The limitations of personal experience
Buongiorno from Perugia!

This week's portion: on your house (Metzora)


If the plague again breaks out in the house, after the stones have been pulled out and after the house has been scraped and replastered, the priest shall come to examine: if the plague has spread in the house, it is a malignant eruption in the house; it is unclean. (Leviticus 14:43-44)

I think of houses
after Katrina, walls marred
when the waters receded.

Spores reddish or green
erupting like an epidemic
in old soft stucco.

The X marking doors
where bodies were found
empty-eyed and bloated

like the startling slash
of blood on lintels
where death spared us.

But houses can suppurate
beneath the seen surface.
Bruises don't always show.

Notice the subtle signs.
Empty out the dwelling:
rot threatens the timbers.

Resist temptation to plaster.
Cast out the stones
and pull down walls.

Save what you can
and torch the rest
outside the city line.

This poem took me places I didn't expect to go! This week we're in parashat Metzora, which includes verses about how to cleanse a leper, how to use blood in a purification ritual for one who seeks atonement, how to deal with a plague breaking out in someone's (physical) house, and the tum'ah of bodily discharge. Not the elevated stuff most of us associate with poetry (though I imagine Sharon Olds could create something great with it; she's never been afraid of blood or physicality.)

The poem's opening image came to me first. I haven't been to New Orleans since I was a kid, but I've witnessed minor floods in south Texas. I remember taking Ethan to visit my parents in McQueeney one Thanksgiving after a flood, and how sobering we found the piles of debris outside every home. The parts of the Gulf Coast devastated by the hurricane came out tamei, in a certain way: charged and changed by their encounter with the mighty forces of destruction and death.

Of course, a house can become "impure" in more ways than one. "A plague o' both your houses" didn't generally mean "may your walls be infested with killer mold" in Shakespeare's day any more than it does in ours. Our households become impure in all kinds of ways when we mistreat one another within them.

As usual, you can listen to me reading the poem via the embedded audio player at the top of the post, or by downloading the mp3.

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