Seven Miriam stories
November 01, 2010
One of the classes I'm taking this fall is a two-person hevruta study of feminist Biblical exegesis. We began this class last fall, but it got derailed when I became overwhelmed with physical stuff during the weeks before Drew's birth. Anyway, my partner and I have reconvened our study this semester.
Last year we worked our way through the early parshiyot (Torah portions) in the book of Genesis, each week studying the assigned reading from the weekly lectionary and then studying a variety of feminist commentaries on that text. This year we're focusing instead on several specific Biblical women: one from Torah, a few from Shoftim (in English, the book of Judges), plus two from the megillot (Esther and Ruth), alongside a variety of commentaries and feminist responses to those texts.
In lieu of writing a final paper for this class, I asked the teacher whether I could write a series of poems which respond to these Biblical women, as my other Torah poems respond to the Torah portions we study as we move around the year. I thought I'd share the first of those poems here; it's a series of seven short pieces about the prophet Miriam, sister of Moses.
This poem draws on a variety of midrashic interpretations of the story of Miriam. It's partially inspired by -- though hopefully not derivative of -- Alicia Ostriker's The Songs of Miriam, which appear in Ostriker's The Nakedness of the Fathers. I'd love to know what you think.
SEVEN MIRIAM STORIES
I’m nine years old when my mother gives birth.
The women who attend her hasten me out, but
I hear her groaning. When I glance through the door
one midwife presses the heels of her hands
into the hollows of my mother's back.
Then her cries shift. I hear them urge her
to push, push now, pause and breathe, count to ten
then push again. My mother shouts, teeth clenched
and suddenly the room is filled with light.
I never knew labor ended with such glory.
After three months she can't conceal him.
His neck isn't so wobbly anymore, his eyes
can focus, he no longer flails his arms
without will, but my mother weeps for him, afraid.
One morning I wake to the smell of melted pitch:
she paints the bottom of the ark three times
then lines it with straw and a woven blanket
a perfect nest for my brother, who kicks his feet
and stares at us from the basket's embrace.
I take him to the river. I stand back to watch.
Pharaoh's daughter sweeps him into her arms
and my brother, already wise, reaches out
to touch her face and win her heart. I run
fast as I can to fetch our mother, I hire her
with Pharaoh's money to wet-nurse her son.
Someday he will sweep us with his outstretched arm
across the waters of the sea, someday
we will dance with hand-drums on the sandy shore
and though Pharaoh's daughter knew those horses
and their riders she will dance too.
Once my brother threw a staff on the earth
and God turned it into a snake. Once my brother
put his hand inside his cloak and God turned it white
like hoarfrost in the cold desert shadows. Once
I groused that my brother gets all the attention
(he speaks for God; he married the most beautiful woman
any of us had ever seen, then ignored her
because God was more important) and God turned me
white as my brother's arm. Does that mean I too
am an instrument of God's will, set apart wholly?
I spend seven days outside the boundary
of civilization, like a man preparing
to be painted with a lamb's life-force
on ear and hand and toe. Will I hear
only God's word, perform only God's actions,
walk only in God's ways? What visions I behold
in the desert night will never be recorded.
On the eighth day I take my place again
at the head of the line, drum beneath my arm
and we dance our way to where we're going.
Here in the desert I take each woman’s hand
and lead her through the narrow straits. I sing
protection until her baby comes safely through.
I have no daughters to teach what I know
and the girls are afraid of me: the Egyptian ways
I learned from Shifra and Puah will die with me.
One of the girls I delivered will inherit
my carved birthing stool, my stock of hyssop,
my wool and sea sponges, but only I know
the names of God I call upon in the night.
And when I die there will be no water.
And when I am gone the well will disappear.
Without me the people will be restless.
But brother, my brother, do not weep:
bury me here on the flats of Zin.
The women will sing my songs at sundown
and I will hear their voices on the wind.
Every woman of Israel who seeks to draw
these waters forth will be my hands.
Thus has God spoken. Amen, amen, selah.