Rembrandt's Bible: Atar Hadari, Indigo Dreams

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This collection is based on an idea of modernised stories from the Old Testament, and is divided into four sections:  ‘Honey’, ‘Songs of David’, ‘Father Tongue’, and ‘Rembrandt’s Bible’. To interpret those most poetic stories in the cadences and lingua franca of contemporary poetry is a difficult undertaking.  Those who know and grew up with the Old Testament bible will have their own ideas of the characters that loved, lived, suffered and died amongst its pages. Those that did not may struggle to understand some of the references in this collection which relies on a certain level of theological knowledge which the poet obviously owns, but which his reader may not.   

At least, this reader did not.  It took, for example, several visits to Wikipedia to work out the meaning of the poem entitled ‘Michal’. I now know that Saul had a daughter called Michal. Without this knowledge, I could not understand who “I saw him coming with his serving maids” referred to. Or “… he paid for me – he paid in steam/and blood.” “He” does not refer to her father, presumably? King David, then?

I suffered similar problems with ‘Abishag’. The poet uses heavily sexualised imagery in the poem of this name, so that  I assumed she was a concubine. Then Bathsheba and the much painted Judgment of Solomon make an appearance. I was determined that Solomon should have his own poem and he does, although it avoids the baby episode. Again with the poem entitled  ‘Miriam’ (the sister of Moses), the first line is: “All I said was ‘she has nappy hair.’ ”  But I am still left with the problem of who is “she”?  When Miriam in this poem says: “‘I don’t believe he goes up there and they talk about nothing but redemption./What is there to talk about for so long?” That I understand. That is funny. But who is “she”?   

I found this recurring pronoun issue throughout the collection became irritating and problematic. There is nothing wrong with having to work out the meaning of a poem; reviewers expect to do this. But there is a difference between peeling away layers of meaning, and having to work out a massive cast list and their relationship to each other, before being in a position to commence the process of understanding.  It is a question of how much to ask of the reader, and of whether the reader feels excluded by knowledge he or she does not possess.  With the work of some poets, it is possible to become so enthralled by the beauty of a lyric that it doesn’t matter. But I am not sure that this is the case here.  

Hadari will certainly not be the first nor the last poet to present a reinterpretation of biblical stories.  It could even be said that there is currently a trend for writing poems which reimagine myths and legends.  For example, Alice Oswald‘s Memorial  is a reworking of Homer’s Iliad. But to take this path, is to tread in the footsteps of the great and the good, and to run the risk of being compared. ‘Lot’s Wife’, the author tells us, was a runner up in the Manchester Cathedral Poetry Competition, a considerable poetic achievement. Yet reading it I somehow couldn’t get past Anna Akhmatova’s beautiful poem of the same title. If this sounds negative, it is because I feel this collection in many ways is a missed opportunity. There are many things to like about the work.  There is wit and irony:

 

     Are you sure they want this kid?

     I mean there isn’t a refund

     After I chop him up into dog food … (‘Goliath’)

 

and evidence of much knowledge. But should the bible stories be made funny/ironic?  What does it achieve to do this?  What value does it add? I felt Hadari to be at his most successful when he is not trying too hard to establish a particular personality or series of events. The poet demonstrates that simple, beautiful images that stand alone and require no props such as “… where do you go to when the sound/of God is wilderness?” (‘Isaac’) are amply within his grasp.  And Hadari is at his best when writing out of his own experience. ‘Outdoor Prayer’ is a lovely rendering of a group of men praying outside in the rain. I liked the poem  ‘Silence’ which refers to a Jewish child first attending a Protestant service at school:

 

     only the hours of light

     Fleeting and through a cracked window

     leave stains of gold on the cloth

     the rest is memorial embroidery and wrinkles.

 

while the final and most poignant poem  ‘Mr Taylor’ forms a tribute and elegy to this country’s diminishing Jewish communities and the increasing secularisation of its Jewish youth.

Frances Spurrier

 

Atar Hadari, Rembrandt’s Bible, Indigo Dreams Publishing, £10.50

 

 

 

 

 

 

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