Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Emily, Leonard, Abraham and Isaac, II

When we last listened in on Emily Dickinson and Leonard Cohen's discussion of Abraham and Isaac, Emily was headed for the Ladies,' leaving Leonard to ponder the hypothetical question, "What if Abraham had refused God's command?"

"Plumbing is impressive," Emily said upon her return. "Where were we?"

"If Abe had refused," Abraham said, "Maybe Yahweh the Voice would've chosen someone else. Also, I love your voice."

"Hardly any wear and tear."

"Can we talk about your Abe-and-Isaac poem?"

"You go first."

"No, you. One stanza at a time, please.

"Okay. It begins:" 

Abraham to kill him
Was distinctly told --
Isaac was an Urchin --
Abraham was old --

Leonard gazes off into the distance like the guy on Seinfeld listening to "Desperado."

"It's just like you," he said, "to put history's most crushing command in passive voice. Flips the syntax and takes away the need to choose, say, from Elohim, Yahweh or God. An unnamed, absent speaker distinctly tells Abraham to kill a nameless 'him.'"


"You follow this by leaping from the command to naming the victim and labeling him not as Abraham's son but as an 'Urchin,' which suggests a 
raggedy-ass mischievous brat. Why?"   

"Why do you think?"

"Perhaps you're picturing an audience familiar with Hebrew scripture, so they would already know the story, know Isaac was the son. But they would also know 'Abraham was old' -- that's one reason he's famous: At his age, he could still impregnate 90-year-old Sarah like some Viagra-charged Pan in assisted living.

"As for the poetics, you use your favorite rhyme scheme, ABCB, I guess. Some readers might see a rhyme in 'him/Urchin.' Anyway, no big deal, let's move on." 

Ed, who earned a bachelor's in English at Rhodes College in Tennessee, dries his hands on an apron as bartenders are wont to do, then walks over to check on the creative couple.

"I heard y'all talking about Emily's poem. I actually wrote an essay about her. I called it, 'The Poetry of Emily Dickinson: Don't Rant, Tell it Slant.' Why not analyze Leonard's first stanza, then return to Emily's second stanza, then back to Leonard's, etc. That would make the contrast more apparent. And do y'all need another drink? Some munchies? Tidbits? Snacks? Nash?"
Emily untouched

Leonard switched to a Hennessy Private Reserve, and Emily freshened up her Maker's Mark. Her ivory cheeks were taking on a salmon-pink blush  -- or a fast withering, fading rose, if you prefer.

"I agree with Ed," Emily said. "Your first stanza, please."

"Okay. Let's see if I can touch your perfect body with my mind." 

Following his little in-joke, Leonard's eyes twinkled with genuine affection for America's greatest poet, but his grin was just lascivious enough to bring a #MeToo moment a little too close for comfort.

"My poem is called 'Story of Isaac,' and here's the beginning:"

The door it opened slowly,
My father he came in,
I was nine years old.
And he stood so tall above me,

His blue eyes they were shining

"You begin after the command and tell it in first person," Emily noted. "You focus on Isaac's age -- I his character -- You Abe's height -- I his age."

"Emily, I love your poems, but, uh, can you not talk like that?" 
This doctored photo is often colorized w/ rouge.

"Okay. I like your use of 'old' in describing the boy. It adds to his vulnerability, a child's feeling of helplessness. And I'm anxious to see how your first person narration adds to the tale's pathos. 

"So far, you have no rhyme scheme which suggests if you eventually adopt one, it will be a stranger showing up announced."

"Fair enough. Let's see what you got in your second stanza."

Not a hesitation --
Abraham complied --
Flattered by obeisance
Tyranny demurred --

Ed the English major bartender who has so far received 63 rejections of poems submitted to literary journals and a terse, sarcastic repudiation from Reader's Digest Condensed Books to whom he had sent an abridged version of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, yes, Ed, this lover of letters, asks permission to join in their discussion.

Leonard complies.

"Thanks. 'Not a hesitation' elbows me in the belly. This father faced with the Mother of All Existential Crises doesn't hesitate. Simultaneously, it seems, to pay tribute to his boundless faith and condemn his refusal to protect his son. Surely in some version of this story, Abraham cried out to the Highest of the High, 'Invisible God, take me instead. Lay not a hand on my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.'

"And 'complied' -- its connotation is 'Well, all right. Fine! What choice do I have?' Emily, this seems to have, I don't know, muted or attenuated or deflated this sacred moment, dampened Abe's alleged heroism." 

Emily's responds by looking at Ed with unblinking eyes.

"I got a customer, Leonard," Ed said. "I yield the floor to you."

"Okay. I could talk until closing time about the last two lines of this stanza, but I won't. Yhwh or G-D has retained His anonymity. Passive voice hid Him in stanza one. And now He is called, indirectly, 'Tyranny,' a word with no positive association. Pure power doing what it can because it can. 

"I think of the witch from 'Hansel and Gretel' and of every other child abuser. Emily, you offer sycophancy as the most efficient protection from such monsters: 'Flattered by obeisance / Tyranny demurred.'"

Emily blinks.

"Could I ask about 'demurred?'" Ed asked. "Are you saying that God said 'Let me rethink this'? Is He slowing down the filicide express? 'Demurred' also means 'objected,' but to whom or what is He objecting? To His own intent? If so, this suggests a mutable, flexible God and, by extension, an inconsistent one. I don't know how Abraham would invest all his faith in such a fluid deity. Don't you agree, Leonard?"

"Sorry, Ed. I wasn't listening. I've been revisiting the poem's poetic devices. Using only the vowel sounds, Emily has rhymed 'hesitation' with 'obeisance.' Some readers might see a rhyme in 'complied/demurred.' That would be slant rhyme, one of Emily's favorites. Anyway, no big deal, let's move on."

"Read or sing your second stanza," Emily said.

"Will do," Leonard replied. "But not before I take a quick trip to the john."


  1. 👍. Yes! (Is there some interesting tension between the idea of A’s not hesitating, while G demurs. Role switch or something ?). barbara

    1. That's definitely worth pondering. I may steal it for a future installment.