdom, trying to put Oct. 7 into some framework so I could keep some safe distance from the reality of it all. Even when I had been at a loss for words, I still struggled to find them. Then I stopped searching. I just sat with the facts of what had happened, in all their gruesome, heart-wrenching detail. And I cried.
I tried, in whatever incomplete and ironic way, to capture my personal progression in the poem. Poetry is definitionally a linguistic medium, but this is essentially a journey toward languagelessness. Nevertheless, to paraphrase the Jewish Austrian philosopher of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein, sometimes you must climb the ladder of language, only to knock it out behind you.
Below, I attach the poem:
Some Words on Ein Milim
A phrase for the malaise of these days
Less than no words to express
The dazed and confused attitude
Of our People who
Fearing a sequel,
Only discuss what has happened to us
The sequence of prequels
Stretching back to our beginning
All the stories of glorious winning
And failing and wailing
Up again in victory
Down again in rupture
For three tens of centuries
Never knowing when
God will send
His people home
How far we had to roam
Lugging that extensive tome
Beg, borrow, and loan
In atonement for our baseless hatred
Hanging by the sinews of our Luz bone
From which the One Enthroned Alone
Will rebuild our home
We do have so many words for all this
Built into a quilt
Over endless millennia
Of one enemy after another
Threatening to smother our hope
We cope with words
The teachings and the preachings
The multitudinous, plenitudinous pages and pages
Of untold ages of prophets and sages
Writing off of meager poor man's wages
Unfazed as they eagerly explained to posterity
How to deal with pain and tragedy
But how do we apply the fine print
The tiny hints from all we’ve read
Of all they’ve said to our newly dead?
Is this the same thread
Of evil we faced in the Wilderness
When they mercilessly slaughtered our defenseless,
The fake sanctimonious Amalek?
Is the sake of God’s Name really at stake
When Noble Ishmael
(Who by the well God propelled to fame)
Claims to be fighting for just the same?
How could the wall of an eternal nation fall in flame
And her people be hauled back into exile
And all the while the world calls for her extinction?
Is this “normal” religious persecution,
The fruition of division turned into expectation?
Or are they against the State
A new spin on an ancient innate latent hate
Bubbling up to the surface
Threatening to churn us
What do we make of this line of questioning?
How do we candidly understand
God’s grand narrative plan
Without demands for bland white-sanded
This time I can’t pretend
To see some line out of this winding
I don’t have some rhyme
To tie this all in a tiny little bow
So then I’d know
How to make sense of this violence
The silence is deafening
Echoing throughout my heart
As an entire part
Of my body is cleaved clean off
Heaved off into the belly of a beast
Who feasts on festering preconceived irate fear
Still I sit here trying to fit
Thousands of years of the swords
Of the hoards of the Lord’s Wars
Into a few spoken broken words
“Ein Sof L’Davar”
There are too many words to say
Too many ways to lay it all out
In some sane orderly arrangement
Twisting wordless horror
Into an absurd chorus
Of pathetic noetic polemics
For Das Ding an Sich
The Thing in Itself in the light of day
As the Sages rightly say
Adding unto His praises
Can have no end
Once one speaks on such matters
They cannot, like common flatterers
Stop when they feel the pomp
Of the situation is sated
Rather they must blather on and on unabated
For all eternity
Until they have fallen, collapsed from exhaustion
And so, in an excess of caution
Instead of collapsing this whole discussion
Into a poem for packaged consumption
And with inflated gumption presumpting
To be exhausting all there is to say
Today I won’t say anything at all
Photo Caption: Wittgenstein says language is a ladder that must be pulled up after it is climbed.
Photo Credit: manolofranco / Pixabay