July 2, 2022

A Few Short Talks on Women & Prophecy

By Yosefa Raz

Rachel Perets, Untitled, 2021

AGAINST EXTISPICY

The cheapest form of divination in the ancient Near East was prophecy. You didn’t need to own a dream book, or know how to read it, for that matter. You didn’t need access to sheep livers, or to the fancy clay diagram used to learn how to read sheep livers. You didn’t need to get your hands on a pair of urim & tumim, apparently some kind of oracular black-and-white stones, in order to put your question to the gods. You didn’t need to be taught by your father, or a priest, or live in a temple. All you needed was your bare voice, your conviction. Anyone could be a prophet: a herdsman, a dresser of sycamore trees. An illiterate. A child. A woman. All you needed was a claim of access to the goddesses or gods, a vision she or he gave you. Hear it while you were doing something else—minding the sheep, watching a pot bubble—a voice summoning you into wakefulness: pay attention to the flowering almond branch! Pay attention to your body! Pay attention to the language—the magic of paronomasia, the resemblance of sounds. Prophecy as some kind of nervy thing: leaning on your own voice. You create your own authority. Maybe why I still want it.

LET ME ECHO SOME BINARIES

Prophets have a fondness for mountains and mountaintops. At the mountaintop, they have a wide perspective, a god’s-eye view. Moses’s visions bracketed by mountains. Synesthesia at Sinai, everyone together seeing the voices. But his face, forever altered, always covered by a veil. At the end of his life he is taken up to Mount Pisgah to see the promised land, though its shape, which he was given to vision, was the future he was never to inhabit, forever out of reach (Deut. 34). For Amos, God’s voice roars and “the shepherds’ meadow wither[s]” and the “peak of the Carmel dries up” (Amos 1:2). The prophet’s voice too has an element of roaring, has an element of climbing, as if it comes from a higher region, up on the mountain. The female Sibyls, however, prophesized from out of the cave, the grave, the ground. About the place of the Sibyl of Cumae, Virgil writes:

The cliff’s huge flank is honeycombed, cut out
In a cavern perforated a hundred times,
Having a hundred mouths, with rushing voices
Carrying the responses of the Sibyl.

Hilda Doolittle, a poet renamed the sharper, starker “H. D.,” wrote: “There is, beneath the carved superstructure of every temple to God-the-father, the dark cave or grotto or inner hall or cellar to Mary, Mere, mut, mutter, pray for us.”

A few fragments appear in the Bible about Miriam, Moses’s sister, a prophetess, a singer of victory songs. These must be fragments from a lost Book of Miriam, smudged out of the canon. Maybe she was never sister to Moses, but rather a figure of great power. A manifestation of a goddess. In the midrash, she is followed everywhere by a living well. Perhaps this obedient well contrasts with the rock Moses strikes in a fit of anger to get out water.

In Daughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel, Wil Gafney writes: “There are untold numbers of female prophets hiding in the masculine grammar and androcentric focus of the Hebrew scriptures.” Because in Hebrew mixed gender groups are automatically turned into the masculine plural nevi’im, the grammar itself may hide women prophets from Israelite history. The seven prophetesses named by the Talmud are mostly not really prophets: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, Esther. Deborah means bee, Huldah means mole. The name Esther might have something to do with hiding.

ANOTHER SMALL PROBLEM

The land is a whore because the land is a woman because having children is the same as having a nation. Because marriage is the same as worshiping God because jealousy of God and jealousy of husband are the same. The land is a whore but she can redeem herself. She can be re-espoused. She can be forgiven. You can choose: do you want to be the whore of Babylon or the New Jerusalem? Both are decorated in jewels: jasper, crystal, pure sharp glass, gold, sapphire, emerald, beryl, topaz, pearl, etc.

