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Marc Chagall’s Poems

Marc Chagall’s poems are better than his painting.s

Even his paintings are better poems than they are paintings;

more pictographic/poetic to look at—

His own face half cow; martyrs of his village nailed to steeples.

When he visited Yad Vashem and wrote,

"I have been to the new temple,"

he ended my search for the red heifer’s ashes.

Now I’ll let the ashes in the basement

settle on the altar, show the fingerprints,

swirl into the breath of the sanctuary.

-Arthur Joseph Kushner

Someone asked, "What does Arthur’s poem about Chagall mean?" I gave that some thought because I really like that poem.

The meaning of a poem for me originates as beauty of form.

In terms of form, I like the repetitions of words and phrases in the first two lines. It creates a music like the music of verses in the Bible. That music serves as a hook to draw me in. I also like the repetition of the short "a" sound which is picked up in the word ashes at the end of the poem after having been repeated in other words throughout (than, pictographic, at, half, sanctuary, and, if I am pronouncing it correctly, Yad Vashem.)

The poem widens after the first two lines like a river broadening and the elements tying the form together become more broadly spaced and subtle. In addition to sound repetitions there is a repeated naming of related objects—steeples, temple, and sanctuary; cow and heifer, and the contrast of steeples with basement. The development of the thought expressed in the poem, and its evocative images, that seem to glide into each other like shapes in smoke or like lovers flying toward each other through the air, are stimulating and make me want to read the poem over and deepen my understanding of it.

In terms of meaning, I was puzzled but enticed by the ceremonial feeling of the images, which conjure a temple and sacrifice, breath and ash. I went to Google to look up the references, which were unfamiliar to me, red heifers and Yad Vashem, and hit right away.

The red heifer is a sign mentioned in the Book of Numbers (XIX: 2-7). Should the birth of a red heifer occur, this is thought by some rabbis to signify it is time to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. The heifer is then to be offered as a sacrifice for an ancient Jewish purification ritual, which is meaningful for those who take their Judaism with a dash of animal sacrifice on the side. I have read that meanwhile there are certain Christians in Texas who have managed to breed a red heifer. They believe that if they can get the Jews to build the temple, Christ will return and give the good people tickets to heaven while giving the rest of us third degree burns over ninety percent of our bodies. Yad Vashem is the complex built on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem to memorialize the generations consumed in the holocaust. (See www.yadvashem.org.) It is surrounded by trees and walkways, has an archive relating to those lost in the holocaust, and includes an art museum as a tribute to survival of the human spirit.

In my searches I found a copy of a poem Chagall wrote which is on the wall of Yad Vashem. If we could get a link to a copy of that poem, or permission to post it on this website, it would help illuminate Arthur’s text. Having read it, I have no question as to Chagall’s artistry as a poet. I may disagree with the line:

Marc Chagall's poems are better than his paintings.

But it does represent an arguable judgment.

In addition, I read it as a statement made in the prophetic voice, like a proclamation by Blake or Isaiah or Walt Whitman or Yeats or Allen Ginsberg, anchoring the line in a poetic tradition that has Biblical and even pre-Biblical roots, a tradition that is alive today in Native American rhetoric with which Arthur would have been familiar. In this tradition the poet is a seer or a judge, a figure whose utterance has shamanic potency to bring reality into being, and in which the naming of things is a summoning. I don’t think Arthur took himself over-seriously as a prophet, but was willing to don that role despite an ironic distance from its grandiose connotations.

Perhaps, too, Arthur has made this unqualified assertion as a poetic condensation of a more complex perception, to shock or stimulate us to a fresh way of seeing by its boldness. His view of the relative worth of Chagall's poetry as opposed to Chagall’s paintings may have been more complex than could be confined into in this single line. It might not have been his final or only way of viewing Chagall’s significance.

