Apr 262014
 

Well, with the help of Soul and Gone’s resident Mysterious Masked Man who happens to be a scholar of Italian Jewish literature and history, we’ve solved the mystery of yesterday’s poem. The intended target of this poetic bromance was Avraham ha-Cohen of Zante, a physician, Jewish scholar and poet from Crete who studied medicine in Padua (where he befriended Ferrarese and the local circle of poets) and spent his life on Zante, known better as Zakynthos, a Greek island which was then under the dominion of La Serenissima Repubblica, the glorious-if-often-douchey Venetian Empire.

It bears mentioning, first of all, that there’s a long tradition of Hebrew poets writing epistles of praise to one another, often over incredible distances. The Andalusi poets did this all the time, and they yielded some very fine works which I haven’t yet gotten around to translating (I’ve been more interested in translating the diss poems, as my longtime readers may have noticed). Generally, if the poet on the receiving end was touched, he would respond in kind, conventionally in the same style, often using the same rhymes (as in the poem below).

It also bears mentioning that the poem Avraham wrote below in response to Mordechai Ferrarese is, unfortunately, a little bit racist. Any good student of history knows that it’s often unhelpful to retroject our modern mores when we study historical figures, but…well, it’s not a lovely metaphor. But it is what it is. As you might expect, Cohen inverts Ferrarese’s praise, downplaying his own merits while extolling Ferrarese’s. It would all be rather sweet were it not for the whole race thing. But hey, in the denouement of the saga of Ḥever the Kenite’s unfortunate marriage in Yehuda al-Harizi’s Taḥkemoni, he beats his new bride to death with a stick and it’s played for laughs, so, you know, taking a broad view of Hebrew poetry, it could be worse.

Avraham ben Shabbetai ha-Cohen of Zante (early 18th century)
An Ethiop Whose Skin Bears a Tale

An Ethiop whose skin bears a tale, not of grace,
But of darkness, not light, bestowed by the skies;
Towards all watchers will flow the smoke of her face,
A river of tears too from their sobbing eyes.

Though in the mirror her clothes too she’ll embrace
Brightly-hued garments, fur collars, her guise,
Bracelets and bangles and jewels all in place,
But double’s the shame, twice as black she’ll arise.

A sad man is he who would don his own crown
To the youths in the street he’d be scorn’s very height;
His fine silks are mud, they disgrace the sapphire,

But your poems are marv’lous, with excess they’ve shone,
The blackest of skin they’d turn bright with delight,
The hand of a wretch with their grace they’ve brought higher.

אברהם בן שבתאי הכהן מזנטי
כושית אשר עורה לעד עליה

 
כּוּשִׁית אֲשֶׁר עוֹרָהּ לְעֵד עָלֶיהָ
חֹשֶׁךְ וְלֹא אוֹר כּוֹנֲנוּ שָׁמָיִם
יַגֵּר בְּרוֹאֶיהָ עֲשַׁן פָּנֶיהָ
נַחַל דְּמָעוֹת מִבְּכִי עֵינָיִם.
 
גַּם כִּי בְמַרְאֶה תַּעֲרֹךְ כֵּלֶיהָ
בִּגְדֵי צְבָעִים עִם סְגוֹר פַּרְוָיִם
צָמִיד וְאֶצְעָדָה וְקִשּׁוּרֶיהָ
מִשְׁנֶה כְלִמּוֹת הֵם שְׁחוֹר כִּפְלָיִם.
 
נִקְשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר יִשָּׁא בְרֹאשוֹ כֶּתֶר
קֶלֶס נְעָרִים הוּא בְּחוּצוֹת קָרֶת
הַבּוּץ לִבֹץ יִהְיֶה לְבוּז אַחְלָמָה.
 
אַךְ שִׁירְךָ מַפְלִיא וְנָתוֹן יֶתֶר
עוֹר יַהֲפֹךְ כּוּשִׁי בְּאוֹר תִּפְאָרֶת
וִימִין קְשֵׁה יוֹם עַל־עֲרָבוֹת רָמָה.
י

Transliteration/תעתיק:

Kúshit ‘ashér ʕoráh le-ʕéid ʕaléha
Ḥóshekh ve-ló ‘or konaná shamáyim
Yagéir be-ro’éha ʕashán panéha
Náḥal demaʕót mi-bekhí ʕeináyim.

Gam ki ve-mar’éh taʕarókh keiléha
Bigdéi tzevaʕím ʕim segór parváyim
Tzamíd ve-‘etzʕadáh ve-qishuréha
Mishnéh khelimót heim sheḥór kifláyim.

Niqshéh ‘ashér yisá ve-roshó kéter
Qéles neʕarím hu be-ḥutzót qáret
Ha-bútz li-vótz yihyéh le-vúz ‘aḥlámah.

‘Akh shirkhá maflí ve-natón yéter
ʕor yahafókh kúshi be-‘ór tif’áret
Vimín qeshéh yom ʕal ʕaravót rámah.

Feb 132013
 

This weirdly reminds me of a poem I myself wrote, another celestially-inclined Hebrew love poem. You just can’t come up with anything original with 3000 years of unbroken competition. Yehuda Zarko is actually pretty incredible. I should translate more of him.

Yehuda Zarko (? – after 1560)
If You Should Behold

If you should behold in the skies all awhirl
The zodiac’s stars every instant in time,
Don’t think that to show their own might they now strive,
By racing through vales with a runner’s fleet stride.
They’re racing swift after one single design,
And ’round they return again, never to tire:
For there on the Milky Way’s belt whirls a girl,
A maiden unknown by all men, so sublime.
So therefore they race, for her glorious shine,
So after their flight, on her breast they’ll recline.

יהודה זרקו
אם תחזו כי בשחק

 
אִם תֶּחֱזוּ כִּי בְשַׁחַק יְסוֹבֵב
גַּלְגַּל וְאוֹפַן בְּכָל עֵת וְשָׁעָה,
אַל תַּחְשְׁבוּ כִּי לְהַרְאוֹת גְּבוּרָה
רוּצָם מְהֵרָה כְּאִישׁ רָץ בְּבִקְעָה.
רַק הֵם יְרוּצוּן לְסִבָּה גְדוֹלָה,
חוֹזְרִים חֲלִילָה בְּלִי שׁוּם יְגִיעָה:
כִּי עַל חֲגֹורַת מְזָרִים תְסוֹבֵב
יַעְלָה בְתוּלָה וְאִישׁ לֹא יְדָעָהּ.
לָכֵן יְרוּצוּן: לְהַשִּׂיג הֲדָרָהּ,
לְשְׁכַּב בְּחֵיקָהּ בְּסוֹף הַתְּנוּעָה.
י

Transliteration/תעתיק:

‘Im teḥezu ki ve-sháḥak yesovéiv
Galgál ve-‘ofán be-khól ʕeit ve-shaʕáh,
‘Al taḥshevú ki lehar’ót gevuráh
Rutzám meheiráh ke-‘ísh ratz be-vikʕáh.
Rak heim yerutzún le-sibáh gedoláh,
Ḥozrím ḥaliláh belí shum yegiʕáh:
Ki ʕal ḥagorát mezarím tesovéiv
Yaʕláh vetuláh ve-‘ísh lo yedaʕáh.
Lakhéin yerutzún: lehasíg hadaráh,
Lishkáv be-ḥeikáh be-sóf hatnuʕáh.

Dec 192012
 

Whether you’re a hopeless romantic or a miserable bastard, or (more likely if you happen to be a poet) both simultaneously, the Holy Tongue is the perfect vessel for expression. Without declaring firm allegiance to either camp, homeboy is feelin’ this one.

Oh, and this is Soul and Gone’s first Greek Hebrew poem. Why yes, Hebrew poetry flourished in Greece (especially in Salonika, or Thessaloniki, or whatever you want to call it). Zarko himself was from Rhodes, but was active in both Salonika and Istanbul. This particular poem’s meter, form and smattering of internal rhymes and plays on words make it a delight for the Hebrew reader; in English, unfortunately, you’re stuck with me. And that’s a cruel fate indeed, so learn Hebrew. Musar ve-leqaḥ tov mi-Mikha’eil.

Yehuda Zarko (? – after 1560)
O Dread Living God

O dread living God! Arrange to replace
The place of my prison with bright moon1 and goblets.
The black of my Hell, pray, change to my light,
This dwelling of darkness to orchards and gardens.
I call to you, God, from the pit of my thoughts,
I cry like one blameless, not sland’ring or grumbling.
Set loose, as I wish, my ship of desires
That’s moored in the heart of a sea made of troubles.
Exchange all my thorns2 for lilies of joy,3
This wormwood and hemlock for grain and new wine.

יהודה זרקו
אל חי ונורא

 
אֵל חַי וְנוֹרָא, תְּצַו לַהֲפֹךְ בֵּית
כֶּלֶא וְסֹהַר בְּסַהַר וְאַגָּן.
אֹפֶל שְׁאוֹלִי הֲפָךְ־נָא לְהִלִּי,
מִשְׁכַּן עֲלָטָה לְפַרְדֵּס וְנִיר גָּן.
אֶקְרָא לְךָ, אֵל, בְּחֹר מַחֲשָׁבִי,
אֶצְעַק כְּתָם, לֹא כְּרָכִיל וְנִרְגָּן.
הֹוֵצא אֳנִי מַאֲוַיַּי כְּחֶפְצִי,
כִּי הוּא בְּלֵב יָם־תְּלָאוֹת מְעֻגָּן.
תָּמִיר שְׁמִירִי בְּשׁוֹשַׁן שְׂשׂוֹנִי,
לַעְנָה וּמֵי רֹאשׁ בְּתִירוֹשׁ וְדָגָן.
י

Transliteration/תעתיק:

‘Eil ḥai ve-norá, tetzáv lahafókh beit
Kéle ve-sóhar be-sáhar ve-‘agán.
‘Ófel she’olí hafákh-na le-hilí,
Mishkán ʕalatáh le-fardéis ve-nír gan.
‘Ekrá lekhá, ‘eil, be-ḥór maḥashaví,
‘Etzʕák ke-tám, lo ke-rakhíl ve-nirgán.
Hotzéi ‘oní ma’avayái ke-ḥeftzí,
Ki hu be-léiv yam tela’ót meʕugán.
Tamír shemirí be-shoshán sesoní,
Laʕnáh u-méi rosh be-tirósh ve-dagán.

  1. There’s a nice play on words between sohar (“prison”) and sahar (“moon”) here, as well as an allusion to Song of Songs 7:2.
  2. Shamir is more “thistle” than “thorn,” but, y’know, meter.
  3. Another quality play on words between shoshan (“lily”) and sason (“joy”).