SHEKHINAH SPEAKS by Joy Ladin
Selva Oscura Press, 2022
“Holy and Ordinary,” Both at Once: Shekhinah Speaks Breathes New Life into Ancient Traditions and Forms
Just last week in our graduate seminar on hybridity, my students and I were discussing the creative possibilities of the cento. Some were familiar with the ancient poetic form, and some were not, so I offered this preliminary definition: “The cento dates to the third or fourth century and derives from a Greek word meaning ‘a patchwork garment.’ In early examples, the centoist was often paying tribute to one writer, selecting and arranging lines from across that writer’s body of work to create a new and singular homage—one poem drawing swaths of language from many poems.”
But the modern-day cento is more often arranged around a topic or theme, with the centoist mining many sources to find their “patches” and stitch their hybrid quilt. Rani Ruado, a recent graduate of our MFA program at Florida International University, read a cento at an alumni event comprised entirely of song titles. These songs varied by era, composer, and genre, and the audience reacted with palpable delight as familiar titles juxtaposed in unexpected ways—making us sigh, laugh, and even gasp with surprise.
Right now I’m working on a cento comprised entirely of subtitles, which I began idly colleting during the pandemic while viewing, with closed captions on, a broad array of television shows, limited series, and films. I was curious to see how the unspoken aspects of visual media were described and with what degree of neutrality. It turns out subtitles rely on far more evaluative language than I had initially realized. Two of my favorite subtitles I’ve collected so far are “gentle, optimistic music” and “all laugh inanely.”
My students wanted to know about contemporary cento collections, and I had one in mind—The Wolf Centos (Sarabande Books, 2014) by Simone Muench—the book that forged my faith in the cento’s durability nearly a decade before when I read and reviewed it for The Rumpus. Muench draws from 186 sources, spanning antiquity to modernity, crossing genres and disciplines, to create 47 original poems which she both wrote, in one sense, and didn’t write, in another. The quilter, after all, makes the quilt but doesn’t make the patches. I asked my students to consider: how does, or might, our creative process change when we position ourselves as arrangers, rather than composers, of texts?
A few days later, I opened my mailbox to find a copy of Shekhinah Speaks by Joy Ladin, one of the authors who already appears on my hybrid forms syllabus (her The Book of Anna as epistolary hybrid) and whom I had the pleasure of interviewing in 2021. I’m always eager to see what Joy is making next, but Shekhinah Speaks was such a serendipitous arrival I’m tempted to call it a sign.
First, the book as object elicits immediate reverence, a desire to linger on each page and to turn the pages slowly. This is a taller book, a wider book, than the reader expects, with a cover image (“The Prophet II,” David Orr, 2007) that conjures both a book and a flame. I thought of Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” Supple-textured and finely made, Shekhinah Speaks reminded me, as I held it, of the monogrammed Bibles we were given at church on the occasion of our Confirmation—a personalized version of the sacred.
Next comes the TABLE OF CONTENTS, which I encourage my students to study like an atlas. Before the disembodied voice of the GPS instructed us where to turn, we used to pour over maps in order to plan our routes, to visualize the journey ahead of us in concrete terms. Ladin’s map displays a symbolic and symmetrical topography. The itinerary commences with a prologue poem, “Fetus in Distress,” calling us to immediate attention with its charged language and rich sibilance. Beneath that title, three sections are listed—REVELATION, READY, and I DO—each comprised of seven poems and each concluding with a poem that bears the same title as the section itself. That is, the section called REVELATION ends with a poem called “Revelation,” READY with a poem called “Ready,” and I DO” with a poem called “I Do,” creating a notable and visible full-circle effect.
As a child coming of age within the Judeo-Christian tradition, I learned how the numbers three and seven carried special significance in scriptural contexts, bearing the symbolic weight of completion and associated with a certain holy, or godly, precision and design. Here, the title of each section echoed at its conclusion evokes a promise that is made and then delivered upon, in content and in form—evidence of Ladin’s own precision in designing Shekhinah Speaks.
Perhaps most important of all is the third page of front matter: A NOTE ON THE POEMS. “Shekhinah Speaks is an effort to give voice to the Shekhinah, described in mystical Jewish tradition as the immanent, feminine aspect of God who dwells within human beings [...] Tradition imagines the Shekhinah as a passive, mostly silence presence,” but Ladin imagines and embodies in this project “a Shekhinah who never stops talking.” In my margins, I wrote, Persona poetry collection! (I wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t close to capturing the magnitude of Ladin’s project either.)
It’s the third paragraph of the third page where the biggest revelation appears: “The Shekhinah’s words aren’t mine.” (Here I wrote Cento! and may have shouted the word aloud.) Ladin explains: “The language of each poem is sampled from two source texts, one drawn from the Book of Isaiah and the other from Cosmopolitan.” An ancient, religious text—the Book of Isaiah, an important prophet in both Judaism and Christianity—paired with a ubiquitous, secular, contemporary magazine found in every grocery store’s checkout line and every airport’s Hudson News. (Here I wrote in my margin the ultimate juxtaposition.)
