As Passover recently reminded us, Elijah never dies in the imagination. Because in the Torah, Elijah the prophet ascends full body “in a whirlwind to heaven,” he is able to return in the dreams of Jewish mystics, where he offers special instruction, as well as in folklore and legend, where he appears sometimes as a lowly beggar at your door. To refuse him is more than foolish, but to welcome him in your home with kindness and a good meal is not only good manners, but offers the promise of much more: wealth, illumination and heavenly light. Because Elijah never dies, the rabbis say that when a difficult dispute arises — such as the question of how many cups of wine to drink at the seder — “perhaps Elijah will come and declare it.”
For poets too, Elijah has something to declare, certainly to Emily Warn, who teaches poetry writing at Lynchburg College in Virginia. Warn is at work, she told the Forward, “on a book-length poem about the Hebrew alphabet,” to which “Hei: Elijah’s Babble” belongs. Her other books, both published by Copper Canyon Press are “The Leaf Path” and “The Novice Insomniac.”
In Warn’s imagination, Elijah’s latest appearance carries an aura of showbiz glamour — at least he has earned a Hollywood star. He may be a bit of a cat licking milk, and a bit of a hepcat too; certainly he’s a jazz musician, whose words have turned into music, in that heaven known as “jazz’s galaxy.” In mixing ancient lore with the contemporary, Warn brings Elijah to life once more, proving that he has never died and never can.
Hei: Elijah’s Babble
After my rendition in the cave,
they engraved my name in a granite star
on Hollywood Boulevard. People mill about.
I swore fame was someone else’s story.
Cameras flash. Some stoop to touch
my gold letters, a gravestone in another setting.
I’m next to Dizzie and Thelonius who said
their say without speaking a word.
Their riffs stopped taxis, got people to tapping
and listening, forgetting their business.
I’m proof that words travel to jazz’s galaxy.
Not any words, words that labor where no one speaks.
To hear them, I spent nights in whiskey bars,
lapped milk that widows left for starving cats,
wandered streets until I could hear what is not;
not the earthquake that sets old clocks and hearts ticking,
not the firestorms that smoked all summer,
not the wind snapping power lines, leaving us in the dark,
but the sound of God almost breathing.
— EMILY WARN