The Three Weeks: healing our sight
Hagit Ofran on the Levy Report

Rachel Tzvia Back's A Messenger Comes

In the beginning
it was sudden --
the world

that wasn't
all at once

out of formless void --

of the infinite
into pieces -- God

to make way
for perfect human


BackCover1This is a taste of the beginning of Rachel Tzvia Back's new book of poems A Messenger Comes (Singing Horse Press, 2012.) These short sharp lines are poised in the space between classical kabbalah, Luria's cosmogony and the breaking of the vessels, and Back's own hopeful-sorrowful sense of God.

Later, in that same poem, she writes: "That first day when / he moved / gentle over the face // of turbulent waters / his heart / was breaking --" This is a God Whose heart breaks into pieces, and those pieces become the building-blocks of our creation.

This first long multi-part poem, "The Broken Beginning," is steeped in Torah. This is Bereshit, Genesis, in the beginning: the stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs, reflected through this sparse and spare lens."[T]he giving of names / as in the garden" -- Jacob wrestling with the angel, seeking a blessing, a name, acceptance of his body's brokenness -- what it is like to wake "to something / broken." As we all do.

The next multi-part poem, "Lamentation," is about the poet's father and his dying. This is life and death and loss, articulated in glimpses and fragments. In one section, she tells us that their alphabet (aleph-bet) "prepares itself / for radical // unraveling" -- the aleph of the abyss, of air, of ache unabating. The aleph of Av, the month in which we mourn the rupture of the Temple's fall; the aleph of Abba, father.

We move back and forth between the then and the now:

Six feet tall broad and bearded
traveling a world
(in a hospital bed)

professor and scientist
(huddled under
the covers)

in coat and tie commanding
(post-chemo hair white wisps
wistfully // soft)...

And, later:

you recite their names
one by one:

albumin creatinine

creation's secrets
(modeh ani)
spoken as prayer.

The latinate words are strangely reminiscent of the Aramaic cadences of the kaddish: Yitgadal / v'yitkadash / sh'mei rabah. Back's framing turns science into liturgy.

I lingered on the page which begins "Each morning you bind yourself / to yourself / with tefillin" and ends by asking whether these black straps will hold her father here, in life, just a little longer. Oh, my heart.

The page which begins "In the prayer hall the Orphan / rises alone / to praise" is so beautiful and poignant that I immediately make myself a note: I want to include this poem in my congregation's next Yizkor / memorial service.

A list of the father's favorite scholarly tomes becomes a list of the unwritten books of the heart:

A Book from the Ruins
A Book of the Fathers

The Book of Glory

A Daughter's Book of Mourning

This collection here, this book which I hold now in my hand, is all of these things.

Mourning and lamentation are not this collection's only modes. Some of these poems are more peaceful, almost pastoral -- though even the poems about new life bear a tinge of anticipated sorrow:

From the stone verandah
I see almond trees
sitting low
in the orchard --
they are gentle rows
of bright-haired children
before a blackboard
their petaled selves
astir with
the thrilled certainty
they have all the right answers.

I love how the almond trees become rows of children, "petaled selves" astir, certain as only children can be. Adults, this poem does not say (does not need to say), are never so certain.

I heard Rachel speak at Williams several years ago. (2006: Placing the Voice: poet Rachel Tzvia Back.) I admired her poetry then, and I admire it now. Though part of what I admired in those earlier poems was their willingness to engage with the painful political realities of Israel and Palestine (Back lives in the Galilee, where her great-great-great-grandfather settled in the early 19th century.) These poems have a different tenor. They are more intensely personal.

And -- this is probably one of the reasons why this book so moves me -- these poems are deeply steeped in the concepts and vocabulary of Jewish tradition. Endnotes at the book's close explain the scriptural references, the quotations and nods to Lamentations, Song of Songs, Rilke. Even without these, the poems carry their own meaning. But with the added richness of these references and allusions, these poems sing.

I'll close this post with one of the short pieces I continue to find most moving. This poem makes reference to Rosh Chodesh, new moon, and to the ancient tradition of birkat ha-levanah, blessing the new moon and its light. Light intermingles here with loss. In this poem; in this collection; in this life.

It was the new moon
and the Devout were out
in the dark night
to bless the newborn Light --

lifting themselves on toe tips
toward the black sky

cradled in crescented bodies and prayer
as they chanted:

"May we live and not die
all month long" --
as you whom we love


A Messenger Comes at Singing Horse Press; on Amazon; at