Enjambment and the Provisionality of Suffering (?)

Here is another example of why I love studying Hebrew poetry. F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp points out that enjambment (love how that b is jammed in there) expresses meaning in Lamentations through giving “provisional” meaning in the first line of a couplet only to have this “half” meaning counteracted by the second. Here’s an example from Lamentations 2:22. We read:

2014-12-12 03.56.31 pm“He summoned as if a festival day”

And the couplet finishes:

2014-12-12 03.56.59 pm

“my terrors on every side”

[Dobbs-Allsopp points out that this provisional expectation and resulting surprise is destroyed, for instance, by the NRSV’s translation: “You invited my enemies from all around / as if for a day of festival.”]

What I find interesting about this particular form of expression is how it reflects the purpose of Lamentations. Lamentations is most basically the expression of shock at brutally overturned expectations of blessing. Yes, the author admits that the sin has precipitated the suffering, but the tonal emphasis of the book is on the suffering. For example, the poet says, “For the chastisement of the daughter of my people has been greater / than the punishment of Sodom” (ESV). As an expression of shock, this use of enjambment exactly parallels the experience of the poet, an expectation of festival overturned by terrors on every side.

But to generalize even a bit more, this is also the universal experience of suffering. We all have a sort of imaginative construal of how things are and how things will be that is dramatically overturned when we encounter suffering. This is why suffering creates such profound mental pain. It involves a temporary split in the imaginative construal of the world. The characteristic orientation of the soul to find meaning in God’s purposes crashes against the present orientation of the soul, the overwhelming and bracing reality of evil. This fixation on present evil overthrows this characteristic sense of meaningfulness. (e.g. Coulehan, 2009)

But this raises the question of whether even this present suffering might be yet overturned by another couplet of experience? Perhaps I have only a “half” meaning at this moment? What if there still exists a possibility of meaningfulness being restored?

Still, while this possibility might exist, we must recognize that lingering in the shock of reversal is exactly what Lamentations enables us to do. Lamentations gives us words to voice this divided soul. On one level it validates our construal; it tells us that all is not right and that we are justified in feeling that the world is chaos, or even feeling that God is our enemy. In this sense, it is just the ordinary case of dealing with the sometimes dreadful particulars human life as we have no other alternative but to take them, in time, moment by moment. I can only taste human experience in the present tense with the full poignancy of the recent past. There is no future experience for humans, only future imaginative projection.

This moment by moment limitation of humanness is precisely what Augustine was complaining about in his Confessions. His thirst for the eternal was at least partially the thirst for seeing everything “as it is”, to experience the eternal, past, present, and future at once. So for the Christian the dramatic grief of suffering is not culpable, as if we just needed to think differently to begin with. Grief is just the response of the human soul coming to terms with particular evil in particular time. And the degree to which we finally judge this particular evil in particular time as irreconcilable with a meaningful whole is the degree to which we tend to deny the existence of meaning, or God himself. Voltaire was a good example of one did this.

Lamentations, however leads us not to this sort of despair, but ultimately to a prayer mingled with a question. “Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us Why do you forget us forever … why do you forsake us for so many days? Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old–unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us.”

This question of rejection, of the loss of all meaningful resolution remains for us all, will the final couplet of things to come alter the provisional meaning of our present experience?

“Remember, O Lord”

_______________

Jack Coulehan, “Compassionate Solidarity: Suffering, Poetry, and Medicine,” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Autumn 2009), 585-603.

Advertisements

Lamentations, 2:7-12

Given into the hands of the enemy
The Lord has forsaken his altar—abhorred his sanctuary
And they give shouts of celebration, absurdly
In YHWH’s house, as in the day of festival

He decided to shred the breastworks of daughter Zion
YHWH set a line to survey their ruin, planned their fall
He did not withdraw his fist from seizing it, ripping it
He caused rampart and wall to howl with crashing languish

Into the dead earth, her gates have sunk
He busted and broke to bits her bars
Her king and chiefs are adrift among the nations
There is no Torah.
Her blind prophets see no visions from YHWH.

Judicious elders, struck dumb, sit down in the dust
Daughter Zion’s wise heap it on their heads
Carelessly, thoughtlessly, emptily, in rags
Virgin daughters abase their faces to that dust

Knotted and knifed my bowels erupt
The bile of my bitterness spews dusty lines of grief
My eyes have spent their tears
On account of my broken daughter, my broken people
And Feeble children fainting in city streets

Loudly bawling for vacant mothers
Where is food? Where is drink?
Like their wounded fathers, they faint in city streets
And breathe out their souls on mothers’ dry breasts

Lamentations, 2:1-6

Alas, the Lord has blackened and marred her in his wrath
The Lord has flung down the daughter of Zion
Israel’s beauty is toppled* from the heavens to the mire
In his anger he did not remember his footstool, his temple

Bitten, gnawed and swallowed up were all the dwellings of Jacob
With no mercy the Lord has done this
He has smashed the strongholds of the daughter of Judah
He has trampled to the ground the kingdom and its rulers—to disgrace

Chopped, cleft, cut off is every horn of strength
In fierce and fiery anger the Lord has done this
His protecting right hand is withdrawn before the hordes
As a flame, a fire, he has burned, consuming everywhere

Drawn is his bow, as an assailant
Stationed as a foe is his strong hand
He has slain his beloved, her beautiful in his eyes
In the tent of the daughter of Zion
The flame of his fiery wrath was burnt

Even the Lord has become an enemy
He consumed Israel, consumed its palaces
He has devastated its fortresses
He has buried the daughter of Judah in mourning

For he has destroyed his “booth”—his holy temple, his place
YHWH has seared from memory forgotten festivals and sabbaths
He has scratched out his places, his times, his people
In the umbrage of his anger, he has disdained king or priest

*I chose “toppled” here because in Israel’s cosmology God sat in the heavens in his cosmic temple, with the temporal temple as his footstool, and I think “Israel’s beauty” here refers to that meeting point between God and Israel embodied in the temple. Thus, the temple itself is toppled (lit. flung down) from its reach to the heavens to the dull earth. It’s worth noting that much of this section focuses on the temple, “Israel’s beauty,” his footstool, tent, “booth”–an ironic designation of the impermanence what was to be permanent, his place, his temple. Verse 6, in particular, highlights the threefold lament of Jeremiah, that God’s appointed places, people, and times are all burned out of existence and memory by the very Lord who appointed and commemorated them. There may be irony present in the twin descriptions of “beclouded” (trans. blackened) and “burnt” with God’s special divine presence manifested as cloud and fire–but in this case fire that burns and cloud that wipes out of sight and memory.

Lamentations, 1:13-22

My bones burn with his heavenly fire—he sent
He set a snare too for my feet and turned me back on it
He left me appallingly desolate all the day
All the day he left me faint, wan, ill

Noose-like, my sins wrapp’d ‘round my neck
Trussed and cinched by his own hand, fixed
I staggered, my strength ragged, in tatters
And my Lord handed me to those I can’t repel

Our warriors my Lord heaped up—in our midst
He called an assembly against us to shatter our young men
My Lord has stomped the grapes
The virgin daughter of Judah bleeds red

Pitifully I weep; there are tears in things
My eyes are a river flowing with deep waters
For far away is anyone to comfort, to revive my soul
My sons are abandoned, decaying, where my enemy prevailed

Ruined Zion opens her arms, but with no one to embrace
YHWH has issued a verdict against Jacob
Converting near neighbors into fierce enemies
Beloved lady Jerusalem has become filthy, grotesque to them

Surely God is right—can I believe it?
For I rebelled his commands—how I feel it!
But please! Listen! All people! Look on my woe!
My daughters and sons have walked away into captivity

Tenderly I had called for my lovers
And they deceived me—they delusions of dreams
My holy priests and honored elders perished within the city
Having scoured for food, for life—delusion of a dream

Upon my distress, please Lord look
My heart turns; my belly boils—how defiant was I!
Outside the sword maims, claims, bereaves
Inside the house is silent expectation of death

Why is there no one to comfort me? When they have heard my groan!
My enemies have heard of my woe, and rejoice
Bring on them the day you promised
That they may be like me.

Yea, bring all their wickedness before you, publish it!
Run your scythe through them as you have with me
You have done it, because of my rebellion
My groans are unceasing; my heart is crushed

Lamentations, 1:7-12

Ghosts of reminiscences, Jerusalem—destitute and displaced
She, summons these precious tokens of days of old
When her people fell into the the enemy’s grip—no hand to stay
Her enemy standing, sneering at her fall

Her own grievous sin makes Jerusalem defiled
Those who adored now abhor; the lovers loathe
For they have seen her nude, stripped, exposed
And she sobbing shrinks away

In crimson streaks her uncleanness drips from hem
From not considering the issue of guilt
Her drop shocks away all comforters, no one for her
“Look! YHWH on my condition—my enemies rise”

Jerusalem’s treasures snatched by the palms of her foes
She suffered horror as the goyim penetrated her sacred place
Those whom you had commanded
That they should not enter your place of meeting

Keenly searching for crumbs of bread, all her people sob
They have betrayed their treasures in lieu of life, of food
“Look YHWH! Perceive what I have become!
Squandered, despised, worthless, spent.

Look! You who pass on the road! Perceive!
It is nothing to you, you who lightly pass me by?
Could there be any pain like mine, which has afflicted me
—with which YHWH has afflicted me in his wrath?

Lamentations 1:7-12

(While this translation is my own and takes some liberties in an effort to recapture the evocative nature of the original Hebrew text, the allusions present in this translation are present in the original text, and not my own creation.)

Lamentations, in installments

Alas, she sits alone
She a city, once great with people
She a great woman among the goyim
She a princess among the provinces
She, reduced to the yoke

Bitterly, she weeps the night through
Her tears run along her jaw
She has no solace from all her lovers
From all her friends she reaps betrayal
They’ve become to her, enemies.

Carried to exile and crushed with affliction
Judah, she likewise sits among the nations
She has found no rest
All her pursuers overrun her in the narrows

Dismal mourning steeps the steps to Zion
For no steps track to the place of meeting
All her gates are desolate, her priests groan
Her virgins forced, she wasted with gall

Enemies at ease have brought her low
For YHWH smites her for her defiance
Her children walked lightly the path to captivity
Before the faces of careful foes

From the daughter of Zion, all glory is gone out
Her princes are does, driven out of pasture
Her princes went feebly to nowhere
Before the faces of vigorous pursuit

Lamentations 1.1-6

Fun with Hebrew: In Ecclesiastes

2014-04-22 09.03.48 am

“It goes to the south and whirls round to the north, whirling
whirling, the wind goes and in its whirling around the wind returns.”

This is a bizarre verse structurally.  There seems to be an extra “going around” (sovev) in each line, and one too few directional marker in the second half. The verse is circuitous and confusing in its very word structure. Furthermore, the wind hits the reader “to the south” and “to the north,” whirling him around, before he ever knows it is the wind that is doing it. The motion manifests itself prior to the naming, as the wind itself moves us before we name it.