a corona of sonnets by Esther Cameron

in memory of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) and Paul Celan (1920-1970)



No, I have heard no voice, have seen no vision.

I saw the world in love and reason’s light,

Not mystic, but intolerably bright.

To bear the pain of sight was the decision;

That taken, there could not be much misprision

About the constitution of our plight.

The only comfort was thought’s own delight

In consequence, completeness, and precision.


And though not uncompanioned in perception –

For often when I reached into my hoard

Of language that might give it some conception,

A formula some predecessor stored

Assured me that my thought was no exception –

I was not told to say: Thus saith the Lord.





I was not told to say: Thus saith the Lord,

Nor can I say I ever felt Him near

Or could suppose myself especially dear

To Him. The opposite: I could not ward

Myself from feeling, once, that He abhorred

My being – which, as promptly as a mirror,

Flashed back resentment. But it was a mere

Moment, and long ago; best, then, ignored.


No, I am on my own here; human love

And human fear were all my instruments,

And source of all the light by which I pored

Over life’s text until I sensed what drove

The plot, divined among things and events

An immanent and intricate accord.





An immanent and intricate accord,

A weft of symbol and foreshadowing –

It started with my mother’s cherishing

Of small things kindred memories record,

Symmetric birth-dates, omened names. These bored

My scientific sib, betokening

To him mere hazard, but configuring

A kind of circuit, on the motherboard


Or inmost retina of my inner eye,

Which outward sights would sometimes activate;

And though I was unconscious of prevision,

It gave me lines where hindsight can descry

A pattern – immanent and intricate –

Of tokens centered on the grim Parisian.





Of tokens centered on the grim Parisian

Before the senses gave me leave to know

I knew that he existed, I could show

A long account; of mental worlds’ collision

Could speak at length; could trace the cold incision

Space made on one small earth, and have done so,

Because he charged me with such speech, although

The positive world might well return derision.


I had divined that this was the Waste Land

And so must have a Fisher King; and he,

In Hell, could not but think there ought to be

Some ladylike salvific apparition,

Nor would-be nurse refuse to understand

One who desired to be the world’s physician.





One who desired to be the world’s physician

Thus cast me in a role where any breath

Must falter: bade me, in the grip of death,

Decipher and deliver his prescription;

Though written in a hand defied decryption

Save to the eye of desperate good faith,

I came to feel that I might say, "Thus saith

Paul Celan" without great self-suspicion.


"Readers and scholars of his word!" I cried,

"Acknowledge what that word has said to you,

Coming together, letting down your guard.

His last appeal should bind us far and wide

In council. Cast off – it is overdue –

A caution we no longer can afford!"





A caution we no longer can afford

Or jealous pride of each in their own making

Or else commitment to some group’s mistaken

Set of assumptions, firmly set once poured,

Or deep-set cruelty, made hearing hard,

And though the pillars of the house were shaken

They slept as those whom no alarm could waken,

Kept playing into patterns they deplored.


That all of this occurred beneath the tent

Of economic contest, where the race is

To self-seeking strong, does not reward

The simple Yes, the step into covenant,

That might give solidarity a basis,

Blocked secular scholars from a poet’s word.





"Blocked, secular scholars! From a poet’s word

Could you not furnish your imagination

With some conception of what fragmentation

Of discipline and theory has scored

With butcher-lines? – The human image, gored,

Is no one’s ox. Could you not draw some ration

Of love, wisdom, without which agitation

Is vain? For you, has not the lion roared?"


– I sputtered. But my words were as the wind

Keening at midnight in the corporate park,

Or like the hum traced to a faint "illision

Of inward spirit" in bees. Therefore I turned

To where a Voice once poured across the Ark,

Calling us toward a point beyond division.





Calling us toward a point beyond division,

That voice had spoken to a wandering crowd

Living on marginal land between two proud

Empires that ever menaced with elision

That small irrelevant bunch that could envision

A state where no oppression was allowed

And where the human being walked unbowed,

Conscious of rights not subject to recision.


They heard that voice, they took the consequent laws

It spelled to them, and so assumed a shape

That carried them through various kinds of hell,

A people still, dancing between the jaws

of Abaddon, which I now saw agape –

So I was drawn, and came to Israel.





So I was drawn, and came to Israel

Like a mad echo bouncing off the wall

Of stony memories that still corral

Those upon whom I, like a snowflake, fell.

