Review by Mary Harwell Sayler
BEADS FOR THE MESSIAH’S BRIDE: POEMS ON LEVITICUS
by Yakov Azriel
Time Being Books
10411 Clayton Road
St. Louis, Missouri 63131
2009, 118 pp., $15.95
As a lifelong lover of the Bible and an almost lifelong writer of religious poems from a Judeo-Christian perspective, I’ve been especially drawn to the works of contemporary Jewish poet Yakov Azriel. When I first researched his poems on the Internet, I glimpsed a lively mix of devotionals, prayers, humor, and poetic forms in his series of books, each of which relates to one of the five books of the Torah.
Eagerly I received a review copy of Beads for the Messiah’s Bride, the poems on the book of Leviticus, then immediately wished I’d read the full books in sequence. For example, Genesis, the first book of the Bible, contains a synopsis of the basic plot for almost every story on earth, giving ample opportunity for an eclectic mix of comedy and tragedy. Exodus continues the story of God’s people as they leave behind captivity, while Leviticus lays out the rituals and laws to which the Levitical priests had to adhere.
As you might imagine, Leviticus and levity do not necessarily go together. In this more somber section of the Torah, readers learn about their offenses and what they are to do about them as they bring to God, through the Levitical priests, their cereal offerings, peace offerings, wave offerings, thank offerings, sin offerings, trespass offerings, and guilt offerings, the latter of which might be given, say, to offset a rash oath.
However, healing and cleansing also occur in Leviticus, for example, in chapter 14 when a person has been cured of leprosy. On such momentous occasions, the Levitical priest was to dip cedar, scarlet, hyssop, and a living bird into the blood of one slain. “And,” in verse 7, “upon him that is to be cleansed, (the priest) shall sprinkle seven times, and shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the living bird loose into the open field.”
With such celebratory acts, offerings, and rich priestly heritage from which to draw, Beads begins with the sonnet “Sacrifices Made” as the speaker brings “no oxen, cattle, sheep or goats” nor “choice offerings of barley, wheat or oats/ To burn on altar-fire, while Levites sing.” Instead the “I” of the poem declares: “I sacrificed those former-truths that might/ Have been my guiding truths and ruled my youth.”
As the sacrifice becomes an offering of poetry, the next sonnet, “The Burnt-Offering,” asks God to take the “mumbled, crippled prayers,” because “You comprehend/ The inner sense of all the sounds You hear;/ Send down a ladder made of angels’ rope/ From Jacob’s dream, and let my words ascend.” The next sonnet, “The Meal-Offering,” asks God to bring bread for the meal, while in “The Peace-Offering,” the speaker says, “I have heard that contrite prayer/ Constructs a sturdy bridge, a meeting-place/ Where God and man may meet, for You declare/ How near You are, my distant Lord, how near.”
Like the Bible itself, these poems relate to matters of faith and one’s relationship with the Most High God. My own relationship, however, seems about as opposite as a Christian woman in the South can get from a Jewish man born in New York, but is it? In the church, for example, devotees may join holy orders or give up their names at baptism, and at 21, Gerald Rosenkrantz did something similar when he changed his name to Yakov Azriel and moved to Israel to be closer to God and His Word.
As happens with many of us though, distance from “my distant Lord” occasionally occurs as expressed “Within The Temple Courtyard.” In this double-sonnet, the speaker admits, “Sometimes I want my money back, the price/ I’ve had to pay, my God, is just too high;/ The Sabbath suit You ordered me to buy/ Is thread-bare, and its fabric full of lice.”
Levity bursts forth unexpectedly, too, in “Last Year, on Yom Kippur” where “I dug a grave/ For the old ‘me’,” whom the speaker stabbed, hanged, shot, and poisoned but still witnessed “a resilience of his own,/ Rising up every time.”
Old habits, old selves, and old stories of the Bible rise up in this book, often from a fresh perspective. For instance, “Orpah and Ruth: Two Roads Diverged,” does not tell the familiar Naomi-Ruth tale but, rather, a free verse view of Naomi’s other daughter-in-law who stayed behind in Moab. Similarly, “The Prayer of the Lame Temple-Priest” shows how Levitical laws might affect someone who was born into the priestly Tribe of Levi and devoted to God yet not allowed to serve. In “Ruth Gleaning in Boaz’s Fields,” the field-hands just do not see the divine hand in this ongoing love story.
People today often say, “I love it when a plan comes together,” but this book gives a glimpse of how the plan of the Most High God begins to come together. Yet, even the Bible includes weighty words, and so does this book, especially in the rhyme-pounding poem “The Exile” where, for over two printed pages, singularly rhyming words hammer with an insistence that, for this reader, became overbearing. The rhymes also marred the sense and syntax, which might have been held in check by, say, a villanelle that would allow for repetition while whittling down words to what most needed to be said. On the other hand, the free verse poem “The Canaanite Slave” seemed to me to be the brief synopsis of what could be expanded into a very interesting historical novel.
The poem “Beads” has the bead of a novel idea too, which could make for interesting fiction. From that poem also comes the title for this book and, perhaps, the life theme of the poet as hinted in the words of the speaker: “So what can I present or show/ To justify my life?/ May songs I write be brought as beads – / Beads for the Messiah’s wife.” Likewise, the sonnet “Credo” ends the whole book with a profound statement of faith: “And I believe that God alone is King./ And I believe the Torah nests His word/ With echoes of His voice. And I believe/ In hours of grace we hear the Torah sing.” For those of us who add an “Amen!” this book (and most likely the entire five-book series) comes highly recommended and most highly favored.
Mary Harwell Sayler is a freelance writer, poet, poetry editor, and student of the Bible in almost every translation. Since 1983, she’s hoped to help other poets and writers through her poetry home study course, critiques, blogs, and websites, www.poetryofcourse.com and www.thepoetryeditor.com.