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The Uncivil Servant: The Joys of a Modern Medieval Poet

Mitchell Abidor
March 20, 2017

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: Vulture in a Cage: Poems by Solomon Ibn Gabirol, translated by Raymond P. Scheindlin. Archipelago Books, 350 pages, 2016.

HOW EXALTING an experience it is to read the poetry of the Medieval Spanish-Jewish poet Solomon Ibn Gabirol in Vulture in a Cage, the marvelous new edition of his selected poetry. The book has been published in a bilingual Hebrew-English edition by the always daring Archipelago Press, and brilliantly and movingly translated by Raymond P. Scheindlin, who gives Ibn Gabirol a distinctive voice in English.

In these translations, Scheindlin has wisely avoided any attempt at mimicking the rhyming patterns and meter of Ibn Gabirol’s originals. How translate poems where the rhyme falls on the first words, not the last, or first and last? Forcing such rhyme would make a mockery of the freedom and full-blooded vigor of these poems.

However odd it might seem, reading this poet, who was born in Malaga in 1021 and died in Valencia in (perhaps) 1058, gave me the feeling of being in the presence of an early incarnation of the equally young Arthur Rimbaud, born 800 years after Ibn Gabirol’s death. Rimbaud was 17 when he published his “Bateau Ivre,” 19 when he published Une Saison en Enfer. “A prince am I,” Ibn Gabirol writes, :and poems are my subjects;/ a lyre am I for bards and singers all./ My songs are coronets for kings/ and turbans for the heads of courtiers./ I’ve only sixteen years, not one day more,/ but wisdom like a man who’s lived fourscore.”

Yes, the poet is young, but youth is not an obstacle. In another poem he can claim that, though “just the age of Pharaoh’s viceroy/when first sold to a courtier as a slave, /yet he has penetrated wisdom’s depths/explored her inner chambers one by one.” And elsewhere, “still unborn,” he “was wise as someone eighty years of age.”

Verse is his life: “For poetry has raised me since my youth/ it my father, I its firstborn son.”

Along with Rimbaud, Vulture in a Cage also presages the voice of the great Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, a man who was never one to hide his feelings about his own worth. “Tell my detractors,” Ibn Gabirol writes, ” (and let them hold their tongues in front of me, for I have heard the tale of On ben Pelet)/ that if the world does not make me her chief, the world does not know who her lover is.” Sublimely sure of himself, other poets (“teeny-tiny ants”) are as nothing compared to him: “My anger comes in torrents when I see/fools who think they’re perspicacious./ But I do not address that vicious crew./ I calm my tempests, keep my dignity./ The claim they outdo me with their verses —/if only they could even master metrics.”

Poetry, for Ibn Gabirol, is a battle, one in which even God is a combatant, even an adversary: “God has shut up my thoughts and blocked my heart/on every side from its desire. My heart/was bound in thick cloud-cords of darkness, but it rose raging like a warrior from captivity.”

Given his attitude to his peers, it is perhaps no surprise that Ibn Gabirol laments his solitude, expressing a certain Weltschmerz, world-weariness. He is misunderstood, or not understood at all: “When I start to declaim a poem, they gripe, as if it were Greek:/’Speak in a language we know!/This is just Ashkelon babble!’” There is but one answer: “Only swear to shun the world. Don’t involve yourself with her.” Sounding like some German Romantic poet, Ibn Gabirol advises his readers to “Swear off mankind. Then you will find support/and see reward for all that you’ve endured.”

Along with voluntary solitude, Ibn Gabirol offers another solution, one that many a modern would advocate. “My friend, from what I’ve seen of life, I’d say the best thing you can hope is to go mad.”

There is, though, a less radical solace, one that was unavoidable in the atmosphere of Medieval Spain: that of religion. “Meditate on them:/Faithful Abraham, Jacob the Innocent, / and Moses, messenger of God, who fled his foe. / All were exiled, all took shelter/in the Lord Who rides the heavens.” It is not insignificant that the models Ibn Gabirol chooses are Abraham, Jacob, and Moses: Not for someone as gifted as Ibn Gabirol any lesser figures, any mere lesser prophets.

Like all the great writers of Al-Andalus, Ibn Gabirol, along with his more secular poetry, wrote religious verse, much of it of stunning beauty. But perhaps none is so beautiful, so simple and pure, as this curious mix of the Romantic and the Medieval:

Since all life’s joys are doomed to end in sorrow,

and all life’s pleasures end in dirt and pain;

since all man’s days are nothing but a shadow,

and man is destined to be smashed like pottery,

why should we seek anything but God?

Nothing else in life is worth the doing.

Vulture in a Cage is a volume whose worth and interest goes far beyond Judaica or the antiquarian. It demonstrates how modern the medieval can be, and is a masterpiece of the translator’s art.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a translator and writer living in Brooklyn. He has published many books of translations from the French, his articles have been translated into German and French, and his Voices of the Paris Commune has just appeared in a Turkish edition, put out by Kafka Kitap of Istanbul.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.