Anna Kamienska in The Wilderness

The wilderness in the Torah is both a geographic place and a figurative region.

Moses, in the first chapter of Deuteronomy, speaking “to all Israel,” recapitulates the journeys they have taken. He reminds them that God, condemning the generation that came out of Egypt, told them to turn back from the Promised Land after the incident with the spies and wander in the wilderness until they died. For me, Deuteronomy 1:40 is a truly evocative commandment:

But as for you, turn, and take your journey into the wilderness.

Moses then reminds all Israel, in Deuteronomy 2:7, that in their previous wanderings in the wilderness, “the Lord thy God has been with you; you have lacked nothing.”

In rabbinic tradition we were all standing at Sinai, and so we should all understand these passages in Deuteronomy to mean that we as individuals have been commanded in our lives to take a journey into the wilderness and that in this journey, we will lack nothing essential. We also should remember that in this figurative wilderness, we will be “afflicted” and “tested” in order “to know what was in your heart.” (Deuteronomy 8:2) And in this wilderness, Isaiah 35:5-7 tells us

… the eyes of the blind shall be openedAnd the ears of the deaf shall be unstoppedFor in the wilderness shall waters break out,And streams in the desert.

For the last few months I have been engaged in translating, with Grazyna Drabik, the poems of the wonderful Polish poet Anna Kamienska (1920-1986). Kamienska has recorded what she saw when her eyes were opened on her journey into the wilderness, and she has done so with emotion and intelligence. I’ll quote from her poems to illustrate some things that are there to be experienced in the wilderness in which we have to take our journey.

There are creatures in the wilderness:A hedgehog graced us with his existencewhile he kept stomping on his waywith all his prosaic wisdom.

There are deaths in the wilderness. In this early poem, Kamienska is talking about the death of her mother:

I was standing with my sister over a patch of graveAnd we were speaking about some very important things.The boy’s doing better at school. The youngest already chatters.….The air, trees, stone and earth all listen as we talkAnd only the one for whom we bring this news can’t hear.

There are dreams:

Look — mother says in a dream —Look, a bird soars up to the clouds.Why don’t you write about it,How heavy it is, how swift?

And later on, after Kamienska had abandoned punctuation, she did write about a bird:

“Funny”

What’s it like to be humanasked the bird I don’t know reallyIt is to be a prisoner in your own skinbut crave infinityto be captive of a crumb of timebut touch eternityto be hopelessly uncertainand a fool of hopeThat’s funny said the birdAnd flew lightly up into the sky

And of course you can pray in the wilderness:

“A Prayer That Will Be Answered”Lord let me suffer a lotand then let me dieMake the world go on as beforeMake a day dawn so brightit seems there is no more pain

And:

“A Prayer”

Out of a spark out of dust make me againonce more give me the sky over my head

And of course we can be alone with ourselves in the wilderness:

“Conscience”

You are alone with yourselfIt’s not truea whole court is with youa prosecutor and a counsel for the defenseThey quarrel about youguilty not guiltyGuilty says the prosecutoryou admit he is rightquite naturallyBut the counsel for the defense also talks sensethe head turns from side to sideand only you don’t knowwhat to think of yourselfalways sentence yourself to deathand grant a reprieve

And there are rights:

“Rights”

Don’t quarrel with your fateAfter all you still have the rightto a sip of air a drop of waterto a place at the tablewhich so many dead have already left

In fact, Kamienska tells us, in the wilderness we are always “At the Border of Paradise,” where:

It’s strange that clouds here still follow the sunlike gliding birdsand that there is simple human goodnessbesides what aspires upwardsIt’s strangethat we stillwant so much to love and to cry

And, in the second of two poems inspired by Israeli poet Leah Goldberg, Kamienska gives us a wilderness ideal:

And now you stand like a lonely treeopen to all the winds and birds.

Written by

David Curzon

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Anna Kamienska in The Wilderness

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