There is no stopping or postponing it. Passover is coming. Not to catapult you into even more of a panic than you’re already in, but, friends, have you got your poems lined up?
The brain seeks novelty. That seder needs a yearly tune-up well before the arrival of the guests, while you are furtively reshuffling the place cards hoping for divine inspiration to imbue your seating with an eschatological semblance of peacefulness for all guests of the land. So yes, now is the time for all good seder hosts to orchestrate the spontaneity that will unfold as ritual, food, and family come together at our sacred festival of freedom.
With Passover’s proximity to National Poetry Month, it behooves us to take the road less traveled and put some poems on the seder plate.
As we begin to broach our tale of the bitter slavery, draw on the moving words of the 1899 poem of Paul Laurence Dunbar:
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, —
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!
Inspiration for Maya Angelou’s poem and autobiographical novel, Dunbar’s words recall the Torah narrative of our ancestors crying to the Almighty with pain and anguish, triggering the beginning of the redemption. This might be the very place to raise issues of current world slavery and our Jewish obligation to grapple with the African American slave experience.
As we take the bitter herbs and dip them into the sweet, fruity haroset, listen to the luscious trope of William Carlos Williams’s plums in “This is Just to Say,” a poem that evokes the lusty, playful desires aroused by the righteous women of the Exodus, portrayed in the Midrash, who beneath the fruit trees approached their beleaguered husbands with mirrors in hand to raise their spirits and birth their multitude of babies. That fruit on the plate is the poetry of ancient desires:
they were delicious
and so cold
Bring out “Ozymandias,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, as you get ready to eat your matzoh:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
As the dishes are being done and the four cups have been duly raised — sky’s the limit. It’s time to sing of the intoxication of spring, blossoms, and dew. Enter Emily Dickinson, quintessential reclusive poet-seer, portrayed poignantly in the recent film A Quiet Passion, who offers a trove of poems celebrating nature. Grab a volume and let your heart sing.
Inebriate of air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro’ endless summer days –
From inns of molten Blue –
What poems have you to bring to the table? Let’s get our Pesach poems on the plate.