Contemporary Poetry and Mystical Intimacy 

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Yehoshua November

“I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride,”[1] writes Solomon in The Song of Songs, which, despite its graphic eroticism, the traditional Jewish mystical and non-mystical schools take as an allegorical work expressing the love between God (the male voice in the poem) and the Jewish people (the female voice). I mention this in light of an exchange I shared with one of my professors when I was a graduate student. We were sitting in her office. I had shown her one of my poems, which must have taken little risk in terms of subject matter or sexuality. She suggested I use something more fresh and referred me to the steamier moments in The Song of Songs. “But that’s a metaphor for the love between God and the Jewish people,” I responded. She looked at me through small, fashionable glasses (this was before big glasses made their comeback), rolled her eyes, and said, “Yeah, whatever.

Even if understood on a metaphorical plane, the intimate imagery in The Song of Songs begs unpacking. In his final Chassidic discourse, “Basi le-Gani,” Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn zt”l does some of this work, drawing on Jewish mysticism, as well as the Midrash and its commentaries, to offer a close analysis of the line I mention above. Echoing earlier sources, Rabbi Schneersohn’s discourse infers that this verse alludes to the moment the divine presence entered the Sanctuary upon its completion.

As Rabbi Schneersohn points out, the Midrash underscores that the male voice does not say “I have come into a garden,” but “my garden,” which suggests the Sanctuary, and by extension this physical world, is God’s true home. The Midrash takes this a step further and adds that the Hebrew word for “my garden,” “le-gani,” recalls the Hebrew word “liganuni,” “my bridal chamber.” According to this reading, the human realm constitutes God’s bridal room. The Midrash concludes that the male entry into the female’s bridal chamber represents the return of God’s revealed presence to His beloved physical realm—a realm from which the Divine Presence had withdrawn when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge. He has now come back to the place He desired all along—His divine bedroom, as it were.

Religious Jewish life’s preoccupation with modesty is no secret. It seems fair to ask, then, why a tradition so concerned with modesty so often turns to sexual metaphors? Why, for example, does the great Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva call the The Song of Songs Judaism’s holiest book? And why did male and female figures, often locked in an embrace, stand on the cover of the Ark in the Holy of Holies? The metaphor of sexuality is central to the Jewish mystical tradition. As such, I would like to focus on how this eroticism serves as the underpinning of all of existence and represents the fulfillment of what some mystics see as creation’s purpose. Ultimately, I would like to suggest that contemporary poetry constantly engages in something akin to the act of erotic mysticism.

For the sake of clarity, let’s identify what we might call three parties. There is God’s male attribute, called Kudsha Berikh Hu, associated with infinity, a divine light that knows of nothing but God; it does not even know of itself as a discrete or separate existence. It is sublime and absolute spirituality. As rays of light cleave to and shine out of their source, so this male attribute reflects God’s infinity.

In contrast, Shekhinah, God’s female attribute, serves as the vehicle via which God creates and perpetuates the physical world, a world that experiences itself as separate from God. Shekhinah represents God’s ability to engage with the finite, and sometimes represents the finite itself. The third party, as it were, is Atzmut, or God’s Essence—God as He exists beyond creation entirely, equally transcending the physical and spiritual realities, God as He resides beyond His male and female manifestations, beyond all frameworks.[2]

The Kabbalists state that the purpose of creation is to bring God’s masculine and feminine qualities into a union in this world, God’s bridal chamber. In fact, before performing mitzvot or reciting prayers, many proclaim they are doing so for the sake of this marriage (“le-sheim yihud Kudsha Berikh Hu u-Shekhintei). Another way to say this: the purpose of existence is to bring the infinite down into the finite, to locate transcendence precisely in the mundane. 

One doesn’t have to look beyond the jacket or back cover of most volumes of contemporary poetry to confirm that achieving this union—although not in a religious sense—is one of poetry’s defining ambitions. Furthermore, according to the Hasidic mystics, the union of these two attributes embodies or suggests the presence of God’s very Essence. For only God’s Essence, which is not confined to the male infinity or the female finitude, can bring the two opposite modes together. This union, then, represents an expression of God’s truest self in the place He wanted to be all along, as the Midrash suggests. Perhaps this helps account for the inexplicable and lovely mystery that surfaces when poetry shines transcendent light on the mundane.

