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 opened And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped For 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 existence while he kept stomping on his way with 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 grave And 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 talk And 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:


What’s it like to be human asked the bird I don’t know really It is to be a prisoner in your own skin but crave infinity to be captive of a crumb of time but touch eternity to be hopelessly uncertain and a fool of hope That’s funny said the bird And 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 lot and then let me die Make the world go on as before Make a day dawn so bright it seems there is no more pain


“A Prayer”

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

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


You are alone with yourself It’s not true a whole court is with you a prosecutor and a counsel for the defense They quarrel about you guilty not guilty Guilty says the prosecutor you admit he is right quite naturally But the counsel for the defense also talks sense the head turns from side to side and only you don’t know what to think of yourself always sentence yourself to death and grant a reprieve

And there are rights:


Don’t quarrel with your fate After all you still have the right to a sip of air a drop of water to a place at the table which 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 sun like gliding birds and that there is simple human goodness besides what aspires upwards It’s strange that we still want 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 tree open to all the winds and birds.

Written by

David Curzon

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Anna Kamienska in The Wilderness

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