O MANKIND

It was in the wake of the promise and failure of the French Revolution, says M. H. Abrams, that a group of poets and philosophers “conceived themselves as elected spokesmen for the Western tradition at a time of profound cultural crisis. They represented themselves in the traditional persona of the philosopher-seer or the poet-prophet . . . and they set out, in various yet recognizably parallel ways, to reconstitute the grounds of hope and to announce the certainty, or at least the possibility, of a rebirth in which a renewed mankind will inhabit a renovated earth where he will find himself thoroughly at home.” In my academic research I have tried to show or prove or witness the gaps in this grand narrative, the ways in which prophecy does not reconstitute, but unravels. That the self-assurance necessary for talk about the future covers over great uncertainty. Weakness in all flavors: great, terrible, melancholic, passive-male, passive-female, generative, fertile, fecund. Decades after M. H. Abrams, Christopher Bundock reads the prophecy of English Romanticism as ultimately destabilizing rather than authoritative: “Prophecy works less to rebuild an edifice of legitimacy than to splay out history’s fragmentation.” I have written about the gaps in Walt Whitman’s self-assurance, and I have troubled those gaps using Alicia Ostriker’s dazzling insights, who takes Whitman to task for his hypocrisies especially during and after the Civil War—what Rumi might call his “false coins.” (“You know my coins are false / but you accept them anyway / my impudence and my pretending.”) Then I went on to splay out more poets, more scholars. I nibbled at them like a mouse with a piece of cheese. Or a termite. Or a terrorist.

But that “he”––speaking forth on behalf of the renewed mankind in the renovated earth that M. H. Abrams imagines still nags at me. I know, I know, I should just ignore it by now, deftly sidestep this by now rather unpleasant matter, fortify myself by meditating on the fabulous career of Mary Shelley, the contributions of Dorothy Wordsworth, practice a kind of scholarly suspension of disbelief. But I too want renewal, want to be let in on the promise, want to find myself thoroughly at home in this world. My soul thirsts for vision without always wiggling and contorting my way in. This scholarly legacy suggests that revolution, apocalypse, the destiny of the nation, the future of the planet & the universe, great battles of good and evil can only be dealt with obliquely by us she-humans, if at all. Impoverished, as in the Hebrew poet Rahel Bluwstein: “My world is as narrow as an ant’s.” Slant.

THAT DINNER PARTY

Why would a woman want to be a prophet if prophecy is a dinner party like Blake’s dinner party in the Marriage of Heaven & Hell. The guests are the speaker, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. They converse about inspiration, conviction, origins, like eighteenth-century gentlemen. Is it like that dinner party last week where all the blow-hard men are talking can’t get a word in edgewise? Who is serving the food? Who is clearing the table? My mother & my grandmother & my grandmother’s grandmother.

It has become harder for me to read poetry by men.  

Can a woman be a national poet? Would she want to? Can she be an anti-national poet? Can she appeal to some authority beyond her sexual status, her childbearing status?

Sara Larsen writes in The Riot Grrrl Thing, “I never wanted to be a Great American Writer. I became a secret man, dived into a place of patriarchal preeminence. But it tasted toxic, contaminated tap water. I thought, what is a man even? I felt sad for them, I hung up the phone. I became a so-called me, the one with the miscarriages & misfires & blood & burgundy shafts.”

What does a prophet do? What does a woman do?

Go get yourself some prophetic accessories: crystal ball, sacred river, witch’s hat, some intricate allusions, a sly, dialectic gaze. Become clairvoyant.

LAY ON MY SIDE

No, I am not invited to the prophetic dinner party. Lay on my side for forty days, lay on the other side for forty days, but still can’t speak.
Is there any other historical time you would rather be alive than this time?
No there is no other time I would rather live in.
That is what it means to be a woman.

A DIGRESSION ON EDEN

Emily Dickinson writes of her “Wild Nights”: “Done with the Compass – / Done with the Chart! // Rowing in Eden – .” The prophet’s vision returns us to our great myths and transforms them. Eden, which seemed like such a stable place, a diorama with snakes & apples, is now unmoored, fluid, swirling. It is a sea and not an island or a gated place, full of effortful movement and dashes. Muscular arms to keep it going. When you row in Eden you are not renovating the earth, you are awash in it, ecstatic in it. You are both snake & tree, angel and demon.