Even his paintings are better poems than they are paintings;

Look up Marc Chagall in Google or look up titles relating to him at Amazon and over and over you will see references to the poetic quality of his paintings. He was friends with poets, did illustrations for poetry, and in an inundation of web search results I spotted a collection of French translations of his own poetry going back to the Thirties (it sank in the flood and I can’t seem to locate it again.) Another book leaps out as evidence of the connection between his painting and poetry: Marc Chagall 1887-1985: Paintings as Poetry by Ingo F. Walther. Arthur's statements up to this point are obvious evocations of the nature of Marc Chagall’s work.

more pictographic/poetic to look at—

Hebrew letters, like Chinese letters, represent pictures, even though they are used alphabetically to spell out sounds rather than as ideograms. (Shin is tooth; I believe Aleph is an ox, etc.) In Biblical or Torah study great attention has been given to images, parables, specific words, the letters they are composed of, and their numerological permutations. The relationship between separate elements on several scales and dimensions at once creates the total meaning through rich cross-references of association similar to those between the ideograms on a Chinese page. Chagall's work is deeply shaped by this aspect of Jewish thought, and his paintings often depict separate groupings of people animals or things that suggest little episodes, which generate additional meaning by their juxtapositions. His work also tends toward illustration, and much of it has been direct illustration. His fantasy images function as symbol and metaphor, and combined within a painting can convey a cumulative impact in a manner similar to that of a collection of pictograms into a Chinese word (see the explication of Tai Chi preceding "Pinwheels" in Stroking the Sparrow’s Tail) or of words into a line of poetry. The line in Arthur's poem is an almost literal description of the quality of Chagall's painting style. The diagonal slash in the line suggests the diagonal division of a famous painting evoked by the line:

his own face half cow; martyrs of his village nailed to steeples.

This is either a literal description of images in specific Chagall paintings or else such an accurate evocation of his style that it could be. Chagall's brow and nose in profile certainly give basis of comparison of his face with a cow.

By now we begin to sense an underlying sequence of symbolic images in the poem. Chagall's poetry and writing more directly than his paintings state his concerns as a Jew in Twentieth Century history and in relation to the holocaust and the creation of Israel. Chagall as cow/sacrifice against a background of martyred villagers is suggestive of Chagall's relationship to the martyred artists in his poem "To the Martyred Artists" on the wall at Yad Vashem.

Chagall can be taken as implicitly an image of Arthur. Each was a humanist of universal culture and at the same time a Jew steeped in and a product of specifically Hebrew culture with its present historical concerns, struggling to express those concerns. (Chagall even lived in a primitive Ulster County farmhouse for a time, as did Arthur.)

Both evoke the cow as an ancient image of sacrificial animal and at the same time central object of agriculture at the dawn of civilization in pre-Biblical times, as well as of prosperity in any agrarian setting whether an Ulster County farm, a Russian stetl, or a village in ancient or modern Palestine. Both link us across histories and nations through use of such universally familiar objects, which are also central to the style of Biblical and pre-Biblical Middle Eastern literature. Both share a rootedness in that tradition.

When he visited Yad Vashem and wrote,

"I have been to the new temple,"

he ended my search for the red heifer's ashes.

The heifer is to be slaughtered and burned, and its ashes used in a paste to sanctify Jews who would enter the temple site to rebuild. In present day Jerusalem, many Muslims might view such a ritual as a territorial encroachment on their own religious certainties.

However, if Chagall can convince us that Yad Vashem is the new temple, representing not just the sacrifice but also the strength of the human spirit, there is no need for a further rebuilding. We can accept the sacrifices that have been because we can accept the transcendence of them and there can be peace. The people have been the red heifer. The archives of Yad Vashem are as the ashes of sacrifice.

Now I'll let the ashes in the basement

settle on the altar, show the fingerprints,

swirl into the breath of the sanctuary.

Profoundly grieving, surrendering and benedictory, the poem closes with the choice to accept the ashes in the basement as sufficient sacrifice. The question of what is sufficient sacrifice is a central one in both Jewish and Christian religions, and is frequently answered in different ways. We can see it posited in the stories of Abraham and Isaac, and of Jesus.

There are always those who in order to make sacrifice sufficient, end up fomenting the next war, pogrom, genocide, jihad, crusade, or whatever else in their scheme is necessary to create conditions for perfecting the world so that God 's peace can descend and they can get rid of their neighbors. But always there are those who instead turn from fomenting war without, and embrace sacrifice within, to create the center of peace within, to make the center strong, transcendent, expressing an entirely different set of values utilizing the themes of the same religions.

It's a very radical poem.

Again, my purpose in proposing this interpretation is not to dominate but to enrich how someone else might experience the poem. It is also not to prove the poem’s worth, which is a matter of taste, not of reason.