Voyager I Am Singing the Fire

Rosebud Ben-Oni
March 14, 2017
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Figure in the Dark (Michael Hafftka, 2009)

Jews, we sing the fire. Our song is of people who care for the fire. We sang from inside fire. For thousands of years in the diaspora, our fire survived through our language. Those who desecrate our cemeteries have no idea what power lies in our dead. Nor that our faith is our language is our fire. Even when our fire was taken from us, used against us.

In the diaspora, I am singing our fire.

I am still here.

I would all but be our second-sighted watchtower of fire.

I would send my own death before a firing squad before I lose the fire.

I am the promise my father once made me: I am still on the wings of nesharim.

*

Today I listen too hard to the scattering of song of city birds, as the windows in the streets quiver and escape into themselves. I pass through. My nerves shatter. Sonorous street lamps hum without word. They thrum with post-human skeletal first light rising over a tundra. I stop to listen to its greyish-green echo. Who took away her trees? Who regrew her in cinders and tossed the bones of her songbirds to the sea? There is no barrenness— only my eye and its fire, searching for the song of soft ground. To bury. To return. To remember.

When did we start to love as humans? When did human love overtake the bond given to all others? Why is it fire?

There is a blunt-force color-sound to a single leaf falling. I look up. There is no tree. There are no buildings. In a world where no one has yet died, I’m writing a song for the dead. I will keep the fire burning. I won’t forget. I look up. I am in Queens. Nothing’s falling. I wander down a barren avenue lined with small-yarded houses. A neighbor sweeps her stoop and waves. We embrace though we catch sight of each other almost twice a week. What is our bond? What is this rhythm of us older than these streets? I give my leave. I sing the fire. I sing the fire. Evening arrives and fades. I pass through. My phone reads 11:10 AM. I arrive before a young synagogue in my neighborhood. Before her stained glass windows, unsullied and immaculate, I close my eyes and listen for the violet hues of bird-swung flower-crowns of halos. She is an endless crown of light. I know her cold Yom Kippur mornings on a humid September day, her children fasting and giddy, although I’ve never stepped inside. I carry her too in the lullaby of my veins. The lullaby has no words. Without words, I can listen to the fire only.

I am still here.

You are burning.

*

Make no mistake: The poets who transcend words are not without language.

Before a single word, there was music, and long after words fade, there will be music.

The song bird will burst into a crown of light.

For now, you can only explain this in words.

Words are your towards— each wishing itself as a radiant injury in deep space.

Word as the bird’s nest smothering the opening

Word as the effulgent passageway.

*

For you, the Jewish Diaspora has always been its own homeland, and those prolonged stretches of solitude, a kind of community. Your faith remained strong because it sets itself ablaze in its endless ebbing and flowing, dimming and illuminating in diasporic solitude, where you best hear the music. This is not the same as being lonely. This is not a state of longing for home. You were born with/into this kind of solitude. It is undeniably Jewish, which is separate from its roots in Judaism. In Jerusalem, in the Jewish state of Israel, the diasporic solitude just as soon filled you. Perhaps this is because you are not a sabra (native-born Israeli) but born in/into the diaspora. Perhaps this is because you are mixed, have found solace in the altars in which your Mexican aunts burned seven-day candles, those rainy Spring days you wandered into storefront churches, nailed your hands of fire into splintering walls, sang from your shallow shoal of shipwrecking.

Diaspora as shipwrecking.

Diaspora as nearly drowning.

Is that how you learned to swim?

Is that how you learned to pray?

Do you hear it now— the fire-air filling your lungs with not language but gasping song?

*

Recently, you took a trip to Antigua with your husband. You rented a little room right off the beach where, on the last night, a five-person steel drum band transitioned seamlessly from an old Rihanna song to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

No one was singing, but you knew it immediately. How such immediacy surprised you.

You’ll hear it weeks later, as clear as when you first heard it played, and know these are the exact sounds you’ll never forget for the rest of your life, the meshing of steelpan, timbale and tom-tom swaying softly the chorus of the single word “Hallelujah.” The handling of the minor keys. Its softly muffled crescendos, the near triumph of that crescendoing that sinks back into a deep lull, again and again, the dipping and leaning of the drummers’ bodies as they fell into the word unsaid. Hallelujah.  

It was the most beautiful song you ever heard: this exact, wordless rendering.

You heard the words of the song although you did not hear the words spoken.

And in this way, the words sang to you even louder.

This is how music speaks beyond mortal time.

Later that night you walked on the beach, heading back to your little room. There was no Wi-Fi, no phone service. You were covered in mosquito bites and it was wonderful, how his fingers passed over the welts forming on your arms without scratching them. Suddenly he took out his phone. He opened up a voice memo and pressed play, and on came the fire of the steel drum “Hallelujah.” As the surf disappeared, the water right up to the fence in front of the small patch of grass that separated your room from the ocean, the song rang out over the night, and your husband brought the phone closer to your ear as if you were listening to the ocean from a shell right on the edge of the sea.

This is how music speaks beyond mortal time.

This is being given the seaside and the sadness of leaving it.

*

 Are you the toward my land? Do you know I echo the dead I will be?

*

Sometimes when you write, you talk to your sentences. You want to free them of syntax, of their own fixed meanings.

Sometimes when you are dreaming, you can do this to language. You’re still figuring out how to translate what you undergo in these dreams onto the page. You discuss it with your father because you fear you’re dreaming in deathly terms. Not your own, but that you might be slipping into the song of multitudinous passings. Other days, you dream of those chasing you because they want to extinguish the fire. You run and run, but once you look down, you see that you are carrying a bird, who alights from your hands and holds herself close to your ear. She sings into you. She sings— and you awaken, tight-muscled and crooked-limbed, beside your husband who says you’ve come to speak in your sleep.

What did I say? you ask him.

He shakes his head; he can’t understand it— only that it sounds something “like” words.

Your husband is often embarrassed when he tells you this. You don’t know why, but it lightens the moment. What would otherwise frighten you.

—Is it the fire? you ask your father.

—He is a son to me, your father says.

—Is it the fire?

—He is my son even if he doesn’t believe in God.

—Is it the fire?

Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh.

Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh.

All Jews are responsible for each other.

*

 

Dismantling the Red Tent (R. B. Kitaj, 1963-1964)

Once you dreamed your father was a synagogue, and all its doors were opened, and its walls were doors that opened, and its roof as a door that opened. And then there was no building at all. And in the middle of a field was a fire burning and no matter how close you walked toward it, you were always at a distance because you were in the middle of your people. And from far above, you heard the music— and that was good. And that was good—

—and even now, with your small knowledge of fire and the heart, you are lost for words when your father not only calls your Chinese, Buddhist-raised but mostly agnostic husband his son, but also speaks him into the bond of your language. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh.

He speaks many times your husband into the bond of your language.

I can no longer separate my Judaism from my poetry.

You can no longer separate your Judaism from your poetry.

And now the fire is speaking.

And now the fire is speaking.

*

Poetry is the truest of forward movement.

Poetry is the lifecycle song of the fire, from language.

Poetry alone remains entirely approaching a new world.

Past is portal. Present is eternal fire. Future is the act of wring.

Crippled tundras: when we try to speak the future in what we use now.

But poetry grows in the tundra.

Poetry is the eternal fire in the tundra

I am drawn to poets of the tundra.

I am drawn to the sounds of shifting ice and the cold.

What if music is the afterlife of language?

What if music is the future of language?

I mean— music will have helding us in a caesura—

What if the fire is a caesura that conceals what She holds until we are ready to—

That we could open our throat and from our mouth exits a choir of children’s hymns? What if voice was timbale and tom-tom, the tongue a yarn-covered mallet? What if musical notation is future spoken language? And discord the sound of elation? What if the song of birds would unlock the voice of the fire? What if the song of birds is the voice of the fire?

*

Is historical trauma the reason you hear the music? Is it the shattering of synagogue windows and the shaving of pious beards in the street? Is it a man coming to take Mama’s home on the border and she as a young girl running after him with a shovel? Is it Mama saying young girl don’t stand alone for too long on a corner? Is it a younger Aba tucking in the strings of his talit in the presence of malicious wolves who’d chase him anyway?

Oh, what fear has been passed down to you. Passes through you.

But none of those are the reason.

The music is not human.

The music, you are trying to explain to a friend, is coming from elsewhere. Elsewhere. Not death, not dearly departing.  The music you are hearing frightens you. Realigns your focus. Lights up child after child within you. Not human. They aren’t hungry. They don’t scream. But they are restless. And they make your bones restless. They are the deeper blue beneath the evening sky just after a storm, and they are the sound of heat escaping a radiator. Racing to catch your train, you try to explain this when your friend stops you at a word.

What did I say? You ask.

She repeats it. You stop under the constellations of the domed roof of Grand Central, and see a bird trapped, flying to and fro the grand, false sky, until it catches fire.

She is calling your name, but it is not your name.

There is no bird. The is no fire.

The word? Telluric.

*

You would be lost without poetry. Lost in this world, ablaze with elevated bickering—

—when, sleeping your fitful sleep, elegiac birds would dance their traditions like songs, ever-adaptable to their changing world. Eternal leave-taking, yet their memories are futurespeak of what they become. Unworded, unfolding.

Where all the trains derail and sing hallelujah.

When nothing is destroyed but is unfolding—

On those nights, as darkness crosses over to day, you’d carry into waking a glimpse of human possibility.

You’d rush to tell your beloved, to call your friends. What you dreamt escapes your lips.

And because they love you, they’d listen to what they hear as silence.

And with those you love, it would become silence.

And how it would leave you heartbroken.

*

And how poetry is the conduit between language and the future of our afterlives.

*

You weep because in these last few years, poetry has brought you home to Jewishness.

You, the minor chord, the unboxing of tefillin, the yarn mallet striking marble.

*

In these moments, when I am lifted in the long armless radiance of the fire, I am not within a country or nation.  I am landless compass. I am setting sail. I am toward.

In these moments, you don’t pray for peace. You don’t pray for reckoning.  You are the air taken from the great silence.

Voyager, you are the bird that does not return to us. The footsteps underneath us that comes from the floor above. The beating heart outside time, that keeps not time but distances.

Voyager, here I am.

Voyager— and you are singing the fire.

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