Each poem in this 22-poem sequence, which Ladin also informs us is intended to honor the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet (consider again the precision of her design!), bears a double epigraph: the first a verse or short series of verses from the Book of Isaiah and the other a title and date of a recent Cosmopolitan article. Not all centoists are so transparent about their process, let alone so generous in pinpointing for their readers the place on the map where each poem takes off.
Reading this collection, two of the most striking juxtapositions for me are these from “Real True Ghost Story”—“I have put my words in your mouth/and covered you/ with the shadow of my hand...”—Isaiah 51:6 paired with “10 Terrifying Real Ghost Stories to Tell at Your Next Girls’ Night,” Cosmopolitan. October 16, 2018—and these from “Revelation”—“I revealed myself to those who didn’t ask for me”—Isaiah 65:1 paired with “I Posed in a Bikini in Times Square,” Cosmopolitan. July 13, 2018. I’m particularly compelled by what the blending—we could even say hybridizing!—of scriptural discourse with secular discourse can yield. What is possible poetically when the elevated, patriarchal diction and formal, often antiquated syntax of one kind of texts collides—is deliberately collided with—the casual, colloquial style of a pop periodical, this one marketed specifically to women?
Here of a few (seven, to be precise!) answers:
no one to love
your wise and childish,
tender, obsessive, intermittent selves
This is water;
this is darkness;
this is a body
fitting your description.
That’s a crush.
This is an allergic reaction.
This is your anger.
This is mine.
I’m the labyrinth
you feel lost inside. The ghost
who never ghosts you,
whose haunting keeps you alive.
Usually, though, you keep yourself busy,
eating food that makes you hungry,
worrying about money
and what to do with your body,
eager to pay attention
but who you are to me.
You think I come to you for sex?
You’re an angel I make in the snow;
a prayer I offer; a trauma I bear
because you can’t live without me
and I want you to live.
(“Come Let Us Reason Together”)5
To be less like a victim,
less like a crime,
less like a body grabbed at dusk, less
like saying nothing
and more like the face
you think I’m hiding.
Your body is a stream from which I drink,
a hand I hold,
a nipple I lick,
a story I tell over and over,
a Sabbath I keep for pleasure;
a way of being alone;
a way of being together;
my choir, my throne,
my crazy music,
my dog-eared paperback.
In reading and contemplating Ladin’s project, as persona-poet-qua-centoist, I come back to what a creator, a literary artist, can achieve by foregrounding arrangement over composition. One idea that emerges for me in context of Shekinhah Speaks is a slow effacement of that sharp, initial binary between a holy, ancient book and an ordinary, mass-marketed magazine. Religious texts have not done justice to the voices and experiences of women, and yet most women would agree that even the texts sold to them in present day as representative of them fall short of capturing the complexities and contradictions of their subject position. I’ll speak as myself, trusting I am not alone:
I would not turn to the Book of Isaiah or to any issue of Cosmopolitan as an atlas for navigating my own joyously fraught experience of womanhood, of queer womanhood, or of female-embodied personhood. How even to begin to speak of this gendered existence? Both texts would seem to me deeply inadequate. Most texts, in fact, seem deeply inadequate. But Shekinah Speaks achieves the closest consciousness to an “Everywoman” that I have encountered in my reading life. And because of the diametrical nature of the source texts, some deeper chasm of middle ground seems to open between them under Joy Ladin’s impeccable eye. There is some representation present or evoked of “every version [of self],// real and imagined, future and past,/ cypress and desert, queer fluid light,/ thresher of mountains, solitary pine” (from “Ready”). Which is to say, there is something here for every one of you, whoever you are, whatever you are accustomed to reading, and wherever you place yourself on a spectrum of gender, of spirituality, of desire.
Nota bene: The finest patterns always break, and we, pattern-recognition creatures that we are, crave that anomaly when we find it. Ladin helps us find it by telling us at the outset that one poem in Shekhinah Speaks is not a true cento. She identifies “Comfort Animal” as her “one exception,” written before she committed to the cento form, with only some of the textual language drawn from the Book of Isaiah and Cosmopolitan. Though we don’t know where, we do know some of Ladin’s own words appear in this poem. I like to imagine it’s Ladin speaking—and directly to me—in these lines from that sui generis page: “It’s better to be animal than vegetable/ but best of all is to be spirit/ flying first or maybe business class/ with your emotional support animal, your body,/ curled in your lap.”
This book is all flight, no landing. This book is an invitation to view your experience of the world, and your experience of embodiment within it, from a great and panoramic height.