No talisman lay in me to dispel

Despair, who came in answer to no call

Of theirs, but of one chip malheur made spall

From battered block. As one who came to sell


And stayed to buy, I brought my poet’s lore

And poet’s tears down to a sounding ocean

Of information on heaven’s will, time’s ways.

The tipplers of that vast and salty potion

Assured me that I stood just on the shore

And at the entrance to the Torah’s maze.





And at the entrance to the Torah’s maze,

Armed with a clue that would not lead me far

Inside, I knew, I hollered: "If you are

In there, G-d, and if you want my praise,

Then send us laws to counteract this craze

Of Capitalism – laws that set some bar

To endless greed and waste and lies which mar

Creation, cloud Your image in a haze


Of false desires. Can learned men devise

No rules of play, no economic plan

To balance drive and thirst of enterprise

With human justice and the thrift of earth?"

Thus, though advised my song was under ban,

I sang to call the word of power forth.





I sang. To call the word of power forth

Would have been more than sage or saint achieved.

Over the sill, instead, a voice that grieved

Seeped, telling of the Temple’s scattered hearth

That covered Zion’s face with exile’s swarth,

Of prophecy withdrawn from the bereaved,

Then of Charisma, that rough beast conceived

In desperation’s womb, to tell of troth


Broken between the spirit and the script;

Of how in the hands of barbarous upstart

The Name became a banner to conscript

Against those who proclaimed it at the start –

How soul was pinned beneath powers that compel

Was all I heard. The wind through a ruined cell.





Was all I heard the wind through a ruined cell?

No, in a bass-line deeper than all doubt,

Even beneath those impacts from without

That shrink Divine Concern to the four-ell

Cistern of custom, will not let it well

Outward to slake the world’s unwitting drought,

There came, though in a murmur, not a shout,

Some teachings that might be arranged to spell


A word of hope. If Precepts of the Fathers

Could bind a company of minds at grips

With the world’s need, and if the Sabbath Day’s

Haven of peace could be the space that gathers

Such thought, then beneath havens of eclipse,

Still, on the inward sky a sign could blaze.





Still on the inward sky a sign could blaze,

Even that Star which Israel has put on,

Coerced and choosing: Star so often wan

With horrors! That a new and radiant phase

May show it to the universal gaze,

Geometer, expound THE HEXAGON:

That day for seeing all in light of One,

Amid and equal to six outward rays.


Let custom and let ceremony bound

A space where the prophetic soul can sound

And true minds concentrate within this garth

Of time, thought’s offerings, whose light expanding,

The world shall hail the Star of Understanding –

Those who have seen it will not lose the North.





Those who have seen it will not lose the North.

They will stay oriented to the Mind

Of Minds, that will instruct them where to find

Connection, till they fashion or unearth

An architecture that will give new birth

To freedom, will enable truth to bind

The monster Force, and foster humankind

Toward peace and a sustainable Henceforth.


I must break off – the form commands concision –

And hope, dear reader, this has served to win you

For further proofs I’ll show when we continue;

Though if the mural writing be not plain,

If all Earth’s stones do not cry loudly, then

No, I have seen no voice, have heard no vision.





No, I have seen no voice, have heard no vision.

I was not told to say, "Thus saith the Lord."

An immanent and intricate accord

Of tokens centered on the grim Parisian,

One who desired to be the world’s physician.

A caution we no longer can afford

Blocked secular scholars from a poet’s word

Calling us toward a point beyond division.


So I was drawn, and came to Israel,

And at the entrance to the Torah’s maze

I sang to call the word of power forth.

Was all I heard the wind through a ruined cell?

Still on the inward sky a sign could blaze;

Those who have seen it will not lose the North.


                                                          January 1-13, 2003


A poem should stand alone; and yet it also must stand against some background the reader as well as the poet can both see. Hence, something about the different sources of this poem and about its form.

I owe its immediate inspiration to a friend’s gift of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book The Prophets, a work I had not known till then, although Heschel’s The Sabbath had arrived, some years before, to interpret Paul Celan’s last poem (which ends on the word "Sabbath"). On New Year’s Day, 2003, I wrote down a prose synopsis of The Prophets, and the thought of writing a corona occurred to me. I cleaned out a bookshelf, looking for the back issue of Edge City Review where I’d seen a corona ("Helen, Old," by Robert Darling, in no. 13), and also found a copy of a translation and essay by Robert Alter: "Saul Tchernikovsky: To the Sun: A Corona of Sonnets" (Literary Imagination 3:2 [2001], pp. 159-78) which another poet had sent to me some months earlier.

