A descendant of the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Shira Twersky-Cassel grew up in New York in a home that combined devotion to Torah study and Jewish mysticism with openness to general studies. She earned her B.A. in ancient languages and journalism and came to Israel as a young woman. In 1988, two years after she had begun writing began writing poetry in Hebrew she received the Newman Prize for her book Shachrur (Blackbird). A second book, HaChayyim HaSodiim shel HaTsipporim (The Secret Life of Birds) was published by Sifriat HaPo'alim in 1995, and Yoman Shira BeSulam HaGeulah (A Poet's Diary), which deals with the Oslo period, was published by Bitsaron in 2005. The poems below are translated from The Secret Life of Birds, except for "Safed -- Tammuz 5759" (A Poet's Diary) and "Shalom - The Seventh Gate," which was written originally in English and published in The Neovictorian/Cochlea.
Tabernacle-bird, tie earth and sky together,
your partitions dancing in the wind with a pride only the moon-eye knows,
moving in and out of colors we have not yet learned,
for they are still locked in the lines of the firmament.
In autumn nights the acorns converse with Jerusalem stone,
transmitting the tremor of creation into heated rooms,
into humans who hide in their beds,
in the morning every acorn will put on your shape.
Out of the bird’s pomegranate mosaic
draw for yourself
acrobatic stars like cotton wool
that have no falling in them
but a melody of silence
nor can you
the swoop and sleight of your body
into the turbulent dispute of time and place
given and taken
with the amulet-phial of the bird,
the displacement of her wings
and a hint of the grammars
fastened inside her
that are hers
YEAR OF THE SWALLOW
Crisscross, swallow of the mountains, softly slicing
black from the black of his transparent wings
in the twilight of Sabbath eve.
Then he plays with ensorcelled rays of sun
and brings to the city all the wounds of the rainbow,
adds shades of color to the hills of the rose
and the mountain lily, to the bougainvillea vines
and the fire-tongued shrub of Moses
the aureole of neighborhoods near the border
exposed to the desert like a loving, broken heart.
Above the city, from all the directions of light,
the longing of the swallow arrives with a bold, piercing
whistle of Hallel. He does not know
song’s lyricism, but a sinew
of continuous flight.
He is learned in the gladness of the stratosphere, the joy
of a knife-like angle to land on the rooftop,
two meet for a sliver-eternity, and part.
7 Adar 5750
We opened a skylight and sought an answer
like wafers of honey, I said,
thunder of airplanes breaking before the swallow,
wings of innocence in the hiddenness of lilies.
At the time of the giving of the Torah they tarry
on their way to the continents of cold they were chipped from,
their feet atrophy for they tried not to touch
the lines of man. Only the elect of their hearts,
only fractions of a second, the splitting egg
that will add to them another commanded generation
links them, tenuously, to the borderlines of stones.
Their wings are bold as the end of prophecies,
a crystal chill on the brow of the lakes of my eyes.
Before you our petitions, our hands raised
to wander again between pillars of fire and cloud,
wrapped in the six directions
borne up by the memory of a mountain too harsh to bear,
a memory of being led, like a seal on our eyes
by the light from an innocent man’s face, from his pure qualities,
pulling at a yoke too hard to bear
that the Creator laid on him:
love for a people stubborn and pure
as the end of prophecies.
In order that a human hand might touch me
the flock descended into the narrow alleys of Jerusalem
to the quarters of the old houses, to play in them.
There I came into lighted rooms
and was blind, stumbling against white walls,
my heart seeking a hand, time after time.
My eyes elongated like a raindrop, like a tear,
my eyes magnified by the light-crystal, longing for a hand
-- only for a moment, a loving hand.
Therefore she found me, she,
and I with trembling gave my body, my silk
and the breadth of my wings to touch, my wings
that knew the Creator and the heavens
-- and the gaze of distances.
After that she gave me the darkness of night,
and to the silence that fell on my brother-swallows, the flock
-- for fear they would never see their sister-swallow again,
After that we returned to the heights, our eyes wondering,
to the hidden places to hover until dawn,
at break of dawn I saw her looking up
to my brothers rejoicing in the paths of G-d,
-- is that she?
CONVERSATIONS WITH BIRDS
For thy arrows stick fast in me, and thy hand presses me sore.
On the threshold of sunup
the zeal of the songbirds is passed like a torch,
arrows of song are launched from the throats of blackbirds
arrows of gold from quivers of gold,
from neighborhood to neighborhood they are playing
the link of love of labor,
each man clad in the ebony of silk
each young man in the craft of his unique improvisation,
the blackbirds are raising the sparks
of the birch of the morning watch,
praising the rumors of the sun’s coming,
a blessing to the ears of man and woman.