- Here the reader feels the timeless and universal longing to be loved—from the Bible to Cosmo this longing spans—but we hear within it the mash-up of adjectives: all words we use now, but some we did not use then. “Obsessive” and “intermittent” stand out as characterizations of the present, little sprigs from our zeitgeist, by turns obsessive and intermittent in its modes of attention. ↩︎
- Notice how Ladin constructs the first stanza around a simple, elegant, anaphoric “this,” building tension as she arranges the word at the start of successive lines. And when the pattern breaks, so does a certain spell of language. A new spell is cast with “fitting your description,” a contemporary construction we hear often, from rom coms to police procedurals. Now “crush” and “allergic reaction” spark on the page, distinctively current. When we return to the anaphoric “this,” we also return to the timeless universality of anger. ↩︎
- Ladin leans into an elevated, scriptural diction and style here, amplified by the consonant “l” in “labyrinth” and “lost.” Visually, “lost” and “ghost” appear as rhymes, even while sonically they are not. Our centoist knows what she’s doing. Her design is impeccable. Then, this startling enjambment: “The ghost/ who never ghosts you.” Was there ever a more unmistakable marker of our zeitgeist, here in 21st century, text-inundated America than “ghosting”—the person who simply stops responding, disappears into thin air like a ghost? The multi-valence of that word across contexts and millennia is rife for Ladin’s dual commitments to profundity and play. ↩︎
- The rhythms here are expertly crafted, with “busy,” “hungry,” “money,” and “body” rocking the reader like the proverbial lullaby. I’m intrigued especially by how hard these lines are to parse, past from present, formal from casual. They read as a seamless fusion of spiritual and secular concerns. ↩︎
- These stanzas in some ways do the precise opposite of the example that precedes them in my list. The references to “sex” and “trauma” seem to cast a direct line back to Cosmopolitan, while the references to “angel” and “prayer” point toward the Book of Isaiah. And yet, how much of scripture is actually about sex, about trauma—even when these are not the words used? (So much, yes?) And the same with the casual way we might call someone an “angel” who helps us out of a jam or say “prayer” when we mean “thinking of you” or “sending good vibes.” There’s a criss-crossing effect here where what we think we recognize on first pass is immediately complicated, particularly by the magnificent image, “you’re an angel I make in the snow.” Not an angel in the religious sense, and not even an angel in the sense of a helper or a friend who saves the day—this angel is made of temporal matter and disappears when the snow melts or when more snow falls. There’s that play and profundity again, always intertwined in Ladin’s work. Humans, the human women in particular to whom this text is speaking, are always reckoning with what it means to be traceable, makeable, and disappearable entities—pretty and temporary as an “angel in the snow.” ↩︎
- These lines echo the reference to “sex” and “trauma” above. The woman as “victim,” the threat of her “body [being] grabbed at dusk,” feels intrinsically and intensely familiar. Even those of us who don’t read Cosmopolitan regularly—or the Bible, for that matter—recognize the trope of woman as vulnerable to attack. Ladin’s anaphora, weaving “less” and “like” together in elegant repetition, also highlights two other words every woman has inevitably reckoned with. The placement and recurrence of “less” and “like” alongside a conjuring of physical threat is not a coincidence. Nothing in this collection is. ↩︎
- These stanzas are among my heart lines from all of Shekhinah Speaks: they can be read as explicitly homoerotic, with the immanent female presence of Shekhinah addressing the implicit female reader-listener. If Shekhinah dwells within all human beings, as we are told in Ladin’s note on the poems, then a significant portion of those humans are female. This Shekinah licks her nipple, keeps her like a Sabbath for pleasure. This is also Ladin speaking through Shekhinah, I believe, honoring and acknowledging her own queerness as a trans-woman, as a lesbian, and I feel my queerness as a lesbian honored and acknowledged, too. The language is lush, sensual, timeless in places, but culminating in that most contemporary of images—that much-loved book—the “dog-eared paperback.” And what could be a more resonant image than that of a book that has been touched avidly and repeatedly—the lover’s body as beloved text—in this book that evokes another book (Isaiah specifically, Scripture more broadly) and explores the nature of textuality alongside sexuality among its palimpsestual pages. Even the cover of this book is a book! My copy is dog-eared now. I predict yours will be, too. ↩︎
Julie Marie Wade is a member of the creative writing faculty at Florida International University in Miami. A winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, her collections of poetry and prose include Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, Small Fires: Essays, Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems, When I Was Straight, Same-Sexy Marriage: A Novella in Poems, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing, and Skirted. Her collaborative titles include The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose, written with Denise Duhamel, and Telephone: Essays in Two Voices, written with Brenda Miller. Wade makes her home in Dania Beach with her spouse Angie Griffin and their two cats. Her newest projects are Fugue: An Aural History (New Michigan Press, 2023), and Otherwise: Essays (Autumn House, 2023), selected by Lia Purpura for the 2022 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Book Prize.