ON A SONNET OF ESTHER'S
"For how can I endure to see the calamity that is coming to my people?"
Esther 8: 6
One of the few writers of the Postmodernist era (c. 1950-2000), who seems still to be striving to carry forth the tradition of English poetry into the 21st century is Esther Cameron. One can see glimpses of that attempt in many of her works, including her poem of 2004 "Ta' anit Ester."
“Ta' anit Ester,” id est, “The Fast of Esther,” with a rhyme scheme of abbaabbacdecde, is a sonnet in the Italian mode. The octave is a series of rhetorical questions.
Can anyone still hear my people's cry,
Even they themselves? Can anybody stand
In the blown-apart heart of the Holy Land,
Can anybody see with shattered eye
All that is done? Can anyone think why,
Marshal a shredded brain to understand?
Can anybody grasp a severed hand,
Can a cut-out tongue still stammer of Sinai?
Cameron suggests, if not a negative answer to all of these questions, then at least perhaps the difficulty of answers. The phrase "hear my people's cry," echoic of the Mosaic phrase let my people go, is turned back upon itself with the ironic "even they themselves." Even in despair, there is begging the question. There is an awkwardness in her internal rhymes, "a blown-apart heart" and " ... against the hateful storm/ uphold the norm," but otherwise the rhymes nicely do not draw attention to themselves. The anglicized Hebraic word Sinai, is a particularly nice concluding rhyme to the basic trio of Anglo Saxon words, cry, why, and eye in the alliterative line at the octave's end, suggesting as it does in its placement the whole prophetic vision of Moses. In addition, most of the verbs are etymologically Anglo Saxon, hear, stand, see, think, grasp, and stammer drawing attention to the exception marshal.
In the title, Cameron mingles her own name and times with that and those of the young Jewess, who during the reign of the Persian king Ahasuerus, interceded to have him rescind an order that condemned all Jews be put to death. Those times certainly do seem similar to ours, as we are living through the century after the pogroms, the Nazi Holocaust and the ongoing and undiminished, irrational hatred of the Jews. In fact, whereas in the Book of Esther, it was the Persian Haman, whose name perhaps suggests noise, tumult and/or magnificence, and who called for the death of Mordecai and his people the Jews, it is now the neoPersian Ahmadinejad who calls the Holocaust a myth and calls for the annihilation of Israel. And he is not alone.
Also embedded in the octave of her sonnet teem images of violence to the human body, reminiscent of the aim of rocket launchers and suicide bombers, "the blown-apart heart," "shattered eye," "a shredded brain," "a severed hand," and "a cut-out tongue." The repetitions of "Can anyone" and "Can anybody," in so few lines, quickly build to a deeply-felt desperation. In the modem moment we're living in, Cameron's opening cri de coeur, "Can anyone still hear my people's cry ..." rings true and genuine, even if it is a rather lonely voice. In such a climate, how can anybody, like Moses, come down from the Mountain and bring the Law of the Lord?
Where will she turn? In the sestet, she turns to the restoration of the image of God's Law, which is reminiscent of Wordsworth in his sonnet "The World Is Too Much with Us," where he calls out for feelings that would leave him less forlorn. Cameron writes:
O GOD, restore the image of Your Law,
Restore the sacredness of human form,
If not for Israel's, for your sweet earth's sake.
Send us a sign, send forth a ray to draw
Love's faithful in against the hateful storm
To uphold the norm, and face down Amalek!
Here, the slant rhyme, the anglicized Hebraic word Amalek and sake, jars. Its placement, right at the end of the sestet is significant, as frequently are the concluding words in Dickinson poems. The poem ends on its disturbing note.
Notice that she does not cry out for God's Law, but just the image of it. However, with only an image, can the world be rid of its viciousness, insanity, and chaos? In her reference to have the sacredness of the human form restored, is she bemoaning the fact that some in our world want only to destroy other people? If she does not want this done for Israel's sake, does she not include Israel in her vision of the earth? If she wants a sign, or a ray, to draw love's faithful in, how does she think we should approach the hateful storm and Amalek? Does she interpret Haman's inscription, as the Agagite, as implying flame, and hence the title of the Amalekite kings? If so, who does she think is Amalek? Perhaps not all who read her sonnet will find within the series of questions in the octave a series of statements, nor the statements in the sestet a series of questions. But if anyone or anybody can, what then does that mean?
[Author’s note: As often happens, the exegete has discovered things in the poem which the author wasn’t conscious of doing. I appreciated the perceptive analysis of the rhymes and vocabulary. One point I can perhaps clarify: “the image of Your Law” is meant to refer to the close association in Judaism between the Law and the tselem Elokim, the Divine image in which humans were made. The Torah has two hundred forty-eight positive commandments, which are said to correspond to the organs of the human body. (The three hundred sixty-five negative commandments may correspond either to the sinews of the human body or to the days of the year.) Thus the wanton shattering of the human body is the ultimate denial of Divine law.]