In a previous post, I offered an explanation of Christian “Midrash,” if it’s appropriate for a non-Jewish person to even use that term. In that post, I quoted Marjorie Sandor, who described the midrashic process of exploring a text in this way: “the midrashist would locate a gap, an entrance point, and dive down, metaphorically speaking, expanding the brief episode from within, giving voice to the submerged characters and complexities brimming beneath the unforthcoming surface of a biblical episode…at the heart of this exercise in interpretation, in its original incarnation, was the desire to deepen the connections between the ancient biblical text and the urgent concerns of the midrashist’s own historical moment.”
At Saint Stephen’s, we regularly use poems as a kind of midrash, and we have a wonderful group of dedicated poem-pickers who are, maybe without expressing their work in this way, wonderful midrashists. My friend Susan Neale is one such person, and when she sends me her poem, she usually sends a lovely explanation for why she picked it as well. I asked her if I could publish her comments on this week’s poem, and she gave me permission. Susan writes:
“On My Own” by Philip Levine is one of my favorite poems. It’s perfect for Transfiguration Sunday. So let me say this: I love the Transfiguration in all of its mystery and good storytelling. Peter, James, his brother—how old were they, anyway? Can you imagine their wonderment/excitement when their buddy Jesus takes them up a mountain at night and starts to glow and then two of their superhero legends show up to talk to Jesus? It’s such a Clark Kent moment, the suit jacket ripped open to reveal: Jesus is a superhero too!
Peter tries to come across as rational. Proposes to build a house for everybody, which is preposterous, like you could really put God in a box. A house? Do these guys look like they need, of all things, houses? But Peter thinks he is doing the right thing. Then along comes the super-huge roiling talking GOD CLOUD and Peter just gives up pretending like he can handle this and with the others falls on the dirt and rolls around going, OMG WHAT IS GOING ON??? in terror.
After which, Jesus comes and finds him.
What does he say?
Basically, hey, it’s ok buddy, and can we just not tell the others about this? Because maybe they would be too scared too, and then I won’t be able to get my work done. That’s such a beautiful moment, Jesus being humble and down to earth and comforting. Trusting his friends with the truth, but feeling for them because they were really, really scared.
Afterwards, Jesus might joke with Peter in a tavern, you know, after he’d stopped puking with fear and had a glass of wine and was feeling all right. “So you think you can build me a house? who’s the carpenter here?” something like that.
Peter was trying to put Jesus and Moses and Elijah in boxes (Like you would the torah of course) trying to build temples for them when they cannot be contained. We try to contain what we cannot understand, and it doesn’t let us.
On My Own
by Philip Levine
Yes, I only got here on my own.
Nothing miraculous. An old woman
opened her door expecting the milk,
and there I was, seven years old, with
a bulging suitcase of wet cardboard
and my hair plastered down and stiff
in the cold. She didn’t say, “Come in,”
she didn’t say anything. Her luck
has always been bad, so she stood
to one side and let me pass, trailing
the unmistakable aroma of badger
which she mistook for my underwear,
and so she looked upward, not
to heaven but to the cracked ceiling
her husband had promised to mend,
and she sighed for the first time
in my life that sigh which would tell
me what was for dinner. I found my room
and spread my things on the sagging bed:
and bright ties and candy striped shirts,
the knife to cut bread, the stuffed weasel
to guard the window, the silver spoon
to turn my tea, the pack of cigarettes
for the life ahead, and at last
the little collection of worn-out books
from which I would choose my only name—
Morgan the Pirate, Jack Dempsey, the Prince
of Wales. I chose Abraham Plain
and went off to school wearing a cap
that said “Ford” in the right script.
The teachers were soft-spoken women
smelling like washed babies and the students
fierce as lost dogs, but they all hushed
in wonder when I named the 400 angels
of death, the planets sighted and unsighted,
the moment at which creation would turn
to burned feathers and blow every which way
in the winds of shock. I sat down
and the room grew quiet and warm. My eyes
asked me to close them. I did, and so
I discovered the beauty of sleep and that
to get ahead I need only say I was there,
and everything would open as the darkness
in my silent head opened onto seascapes
at the other end of the world, waves
breaking into mountains of froth, the sand
running back to become salt savor
of the infinite. Mrs. Tarbox woke me
for lunch—a tiny container of milk
and chocolate cookies in the shape of Michigan.
Of course I went home at 3:30, with
the bells ringing behind me and four stars
in my notebook and drinking companions
on each arm. If you had been there
in your yellow harness and bright hat
directing traffic you would never
have noticed me—my clothes shabby
and my eyes bright—; to you I’d have been
just an ordinary kid. Sure, now you
know, now it’s obvious, what with the light
of the Lord streaming through the nine
windows of my soul and the music of rain
following in my wake and the ordinary air
on fire every blessed day I waken the world.