Dror Burstein's Talk - Encounters with the Lyric Form
You can watch the recording here.
Or read the transcript of the talk here:
The moon is betwixt white and black, meaning it is both white and black. The image is of a thin crescent that seems attached to the disc of the dark, yet faintly illuminated, moon. The moon is in-between two states of being, and also on the verge between the darkness of its own circle and the darkness of the night sky.
Such moon in this poem is seen like a maiden peering through a hole, that is, through a round window: the disc of the faintly illuminated moon is like a round hatch through which a maiden peers, and her gaze emanates from the dark hole and shines through. The intensity of the image is not because of a strong light (as with the full moon) but rather because of the scarcity of light that allows darkness to be seen. This poem is about seeing in the dark, and seeing darkness. This is a major subject of poetry, as there are many kinds of darkness – ethical, psychological, optical, mystical.
The poet perceives a beloved's smile as a rare light in a dark world. This is the simple heart of the image.
The reason we sometimes see the dark disc of the moon is that planet Earth casts light on the moon and illuminates it faintly. This phenomenon is known as "Earthshine". Leonardo understood this at the beginning of the 16th century and depicted it in a drawing.
[Loenardo da Vinci]
The poem should remind us the Biblical Song of Songs, because of the verse "Who is she that looks out like the dawn, fair as the moon" (6:10). However, the transition from the biblical poem, whose units accumulate to a long, narrative and continuous text, emphasize how rare such love is. In Ibn Gabirol's poem, the duration of love is one moment; actually, not even a moment, because the maiden is nothing but an image. He is alone, his only companion is Luna, and she is recoiling, vanishing.
In the second stanza, a surprising grammatical shift takes place: since the young woman occupies our attention, the return of the poem to its first subject, the moon, surprised me. The second stanza describes the moon as having drew its lip back from azure (The word "azure" sometimes means black). The poem creates an expectation that the young woman's description will continue: we expect it to say, "She drew her lip", but the poem returns to the moon and thus makes us transfer our erotic fascination to the moon, to stay with the moon, and observe it as if it was our beloved. The moon is male, and the poem seems to enjoy loving both genders in one small poem.
The image in the second stanza is of one lip facing two lips: The poet's earthly lips facing a thin lip of light in the sky. At first, I thought the poem was describing an outward extension of the moon's lip. The word HOTSEE, ejected, is deliberately misleading. However, the image in the second part of the stanza clarifies that the moon draws its lip backwards, out of the world and into a realm that lies even beyond the darkness of the night.
When we see the crescent and the maiden, they are already retreating into obscurity, above and beyond darkness. Most of the poem happens there, in that unfathomable abyss. The black hole almost swallowed up the beloved. This is why only one of her lips is visible. She is smiling a farewell smile.
The moon withdraws its lip backwards, away from the poet. Luna, perhaps Anima, is already retreating. In Hebrew, SAFA, "lip" in English, means also language. This ambiguity is lost in translation. The original poem ends as soon as the moon moves away from the poet's language, that is, from the range of his poetic speech, not only from the range of his kisses.
The moonlight does not change between the first and second parts of the poem: what changes is the heart, which for a moment felt that it can kiss and speak, but then realized this was not possible.
This little poem, which is surely one of the simplest of Ibn Gabirol's, is a profound remark on the essence of poetry, on the poetic moment and on the condition of the poet. This moon is also an example for anything in the world. This poem depicts the fundamental feature of the poetic encounter, which is always no more than a glimpse. This poem describes the poetic condition as one that involves an illusion of touching, an illusion of merging.
Nature reveals herself to us only in hints. Apparently, she seems to extend her kissing lips towards us from everywhere, but she always recoils. As Heraclitus said, "Nature loves to hide".
Poetry is all about peering at what peers at us. Nature just peers – now as a bee tucked in a flower, now as a birdsong on a tree on a cold morning, now as a tail of a jackal on a street in Tel Aviv.
Each phenomenon appears to you in part, as a crescent and not as a full moon; After all, even what we call a "full moon" is nothing but half the visible moon, the side facing Earth. Moreover, the connections between the phenomena – between the bees, the flower, the bird, the cold, the tree, the jackal – are even more hidden. We really see almost nothing. That is why the image of a thin crescent in the dark is so adequate for a poetic mind. The verse from The Book of Job (4:12), "Now a thing was secretly brought to me, and mine ear received a little thereof" should be a motto for all poets.
Not only the moon is "betwixt white and black"; our consciousness is like that as well. Ibn Gabirol notices the young woman's gaze because he knows that his own mind shines like her. He saw his own condition up there. Through the dark hole in the sky, he found a correlative to his own consciousness.
"As if recoiling from your lips". Let us return to the heart of this poetic image: This poem describes a failed attempt to kiss the moonlight. The poet's lips that tried, in vain, to kiss the moonlight are now uttering a poem about the moonlight.
One might think of it as a failure, but not necessarily. If we see language as a natural process not different from moonlight, we can see that this poem is light transformed. Let me quote David Hinton on his 2019 book Awakened Cosmos, a book on Chinese poetry: Language to the Chinese poets "was seen as integral to the empirical, part of Tao's generative movement".
We might say that poetry is a transformation into language of natural processes and energies such as moon and moonlight. Language is, too, a natural process, and therefore poetry is humanity's best attempt to weave itself into this complex field of processes and energies we call the world.