Sambatyon

And ink is the name of your spirit
            – Abulafia

Even as the flux swelled and rushed headlong
he stared hard at the furious script
of foam, and could have sworn someone had tripped
and scattered the alphabet into the strong
brew of gravel and sand that left him short
of breath, and threw him for a loop, as he bared
his heart to the white waters that flared
and ripped a window to the mind’s retort.
Now he could move on into the open
field, heaven knows how a free fall of words
rained from the skies, or was it a roll-
call of molten sounds that rose unchosen
from his lips – truly a language for the birds,
a tongue lashed to the river’s scroll.

Dwindling on the Sabbath to a crawl
the river that had swallowed its tongue, absurd
as that sounds, now beckoned to us from the cloven
banks, we who’d never seen its scrawl
(and of the unbinding of the soul hadn’t heard)
know only the influx of a few chosen
words that tinkered with the mind for sport.
But when the bolts shot back, no one prepared
us for the light that poured in – a shared
vision furrowed the air, a wrongheaded sort
of rightness that might end in song
shook us to the core as we jumped and skipped
across the riverbed, enthusiasts tricked
out as magi, though not for long.

 

Gabriel Levin’s third poetry collection, The Maltese Dreambook, features two double sonnets, “Sambatyon” and “Jerome,” both occupying the antepenultimate place in twelve-poem sequences at the beginning and end of the book. Of the two, “Sambatyon” is the more immediately striking. The title refers to the legendary river that rages – in some accounts, churning up boulders, smoke and flame – for six days of the week, but dries up on the Sabbath. According to an Ashkenazi tradition, the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel were exiled beyond the river, and cannot recross it because to do so would be a violation of the Sabbath. Avraham Abulafia, a thirteenth-century Cabbalist, set out to find this legendary watercourse, and the first sonnet depicts him at the end of his journey, standing at the river’s edge. Levin imagines Abulafia seeing the river as a “furious script / of foam,” as if “someone had tripped / and scattered the alphabet” into its waters. This reflects Abulafia’s idiosyncratic form of Cabbala, which focused on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and particularly those that make up the Tetragrammaton; as Levin puts it in the collection’s title-poem, Abulafiah was:

denounced
as a heretic for treating
the letters of the Divine
Name as a musical scale
to sound His calling.

In the first sonnet’s sestet, however, after he has “bared / his heart to the white waters,” Abulafia is able to cross the river and “move on into the open / field,” as he becomes the conduit of “a roll- / call of molten sounds that rose unchosen / from his lips.”

What happens next is the turn that makes this double sonnet unique: Levin stands the form on its head, beginning the second sonnet with the sestet, but retaining the exact rhyme-scheme from the first, creating a mirror-image. The topsy-turvy sonnet leaves Abulafia and his visionary experience behind: “Dwindling on the Sabbath to a crawl,” the river has now “swallowed its tongue,” and the poet, in the company of others (who seem to inhabit the scriptureless world Walter Benjamin identified in the writings of Kafka), knows “only of the influx of a few chosen [i.e. premeditated, non-visionary] / words that tinkered with the mind for sport.” And yet, in the second half of the second sonnet, the poet tells how the river “beckoned to us,” vouchsafing them their own “shared / vision” of “a wrongheaded sort / of rightness that might end in song.” But though they “jumped and skipped / across the riverbed” in Abulafia’s footsteps, Levin ironizes them (and himself among them) in the poem’s final lines, describing them as “enthusiasts tricked / out as magi, though not for long.”

“Perhaps the roses really want to grow, / The vision seriously intends to stay; / If I could tell you, I would let you know,” W.H. Auden wrote. Levin’s double sonnet is an ambiguous, ambivalent comment on visionary experience, which may be dangerous (as most thought of Abulafia, although he certainly lived much of his life in danger) but appears more desperately needed in proportion to its disappearance in a time when words and letters are seen as inert, malleable commodities.

 

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Henry King has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow. His poems have appeared in numerous journals in print and online, and his essays and reviews feature frequently in PN Review. His blog is henrymking.blogspot.co.uk.

Gabriel Levin was born in France, grew up in the United States, and has lived in Jerusalem since 1972. He has published four collections of poetry and translations from Hebrew, French and Arabic. He is an editor of Ibis Editions, which publishes literature in English from the Levant.

“Sambatyon” is taken from The Maltese Dreambook published by Anvil Press Poetry in 2008.

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