Humbly this bird will sing you his heart
from behind thickets of cloud, each saying to each:
“This is my song, comrade, I honor your song;
these are the trees of my kingdom, I respect your courtyard.”
And sings, come to me Shulamit.
At six in the morning, a whistle,
the first team of mountains swallows has come
into my dream, a sharp sign
extending from me to the mists of morning.
Fled in the wind is the call
Already it is Adar, already we have returned to you.
On the ascent to Safed the bows are bent,
the grounding connection is slowly severed
from the land of wild wheat.
Lions and eagles look up to her
and mountain jostles mountain, the great light
sets slowly in a halo of parting anguish.
In Safed at night the lions, the tranquil cats,
they sculpt movements of pleasantness
on the steps of the houses,
in the courtyards someone is saying
-- what is mine is yours and what is yours is yours,
the shadow of a woman falls on the wind.
At dawn the mountains spring up lightly
and the first string of the soul-bird
is strung, a thin cord, over the rooftops of the spirits.
The light returns to dwell in the eye of the city
and the perfume of the crystal eye ascends with the dew
from every path, every caper-bush.
The scholars wash their hands,
aspire to holiness,
give milk and kindness to the cats of the night,
touching the small soul.
In the alleyways every step reveals a glint of radiance,
the eye takes pictures of directions downward,
the soul seeking corridors
goes out on its angular journey,
and here comes the sunlight!
SAFED – TAMMUZ 5759
The shadow is unbearably deep on Mount Meron
The mountain chain storms up into the firmaments, like Shulamit in the arms of her king.
Like a sea-floor sunk in thought, where there are holy animals and no number,
A hidden blue-green squall streams and ascends in sequence, descends to the depths.
Sabbath eve in the ancient cemetery.
Amid the blue graves the bald slope weeps aridly.
Opposite, a blue sky, the blue of iron bars,
a deep shadow on Mount Meron,
At the bottom of the slope, on the square of Tsion Pinchas Ben Yair
a tree of scraps of cloth scatters glittering rainbows,
blessed not with figs but with amulets.
In climbing from the valley, from the level of figs, from the pure spring of the Ar”i,
on the upward slope of “Moshiach’s alley,” very steep and very narrow,
the brook-stones beneath our feet
were formed like jewels of opal,
polished by the groans of the spirit.
In Safed, even on the holy Sabbath the fragrance of wick and wax,
wedded, permeates our throats,
takes on the form of white letters,
at Minchah, between the blue houses, in the courtyard of the Abuhav synagogue,
twigs of a branch of the thorny shell-flower have dried to a bell-like rustle,
a sheet of papyrus carried by the wind
-- its leaves ornate prayers of the heart.
On the mountain of Safed
the flames stand in the likeness of stones, wrapped in a muted light,
the wind dresses the bones of the houses in the words of a charm.
SHALOM - THE SEVENTH GATE
In the shattered years,
when strident deep-mouthed howls and caterwauls
let loose from evil stratosphere,
burned and crashed shrill upon the ear,
the racket of tormentor draped in clanging cacophony
silenced cadence of the spheres, –
or at least drowned out the arpeggio of wheeled celestial things
that sit beside the King of Kings and serve Him.
When the Destroyer was let loose
to attempt on the lord, and on His people,
Then in timeless time,
the hinges of the Seventh Gate hung free.
Badly scorched the roots of heaven were,
but as every forester will say,
fire syncopates an invention of green that does not know Darwin.
Then came forth from earth, blackened by God's loam-lined fingers,
again the blessed covenant.
the city where a golden key
was dropped by ladder-climbing angels lifting-off from Ya'akov,
one of His thousand names
that our lips are permitted to form
welcomes the Jew on each Sabbath eve,
Then we leave Creation be
and do not interfere – as was in Eden,
before we stole the fruit of ill-use,
and drank the bitter-waters of contention,
On Shabbat, Gifts of Grace and Offering
are placed on altars of luminescent stone,
and not one tear falls to wound one blade of grass.
In the real Jerusalem, heart of wholeness,
twilight is an opal-golden key.
Now, as every student of Kaballa will tell you, if he speaks at all,
each pulsating Hebrew letter
danced-forth from the breath of the Maker [who is Everywhere]
to compound the colors of our limitations, and to form life tangible.
The Hebrew 1etters for Shalom are harmony,
an agreement of sound,
a wholeness in contrapunt
synchronised in reverent awe,
to modulate and orchestrate the spirit, on its pilgrimage,
to crochet the heart striving for the Seventh Gate,
the Sabbath millenium of Israel, our bodies home again,
souls journeying towards ancient resonance of the Creator,
when halcyon birds come to nest on troubled seas, and begins
our soon to be apprenticeship in Childhood of Harmony.