And Heart’s Hollow And heart’s hollow and wisdom is blocked; the body apparent but soul obscured: those who wake in the world for gain come to corruption. On earth a man rejoices in nothing. . . . The servant, soon, will slaughter his master, the handmaidens turn on their mistress and queen; a daughter will rise—against her own mother, a son—against his father’s name. My eye in the world dismisses what others most love, and all is labor, a plowing for worms. Slime—to slime returns. Soul—ascends to soul. —Solomon Ibn Gabirol (translated by Peter Cole)
Solomon Ibn Gabirol (ca. 1021-1058) was an Andalusian Jew, a sophisticated philosopher who concluded that the world, including the intellect and the soul, was made of matter and form, and a Hebrew poet of immense power and modernity. The only near-complete collection of his secular verse to survive into our times was almost used as kindling for a household fire, according to the early twentieth-century discoverer, an Iraqi Jew named David Tzemah. Ibn Gabirol’s afflictions were many: orphanhood, disfigurements from what may have been tuberculosis of the skin, shortness of stature, and brevity of life. Unsurprisingly, he was a misanthrope, with the misanthrope’s afflicted sense of social truth and atrocious word of mouth. His translator Peter Cole writes, “The better part of his life seems to have been spent making enemies,” which may explain why much of his poetry almost disappeared after his death. His philosophy, however, persisted, and for centuries was ascribed to a nonexistent Augustinian Christian named Avicebron, Avencebrol, Avicembron, or Avicenbrol. Two legends that propagated themselves in the medieval and early-modern eras tell us much about Ibn Gabirol’s strangeness and force: like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Jorge Luis Borges, he created a golem; like Christopher Marlowe, he was murdered in relative youth. Whatever the circumstances of his life and death, his personality—anti-social, angry, mystical, mesmerizingly intelligent—continues to lend his poetry its distinctive tone, intimate and fractuous in a way that narrows the gap of time and culture.
Cole’s superb translation is well worth seeking out. Although he cautions against a too literal comparison of the work with the metaphysical poetry of Herbert and Donne, the more obvious danger for modern readers would be our sense of estrangement from Ibn Gabirol’s beliefs and language—the kind of estrangement that prevents us from reading him in the first place. Comparisons are a way of making sense of what is strange. Certainly I thought of the metaphysicals while reading Ibn Gabirol, Donne in the clever self-possession of his voice and Marvell in the plump deliciousness of his language, but also a range of other eras as well: his “boast” poems, or fakhr, are avowals of masculine strength reminiscent of the formalized boasting of Beowulf; the directness and intensity of friendship is similar to what one finds in Shakespeare and the T’ang poets. But this game goes only so far. The darkness and anger of a devout medieval Jew with a precarious social status and a heretical tendency to Neoplatonist thought are entirely Ibn Gabirol’s own. Two lovely aspects of his work that Cole elucidates are worth noting: his garden poems take us dynamically through his scenes, embodying them as a psychological narrative; and his use of color can also be dynamic, an external expression of changes in consciousness. Most important, Ibn Gabirol’s work, while bound steadfastly to a world of Biblical devotion, does not feel constrictive in its faith. The long “Kingdom’s Crown” is an especially rich baqashah, or “poem of petition,” which was intended for private contemplation but became so popular that it is now a part of many prayer books and is “uttered quietly by individual worshippers” in synagogues on Yom Kippur (see Cole’s notes to this poem).
Cole’s book is a model for meticulous scholarly work by a practicing poet, with very thorough notes to the poems and a mostly splendid introduction (the abcedarian structure, while creative, makes the information it conveys slightly too elliptical at times).
Recommended poems from Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol, translated by Peter Cole:
“Prologue to the Book of Grammar,” “See the Sun,” “On Leaving Saragossa,” “The Palace Garden,” “The Garden,” “The Field,” “The Apple: II,” “The Lightning,” “What’s Troubling You, My Soul,” “Your Soul Strains, and You Sigh,” “Don’t Look Back,” “I Am the Man,” “The Tree,” “And Heart’s Hollow,” “I Love You,” “Before My Being,” “He Dwells Forever,” “Lips for Bullocks,” “Kingdom’s Crown.”
from Kingdom’s Crown XXXIII I’m ashamed, my God, and abashed to be standing before you, for I know that as great as your might has been, such is my utter weakness and failing; as exalted as your power has been and will be, such is the depth of my poverty; as perfect as your wholeness is, so is my knowledge flawed. For you are one and alive; almighty, abiding, strong and wise; You are the Lord my God— and I am a clod of dirt and a worm; dust of the ground and a vessel of shame; a speechless stone; a passing shadow; a wind blown-by that won’t return; a spider’s poison; a lying heart uncut for his Lord; a man of rages; a craftsman of scheming, and haughty, corrupt and impatient in speech, perverse in his ways and impetuous. What am I or my life? What is my might and my righteousness? Throughout the days of my being I’m nothing and what then after I die? I came from nothing and nothing pursue; against instruction I come here before you with insolence and impure notion— and impulse that strays to its idols and greed as it calls— and a soul that hasn’t been cleansed— and a heart that’s lost and alone— and a body afflicted with swarms of desire ceaseless within their resistance. —Solomon Ibn Gabirol (translated by Peter Cole)