As the reader will have seen, the corona consists of fifteen sonnets, each of which must begin with the last line of the preceding. The fourteenth must end with the first line of the sequence, and the first lines must then form a fifteenth sonnet. The reader may well ask why, as a response to Amos and Isaiah, to Heschel and, as always, to Celan, would one entangle oneself with such external intricacies? The Hebrew prophets used a simple antiphonic verse without rhyme or definite meter, and most of Celan’s work at least looks like free verse. Though he translated Shakespeare sonnets, though he has a few metrical poems of his own, though much of his verse can be scanned as amphibrachs, though in his early work the sonnet form can sometimes be felt, as it were, just under the horizon – this sort of exercise seems the polar opposite of his poetic praxis. Indeed, he once said that "a predetermined pattern makes the poem opaque, closed." Yet my own experience is different; of the poems I have written that afterwards struck me as premonitory (i.e. proceeding at least from my own depths, if not from that Intelligence beyond our own in which I am very much inclined to believe), a majority employed rhyme and meter. I believe there is merit in the view Richard Moore expounds in his essay "On Rhyme" (available at Moore, one of today’s leading formal poets, says that distracting the conscious mind with the meaningless puzzle of rhyme actually frees the subconscious to reveal itself. I cannot but feel that Celan’s views on form were partly dictated by the imperatives of a literary world from which traditional form was positively banned. Working, as a poet must, within the constraints that were given him, he succeeded in giving a new form to poetry; but after his death the sonnet form floated back to me as a spar in the sea of mental chaos, and I have clung to it ever since with a kind of mystical feeling, connecting it with the human form, the "tselem elokim" or Divine image in which, according to Genesis 1:27, humans were created. A rabbinic tradition based on this verse holds that the Torah consists of 613 commandments, 248 positive ones corresponding to the organs of the human body and 365 negative ones for the sinews (or the days of the year); it has occurred to me that the numbers 248 and 365 each add to 14, the number of lines in a sonnet! (I hope that Kabbalists will pardon me this nontraditional "gematria.") And the corona, which might be called the square of the sonnet, was perhaps forced on me by a sense of the multifarious and seemingly-incompatible demands which today confront those who would like to have a plausible vision of a better world. The corona also makes demands for coherency that seem likely to conflict. Yet if these demands, "with the help of heaven," can be met in the poem... I think of the first poem of Celan’s that was ever shown to me, a poem of rebeginning despite so much:

I heard tell, there be

in the water a stone and a circle,

and over the water a word

that lays the circle round the stone.

If "Prophecy" can be viewed as an expanding ripple of that circle, perhaps a further expansion is conceivable.

Besides the sources already named, sonnet 6 refers to Harold Bloom’s strictures in The Anxiety of Influence and A Map of Misreading ("poetry is property"). I also had in mind a book by Erich Kahler, The Tower and the Abyss, which is said to have moved Paul Celan to initiate a correspondence with the author. Kahler fears for the integrity of the human image, and names the fragmentation of knowledge as one of the sources of danger. Sonnet 12 refers to a Talmudic saying that was quoted to me: "Since the destruction of the Temple, the Lord has nothing in this world but the four ells of the halakhah" – four ells being the rabbinic measure of "personal space." "The wind through a ruined cell" is from Shelley’s "Lines: When the Lamp Is Shattered." Precepts of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot), the sixth tractate of the Mishnah, contains a number of rules for intellectual community. The Star of Understanding is meant to recall Franz Rosenzweig’s apologia for Judaism, The Star of Redemption (where the hexagram or Magen David is analyzed as two intersecting triangles symbolizing respectively the relations between God, man and world and among the three monotheistic religions); but the phrase "the star of understanding" actually comes from John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks. It refers there to the morning star, which seems to stand for the maternal consciousness of the people. In Kabbala the emanation known as Binah (Understanding, also with a connotation of "structure") is also called Mother.

In the scope of the poem I could do no more than name the Hexagon, and refer obliquely to the ‘Olam Katan (Small World) – two suggestions I have made separately, and would like someday to be able to combine. But are not these things posted, along with the beginning of my epic, The Consciousness of Earth, on Point and Circumference ( –EC