In 11th century Spain, where the great Hebrew poet Yehuda Halevi composed many of his masterworks, poetry was, for the educated classes, the language of everyday life. In his biography of Halevi, published this year by Nextbook Press, Hillel Halkin describes the young Halevi improvising poetry (about the pleasures of wine, of course) in a busy tavern—which, Halkin explains, would not have been an unusual way to spend an evening. “If calling an age ‘poetic’ refers, not to some supposed collective sublimity or imaginativeness of mind, but, more mundanely, to the widespread use of poetry in ordinary life as a medium of communication and social exchange, the young man was born in one of the most historically poetic of ages,” Halkin writes. “Poems were an everyday vehicle for the expression of emotion; for the sending of messages and requests; for the carrying of news from one encampment to another; for the recording and remembering of unusual events; for the wooing of the opposite sex; for the enhancement of celebrations; for the flattering of authority; for the vaunting of one’s exploits; for the praising of one’s friends and the derogation of one’s enemies, and the like.”
20th century America is a little bit different. For most of us, poetry is something outside of the everyday—but to celebrate National Poetry Month, Tablet is trying to be a bit more like medieval Spain by including a Halevi poem, in Halkin’s new translation, on the Scroll each afternoon. In today’s poem, a young Halevi accuses a former lover of becoming his “murderess” by abandoning him: “That you have shed my blood, I have two witnesses—/Your lips and cheeks. Don’t say their crimson lies!” Enjoy your daily drink of Andalusian wine below—or download and print out a pocket-sized version here. Plus, check out a bonus poetry feature from our archives, and don’t forget to enter Nextbook Press and Tablet Magazine’s Yehuda Halevi poetry contest!
Why, my darling, have you barred all news
From one who aches for you inside the bars of his own ribs?
Surely you know a lover’s thoughts
Care only for the sound of your hellos!
At least, if parting was the fate reserved for us,
You might have lingered till my gaze had left your face.
God knows if there’s a heart caged in these ribs
Or it has fled to join you in your journeys.
O swear by Love that you remember days of embraces
As I remember nights crammed with your kisses,
And that, as through my dreams your likeness passes,
So does mine through yours!
Between us lies a sea of tears I cannot cross.
Yet should you but approach its moaning waves,
They’d part beneath your steps,
And if, though dead, I heard the golden bells
Make music on your skirt, or your voice asking how I was,
I’d send my love to you from the grave’s depths.
That you have shed my blood, I have two witnesses –
Your lips and cheeks. Don’t say their crimson lies!
What makes you want to be my murderess
When I would only add years to your years?
You steal the slumber from my eyes,
Which, would it increase your sleep, I’d give you gratis.
My vaporous sighs are stoked by passion’s flames,
And I am battered by your icy floes,
And thus it is that I am caught, alas,
Between fire and the flood, hot coals and cold deluges.
My heart, half sweetness and half bitterness,
Honeyed kisses mixed with hemlock of adieus,
Has been shredded by you into pieces,
And each piece twisted into curlicues.
Yet picturing your fairness —
The pearl-and-coral of your teeth and lips;
The sunlight in your face, on which night falls in cloudy tresses;
Your beauty’s veil, which clothes your eyes
As you are clothed by silks and embroideries
(Though none’s the needlework that vies with Nature’s splendor, Nature’s grace) –
Yes, when I think of all the youths and maidens
Who, though freeborn, would rather be your slaves,
And know that even stars and constellations
Are of your sisters and your brothers envious –
Then all I ask of Time’s vast hoard is this:
Your girdled waist, the red thread of those lips
That were my honeycomb, and your two breasts,
In which are hidden myrrh and all good scents.
O would that you wore me as a seal upon your arms
As I wear you on mine! May both my hands
Forget their cunning if I forget the days,
My dearest, of our love’s first bliss!
Hard for the heart made vagrant are the memories
Of your ambrosia on my lips – but could I mix
My exhalations with their perfumed essence,
I would have a way to kiss you always.
Are women praised for their perfections?
Perfection in you is praised for being yours.
The fields of love have many harvesters —
And your harvest is bowed down to by their sheaves.
God grant that I may live to drain the lees,
Once more, of your limbs’ sweet elixirs!
Although I cannot hear your voice,
I listen, deep within me, for your footsteps.
O on the day that you revive Love’s fallen legions
Slain by your sword, think of this corpse
Abandoned by its spirit for your travels!
If life, my love, will let you have your wishes,
Tell it you wish to send a friend regards.
May it bring you to your destinations,
And God return you to your native grounds!