Nice interview in the North Adams Transcript
This week's portion: The Blessing

Charlotte Mandel's The Marriages of Jacob

MarriagesCharlotte Mandel's The Marriages of Jacob (Micah Publications, 1991) is a "poem-novella" which explores the story of the Biblical patriarch Jacob and his wives, and it is extraordinary.

As a reader, I relate to this volume on at least two levels. It's been more than thirteen years since I finished my MFA at Bennington, but I'm still interested and invested in contemporary poetry. So on the one hand, I approach this collection as a poet and a reader of poetry.

And my other set of lenses is my love of Torah and of the midrash which flowers-forth from Torah.  I cherish our stories and the wealth of commentary which form the core of our tradition. I'm interested and invested in stories from Torah and in their various retellings.

This collection moves me and inspires me on both of these levels. I appreciate the craft of this poetry, Mandel's choices of word and turn of phrase. And I appreciate the love of this scriptural story which led her to write these poems, and the ways in which she fleshes out Torah's sparse narrative into something multifaceted, three-dimensional, and real.

Longtime readers know that writing Torah poems is part of both my creative and my spiritual practice; I wrote one every week for a few years, and collected the best poem for each parsha into 70 faces (Phoenicia, 2011). But I've never gone as deeply into a single story, a single Biblical narrative, as Mandel does here. Here's how the collection begins:

Silence veils this bride
no less than her lowered hood
sewn with seven stems of silver wheat

Seven years this virgin groom
has buried his fists in her father's harvests,
bound sheep's wool into humps

A bargain -- the heat of his body
for the fragrance of Rachel,
Laban's daughter.
                      A swollen moon,
thorned stars and fruitful vines
pattern the roof of the wedding tent

loomed by the hummingbird fingers
of girls too young to have bled.
Her bearded brothers are grinning

with closed lips at their father's wit:
"Did he not ask
for my daughter, and do I not give him

my daughter Leah?"

I like the alliteration and assonance of "sewn with seven stems of silver wheat," of "buried his fists in her father's harvests," of "loomed by the hummingbird fingers." (And what images! Fists buried in the thick springiness of wool, weaving fingers flying fast as tiny birds.) And I like the visual prosody of the turn at the middle of the poem, the indented line a hinge between the first half and the second, between one part of the story and the next.

Here's another one I really like. Take note of the earthy physicality of this poem, the fertility and pregnancy imagery, once again the use of repeated sounds (hunger and hot, risen rounds, the bread and the broth, bondsman and bread):

There is always hunger
and the hot bread.
The bride has milled this portion's flour
crouched on her knees to drive the stone,
kneaded yeast dough with her fists,
baked risen rounds upon the upraised belly
of the clay oven.

There is the wedding broth of milk,
beaten eggs and crushed almonds
sweetened with drops of date honey

the gift tray of woven reeds
set with Sumerian glazed bowls.

The bread and the broth steam to their nostrils.
A knot eases / another enters the weave /
Jacob the bondsman eats Leah's bread.

Some of these poems arise out of Leah's story; others, of course, out of Rachel's. Here's one of my favorites among the Rachel poems:

Kicked by a goat's hoof, a stone
ricochets, bruising her sandalled heel.
A bluish sickle moon
floats in barren twilight.
A trickle of monthly flow
stains her groin.

As a boy might do, Rachel
picks up the stone
and hurls it at the sky's hated
ghost calendar:

Plant lentils at the full
wheat at the dark
barley under the horn
Plant a son
as the husband wills

The folk-wisdom tone of the final stanza is a good reminder that our ancestors lived by agricultural measuring of time. And I love the image of "barren twilight" for Rachel, and "the sky's hated / ghost calendar."

Leah and Rachel aren't the only wives, aren't the only mothers, in this part of Torah's tale. Here are the stories of the handmaidens Bilhah and Zilpah, too. (One poem begins "If Zilpah weeps, no one sees or hears.") Another shows all four women working the same loom, each of the four singing her own creation story in her own tongue, her own idiom. I like that this collection gives voice not only to the two daughters of Laban but also to their handmaidens, foreign girls, servant-girls, who give birth on their mistresses' behalf. I appreciate that Mandel is mindful of the women who are so often doubly-erased.

Here too are Rachel's enduring sorrow and frustration at her inability to conceive, intertwined with poems which walk the path of labor with her sister Leah and the midwife. (Having myself borne one child, those poems move me someplace deep with memory.) And finally we read, in Mandel's words, the poem of Rachel's giving birth:

Rachel labors during a night of rain.
Beside houses and tents,
all cisterns upturned to the sky
fill with blessing.
Within the fold, drinking troughs brim over.

This is a night of births
among the animals --
by morning, seven ewes
lick the cauls from blind
trembling eyelids, limbs unfold
like broken sticks made whole.

According to custom,
no man enters the birthing tent --

but Jacob,
drops of rain scattering from his shepherd cloak,
eleven times a father --
for the first time, gazes
into the eyes of a newborn son. Motionless,
engraving each other's faces
on the tablets of their lives,
they hear Rachel's voice naming:

I like her choice to work with water imagery. Rain in the desert can indeed feel miraculous. Notice, too, the number seven (which recurs throughout this story -- Jacob's seven years working for each wife), the mention of blindness and eyelids (some hold that Leah's "soft eyes" mean she couldn't see, or couldn't see well), the vivid description of bony lamb's knees. And oh, "engraving each other's faces / onto the tablets of their lives" -- what an extraordinary description of the patriarch holding his newborn son for the first time. Every time I reread that I remember my own husband holding our newborn son.

Still later we get the sons of Jacob sitting, "a dagger's curve of youths // tough as desert palms;" Jacob's wrestle with the angel and his re-naming; the story of Dinah and Shechem; and, at the book's close, Rachel's burial by the side of the road. (I recently shared my own poem about Rachel's death -- Mother Rachel -- and it's interesting for me to juxtapose my imaginings with Mandel's.) On every page there is at least one turn of phrase which tugs at my heart, one poetic choice which makes me nod with recognition and appreciation.

These are powerful poems. This is a beautiful addition to its genres. I am so glad to have read it. I know I will reread these poems again and again.

The Marriages of Jacob, $12 on Amazon; here are other places where you can buy it, at prices ranging from $7 to $30.