LYRIC COMPANION Judah Al-Harizi “The Lute”

Look: the lute sounds in the girl’s arms, / delighting the heart with its beautiful voice. // Like a baby crying in his mother’s arms, / while she sings and laughs as he cries.

from A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS, edited by Czeslaw Milosz.

FRAME OF REFERENCE. Under the sign of cultural determination the artist might strive to be the master of the otherness. If so, something is already out of kilter. Then already there is a defection of the wooing of the secret source of creativity, which is not self-determining. Out of the secret source a relative form of self-determining can emerge, but as relative it is always and already in relation to what is other than it can define through its own self-determination alone. When the artist thinks only of himself as self-creative, he has ceased to appreciate what he is as the secret benefactor of the enigmatic otherness. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, p. 68.

Readers of this column will recognize the build of this short poem. It flows. It moves through a maze to end with a resonant image breaking the mold of thought thinking itself. The rationalistic trope recognizes the mind of the poet. Al- Hariz (1170-1235) was a rationalist, a poet-scholar-translator-traveler through southern Spain (Andalusia) and beyond. He translated Maimonides. He specialized in adapting Hebrew to secular attire. Using an Arabic form, he wrote in Hebrew about Hebrew culture in the lands he visited, paying special attention to the Andalusian Hebrew poets.

Milosz, himself something of a wandering scholar poet, included three short songs in his anthology. They are concise, vivid, formulaic, and contain the shock of otherness that is the hallmark of lyric.

He uses the formulaic “look!”: think Beowulf‘s Hwaet, and how it echoes as the image unfolds. The world is full of fascinating sights and sounds. A sort of delectable chaos.

Behold! A lute! See it nestled in the arms of the beautiful girl! Look closer, listen to the way the song expresses the longings of the girl. Her baby sobs; she sings and laughs.

This image of the finite other, the irreducible complexity of aesthetic response to what the girl is feeling and doing, has the sign of phenomenological mindfulness about it. As in the greatest of lyrics, here the selfhood of the poem is doubled in its consciousness of being in the between of the living moment.

So much in so little, the song transcends its art if you will to witness “the enigmatic otherness,” the more of life itself. Clearly deserving the epithet luminous.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: