LYRIC PERFORMANCES Zohar Atkins “Protest”

No sooner do I say / ‘Let there be light’/ Then a horde of angels arrives / With their signs.// ‘No more oppression of darkness!’ / ‘Stop occupying out empty wild.’ / ‘Down with the visible!’/ ‘God Should Know Better Than to Speak.’// Even the walls of my hotel lobby seem / To sing out against me. / But then I remember, I’m God. / Soon the angel will want to go home. // In the end, nobody will remember how they / Held hands, soaring together, like a school / Into the tear-dusk firmament./ How they laid their celestial torsos down in a row // To prove my world a desecration./ Nobody will hear their words of lament, / ‘Holy, holy, holy,‘ as anything/ But praise.

FRAME OF REFERENCE If you and I are to live religious lives, it mustn’t be that we talk a lot about religion, but that our manner of life is different. Wittgenstein. Quoted by Peter Tyler, THE RETURN TO THE MYSTICAL (Continuum, 2017), 227.

What I like to call Wittgenstein’s itinerary— saying, showing, acting— goes way beyond the normal academic path of research and understanding. It is lifted from Peter Tyler’s book on mysticism. As hermeneutic, it shakes things up.

Zohar Atkins is an American educated at Brown and Oxford and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Michael Schmidt, the editor of NEW POETRIES 7: an anthology has included some of his poems in his canon-building anthology. I’m very glad he did. I could easily have never read him otherwise.

“Protest” is a marvelous lyric. It fulfills the lyric narrative and then some. In its ludic qualities it enacts a profound meditation. In the manner of midrash it reconfigures a key moment in sacred history, that is the very beginning. But in the Western tradition, the tradition supplying key elements to our poetic consciousness, this moment has slipped out of philosophic awareness. Leave it to an American rabbi to bring it to life again.

Atkins does this with impeccable skill. He begins, well, at the beginning. Or just before. After that everything goes downhill. As is the way of lyric, equivocation is the first step. Plays-on-words like with their signs. How neatly that makes visible the confusion of angels!

The second stanza is a chaotic chorus. Angels scream protests. “Let God be God” could not be further from their minds.

The lyric turns inward— well of course it does. God’s mind clears. Reality sets in. The angels tire. Fatigue. Boredom. He can wait it out. Signs notwithstanding. “In the end” oblivion will set in, the happenings of the original fiat fade from angelic memory. The fourth stanza performs more, well, lyrically. It is after all saturated in vision and loss. For a while we enjoy the poetry.

Dialectics take their toll. Between the realities of now and then there is no contest. We are in the abyss, or facing it: nobody will remember. But the poem is not over. Following Wittgenstein’s path of understanding, we’ve become aware of the equivocities of saying and the dialectics of showing. What’s left is acting.

How does the lyric narrative do “action”? It exhausts the other senses. Atkin’s God faces the unspeakable: the angels rejected the sacred nature of God’s world. This can’t be, cant stand, one must do something!

The voice of the lyric emerges from the chaos as the paradoxical truth. This truth is a reading of appearances. Contradiction at the very moment of origin. It is a truth laid out with the coolest of grammars. Subject: nobody. Verb: will hear. What? Their words of lament. Lament? This double saying/hearing, basic toolkit of lyric, reconfigures angelic speech — holy, holy, holy — as something other than praise.

Key word at this stage of the lyric: as. That’s the word signaling the appearance in all its asymmetric glory of the Ana-logy. Analogy. Word of lament:holy::praise:X.

So just what do we do when we raise our voice in praise? Isn’t that the most bottomless question about lyric?

Atkin’s lyric midrash is an act, is action. It goes beyond words to a change in aspect. Before this, we believed X. Now we understand. An act of understanding. Nothing, mind you, we can put in words. In the final analysis, the word is the deed.

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.

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