In traditional Jewish life, as noted, this union occurs when a physical being—God’s cosmic wife— performs a physical mitzvah that draws down an Infinite, male light into the feminine, finite world—a union in God’s bridal chamber. Thus, Judaism is a religion whose practices engage largely with the mundane, with physicality. Maria Gillan’s poem, “After School on Ordinary Days,”[3] provides an example of how contemporary poetry aims for a similar kind of union—albeit not in an overtly spiritual context:  

…After supper on ordinary

days, our homework finished, we’d play

monopoly or gin rummy, the kitchen

warmed by the huge coal stove, the wind

outside rattling the loose old windows,

we inside, tucked in, warm and together,

on ordinary days that we didn’t know

until we looked back across a distance

of forty years would glow and shimmer

in memory’s flickering light. 

Memory’s flickering light is, of course, synonymous with the poetry that records and illuminates this everyday scene. It is poetry that deems the mundane, “the ordinary days”—and not necessarily the exalted moment—a worthy subject, perhaps the most worthy of subjects. As Rabbi Y.Y. Schneersohn reminds us in Chapter One of “Basi le-Gani,”  the divine request for a Sanctuary reads, “Make for Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell in them,” while it should read “dwell in it.” The use of the words “in them” teaches that true construction of a Sanctuary entails each individual making his or her mundane life and surroundings into a place where the divine dwells. At least in a humanistic sense (but possibly in a spiritual one, too), Gillan posits that the poem’s setting, the tenement kitchen of the speaker’s childhood, is a kind of Sanctuary, and the ordinary is filled with light.

However, in many cases, poetry doesn’t stop at merely illuminating the everyday. Often, it records life’s hardships and darker moments, presenting them as they are—unillumined, non-transcendent.  (Here, one might consider the work of poets who stem from the confessional school of poetry). In this sense, contemporary poetry may align itself more with the feminine finite than the masculine, sublime infinite. And this, the Hasidic mystics might say, is to poetry’s credit. For Hasidic mystical thought suggests that even without a coupling with the infinite male light, the feminine finite realm can reflect and hold God’s Essence.[4]

The Mystics describe two ways of understanding this: The Higher Unity and the Lower Unity. In the Higher Unity, God’s Oneness prevails because that which exists in the upper spiritual realms does not sense itself as separate from God, but as a mere extension—like light shining out of its source, or perhaps like light still within its source. As alluded to earlier, this is the Infinite male perspective, called the Higher Unity. The Lower Unity occurs in the finite realm, where despite the world’s perception of being a separate “other,” the Kabbalists say, it too is a mere extension of Godly energy; the world is constantly re-spoken into existence, and would revert to nothingness if this were not so.

Nonetheless, the Hasidic mystics often identify the Lower Unity as the superior one, the unity that most reflects God’s Essence. How so? In this unity, even the finite beings that perceive themselves as other—as  independent from Divinity—can come to recognize from their very position of otherness that all is an extension of God’s speech, a product of His continuous and underlying creative energy.

Thus, in the Lower Unity, even the existence of otherness does not contradict the notion that God is the only thing that truly exists.[5] Furthermore, the seemingly separate self’s acknowledgement of God as the one true existence constitutes another paradox (in addition to the coupling of the masculine infinite and the feminine finite lights noted earlier), a balancing of opposites that suggests the presence of God’s Essence. Here, however, the Essence paradox occurs even without the marriage to the infinite male illumination.

As such, the recognition may not prove as spiritual or luminous, for it is rooted in the finite, but for this very reason it is most profound and paradoxical; it is unity in disunity. And it is real and of this world. For me, this recalls poetry’s tendency to meet life’s difficult truths head on—unadorned—to acknowledge the “disunity.” And yet, entrenched in that very position, it insists on a kind of order or redemption, but not via transcendence or rising above the imperfections, or even by shining light downwards on them. In other words, if a truth or underlying beauty is arrived at at all in contemporary poetry, it must often come through—must take into account—the world’s darkness, its “disunity.” As in the mystical Lower Unity, this acknowledgement brings poetry to a deeper, more profound truth. It is unity in disunity, as opposed to the expected unity of the Infinite, where divine oneness dominates because all is swallowed in divine light.

Let me conclude with one of my own poems which, I believe, operates within the poetic tradition of “the Lower Unity” and also employs mystical allusions.

You Stood Beneath a Streetlight

Waving Goodbye[6]

You stood beneath a streetlight waving goodbye

the night we dropped you off in the city

for our daughter’s appointment

with one of the country’s top surgeons.

And as we drove away, the other children and I

waved back at you,

until, because of the angle and the distance,

your forms disappeared in the light.

And I remembered how,

in college,

I would turn back each evening

as I stepped out of your apartment building.

You would poke your young beautiful face

out the second story window,

your arm cutting the cool night air

as you waved goodbye.

And I would walk backwards

over the frosted grass

until I reached halfway beyond the next building,

where, each time, from that distance,

I watched the streetlamp’s light

suddenly consume your dark arm and face.

The mystics say creation begins

as a luminescent point,

a flash of wisdom,

containing all that will be

but in an abstract, potential form.

All those nights,

when we were so young,

when your body became a ray of light,

I could not have imagined

the life that lay ahead of us a decade later.

Two boys and two girls,

one who cannot hear.

All of us in a small apartment.

Each with needs as enormous as mansions.

Sometimes, I am afraid you will wave goodbye

and turn away from our life together,

that a man who can make things easier

has been waiting

ever since the mystic’s luminescent flash,

growing ever more real and hungry for you

until one day he will materialize

as you load groceries into the van.

I would like to go back to the young woman

waving at the window to the man walking backwards.

I would like to show her this life,

to say she is free to go,

and to ask her if she will still take me.

 [1] Sefer ha-Ma’amarim 5710-5711 (Brooklyn: Kehot Publication Society, 2015), 111-118.

[2] See Likkutei Sihot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Volume 3, 904-905. Here Atzmut is described as transcending both finitude and infinity. This dual transcendence—the state of being locked in neither category—is said to manifest in God’s ability to fuse the two opposite modes. The Ark in the Holy of Holies, which was measurable (finite) but took up no space (infinite), is referenced as one example expressing the Atzmut paradigm.

[3] Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s “After School on Ordinary Days” appears in her poetry collection Italian Women in Black Dresses (Toronto: Guernica, 2002).

[4] Some background: Kabbalah and Hasidic thought take literally the verse “There is nothing but [God]” (Deuteronomy 4:35), believing Him to truly be—at least from one vantage point—the only thing that exists. See Likkutei Sihot of The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Volume 4, pages 1334-1335. Also see these pages regarding the distinction between the Higher Unity (unity from above) and the Lower Unity (unity from below). Here, counterintuitively, the Lower Unity is deemed superior.

[5] According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, this Lower Unity is alluded to in Deuteronomy 4:39, while the Higher Unity is alluded to in 4:35. The Rebbe notes that both verses are similar in that each implies, “There is nothing else” but God. However, in asserting this, verse 4:35 omits the words “Heaven and Earth,” and thus alludes to the Higher Unity where no sense of separate existence – no “Heaven and Earth” – prevails. Existence is virtually erased in the Higher Unity, as it were. In addition, 4:35 opens with the words, “You were shown to know…there is nothing else,” suggesting a revelation from above, from the spiritual or Infinite realms. (In fact, this verse refers to the revelation at Sinai, when, it is said, the Infinite divine light shined so powerfully it overwhelmed finite reality, and the Jewish people’s’ souls, therefore, flew out of their physical bodies). In contrast, the Rebbe adds, 4:39 makes mention of Heaven and Earth, and, thus, alludes to the Lower Unity in which existence does not need to be erased (Heaven and Earth remain in the foreground) for divine unity to prevail. And here, rather than the revelation from above that characterizes the Higher Unity, 4:39 opens with the command that the Jew, using his or her finite consciousness, come to his or her own recognition of God’s unity. Verse 4:39 reads, “You should know…there is nothing else…” See Likkutei Sihot of The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Volume 4, pages 1334-1335.

[6] “You Stood Beneath a Streetlight” appears in Two Worlds Exist (Asherille, N.C.: Orison Books, 2016).

Yehoshua November is the author of God’s Optimism (a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize), Two Worlds Exist (a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and the Paterson Poetry Prize), and The Concealment of Endless Light (Orison Books, fall 2024). His work has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Sun, VQR, and on National Public Radio and Poetry Unbound. November teaches writing at Rutgers University and Touro University.