POP-UP

Facebook memory pops up, five years ago today:   
“I was just walking in Mea Shearim near a miserable procession of some men with loudspeakers and a sign yelling about female modesty. I fantasized I was going to join a violent female underground that would bomb all the women-haters who are under every hole and in every corner of this world.”

BOOK OF ISAIAH

In “The Gender of Sound,” Anne Carson writes, “Madness and witchery as well as bestiality are conditions commonly associated with the use of the female voice in public, in ancient as well as modern contexts.” Carson points to the “otherness” of the female voice, its inability to enter into a discourse of rationality, subjectivity, dignity. Maybe that’s why her four-part poem “Book of Isaiah” actively works against the majestic resonances of prophetic language, telling the story of Isaiah’s encounters with God in a monotonous, Stein-ian prose that cunningly disintegrates the aesthetic power of the prophetic voice. The poem is made of short sentences, mostly devoid of adjectives and adverbs, and a pared-down vocabulary Paula Melton has called “prophesying meets Dick and Jane.” For example:

Isaiah remembered the old days, conversing with God under the Branch
and like an old butler waking in an abandoned house the day the revolution began,
Isaiah bent his head.
A burden was upon Isaiah.
Isaiah opened his mouth.
A sigh came from Isaiah’s mouth, the sigh grew into a howl.

Can you flatten it down can you damp down your prophetic voice can you look as a woman through the eyes of Isaiah and what would you see.
Too much & nothing that is too much.
Pain & glory.
The root of God’s glory, KAVOD is heavy, as in heavy things. “Your heavy body climbing the stairs in the dark.” (Ruth Stone)
What would happen to your Isaiah-body?
What would happen to your Isaiah-voice if you spoke as Isaiah if you released this prophetic howl-sigh?
Things I am waiting for in my research, in my poetry, in my body.
Carson: “Notice whenever God addresses Isaiah in a feminine singular verb / something dazzling is / about to happen.”
Is there another Isaiah hiding in the grammar of the Hebrew scriptures?
A few lines down Isaiah begins to transform. “Isaiah felt sensation below the neck, it was a silk and bitter sensation . . . It was milk forcing the nipples open . . . I am not with you I am in you, said the muffled white voice of God . . . Isaiah lifted his arms, milk poured out his breasts.”

I don’t know if this means that the only visions we have are through the body: our tongue goes dumb, our mouths stutter, our eyes go blind, then see, etc., we put golden sandals on our feet or walk naked, our nipples open up to other dimensions. I don’t want to give up on the soul thirsting, which is a metaphor, because the soul has no need of water, doesn’t need prophetic milk but wants it wants it, at the end in this blind world going dry, cracked with dry, all we have is this wanting. All we have is this howl of wanting.

Works Cited

  • M. H. Abrams. Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1971.
  • Robert Alter. The Hebrew Bible : A Translation with Commentary. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.
  • Christopher Bundock. Romantic Prophecy and the Resistance to Historicism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.
  • Anne Carson. “The Book of Isaiah.” In Glass, Irony and God, 107–18. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1995.
  • Anne Carson. “The Gender of Sound.” In Glass, Irony and God, 119–42. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1995.
  • Wil Gafney. Daughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.
  • H. D. and Jane Augustine. The Gift : The Complete Text. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1998.
  • Sara Larsen. The Riot Grrrl Thing. New York: Roof Books, 2019.
  • Paula Melton. “Essays at Anne Carson’s ‘Glass, Irony and God.’” The Iowa Review 27, no. 1 (1997): 179–82.
  • Alicia Ostriker. Dancing at the Devil’s Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics, and the Erotic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003.
  • Virgil. The Aeneid. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage Classics, 1991.

Yosefa Raz is a poet, translator, and scholar. Her work has recently appeared in Entropy, Jacket2, Guernica, Protocols, the Boston Review, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her scholarship is focused on the often fraught transformation of prophecy into poetry. She is a lecturer in the Department of English Language & Literature at the University of Haifa.