Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Women Poets, Part I: How I Got the Story (or didn't quite)

One of the things I envisioned being able to do in this space is to give a bit of the background into my thought process and describe and analyze things I find interesting in my research but that ultimately fall outside the scope of what is publishable or published. So here goes:

I have just had an article rejected by Vetus Testamentum. It's a straight biblical studies journal, one of the best in fact, and since biblical literature or history is not remotely close to my field of study (although of course it has implications for it and it was really useful for me to have gotten a good grounding in it in graduate school) I'm okay with the outcome. It would have been a nice-to-have kind of thing if it had worked out, but I'm not so invested in the text or the idea that I'm going to bother continuing to work on it in the interest of having it appear in print elsewhere.

But this post isn't really about the rejection. It's more about the medieval poem that brought me to thinking about the biblical text in the way that I was. My article was entirely about the biblical text (the argument, more or less, was that the representation of Deborah in the Masoretic Text is an amalgam of pre-biblical types of diviners) but it began its life as a a graduate school seminar paper on an aspect of the book of Judges that I had arrived at because of my reading of medieval poetry. What follows here was my original introduction to the paper. It would always have been too far afield to have been included in a published version of the article, and it is also not a topic I intend to return to developing more fully in this form. Even though I do have an article on the Mrs. Dunash poem in the works, this particular interpretation — that the poet becomes Deborah only in the interpretation of later readers, in much the same way that the biblical Deborah really only became Deborah through later interpretation and editing — is too closely tied to my argument about the biblical text to stand alone, and does not coincide at all with the way I am choosing to interpret the poem on its own. Furthermore, as much as I think it's a huge milestone to be able to look back at something I wrote over three years ago and not cringe and even be kind of pleased with it, my modes and methods of thinking about text have evolved pretty substantially since then (see the added footnote below that wasn't original to the text). But I became rather fond of this introduction, and of the small contribution to its interpretation that I was able to make by pointing out that the poet envisions herself as the Shulamite, not as Deborah; and so I was loathe to consign it to some electronic Genizah, never to be seen again.

There will be a part II to this exposition of the story behind the ultimate academic production, specifically concerned with the identity politics of being a woman academic writing about women in a non-gender-studies framework. (It'll be more abstract that it would have been if the article had been accepted for publication, but it's still something worth thinking through.) But for now, here goes. This is what drew me to write about Deborah to begin with. What follows was the original interdisciplinary introduction to the paper:

Among the more unwitting literary descendants of the biblical poet-prophets is a 10th-century C.E. Iberian woman known to history only as the wife of her husband: ’îštô šel Dûnăš, thought to have been the wife of Dunash ben Labraṭ, an Arabic-speaking Berber Jew who himself fathered the movement to stand Hebrew poetry upon Arabic metrical feet.[1] Because authorship of a single four-line poem conserved in two witnesses in the Cairo Genizah[2] is attributed to her, modern scholarship makes her to bear the heavy yoke of “the first identifiable woman poet in the Hebrew language since the biblical poetesses Miriam and Deborah.”[3] But in more than one way she is graceless in her assumption of that mantle.
First, her poem is perhaps more important as a historical record than as a literary triumph. It hints at the reasons for Dunash’s flight from Iberia through its allusions to a conflict between the poet’s husband and the courtier Ḥasdai ibn Shapruṭ and provides a window onto some of the domestic realities of the time and place. But as one among the first Hebrew poems written in the new arabizing Andalusi style, it falls short of what would quickly become the high standards of the form; within a century, the finest Hebrew poets would ply their trade as skillfully as their Arabic-language counterparts. At this early date, though, the meter still falters and the diction is repetitive. But she is, without a doubt, a poet as she writes:

Will her love remember his graceful doe,
     her only son in her arms as he parted?
On her left hand he placed a ring from his right,
     on his wrist she placed her bracelet.
As a keepsake she took his mantle from him,
     and he in turn took hers from her.
Would he settle, now, in the land of Spain,
     if its prince gave him half his kingdom?[4]

It is not only feminist critics like the above-cited Tova Rosen who exclaim “Deborah!” upon reading this poem. Even a more staid and descriptive account of the poem, one without an explicit theoretical agenda, contains a punctuated measure of excitement at this bridging of a multi-generational gap: “Mrs. Dunash was apparently a Hebrew poetess, the first since the days of the prophetess Deborah!”[5] But both ends of the scholarly spectrum, from the traditional to the feminist-revisionist, fail equally to note that îštô šel Dûnăš did not cast herself in the mold of ’ēšet Lapîdôt. And so second and more critically, Dunash’s wife fails to fulfill the role of Deborah simply because she did not envision herself in those terms; she has become a latter-day Deborah, an inheritor of that literary tradition, entirely at the hands of the moderns.[6] *
One of the remarkable traits of this poet is that she was educated enough to cite the biblical text in her work. That few women were so trained goes (only!) part of the way to explaining the dearth of women poets writing in Hebrew; quoting the Hebrew Bible in poetry was de rigueur in a way that citing Scripture in Arabic poetry is not.[7] She could, though; and she put her knowledge toward painting a picture of her literary self not as Deborah but as the Shulamite, drawing upon the Song of Songs in three of the four lines of her poem.[8] She does not proclaim victory, dedicate herself to the Lord or pretend to lead or speak for her nation. Instead, she aspires to be remembered by her departing husband just as the Shulamite is inscribed on the arm and heart of her lover.
Just as a medievalist’s reading of Bocaccio might be informed equally by grappling with the works of Dante, who preceded him, as with those of Jorge Luis Borges, his literary heir,[9] one perhaps better understands the song of ’ēšet Lapîdôt for having read the poem of îštô šel Dûnăš. It is this historiography — modern medievalist scholarship’s overeager thrusting of Deborah into a certain critical light — that, perhaps more than anything else, informed the direction in which I ultimately read Deborah’s own history and song, namely the text of Judges 4-5: In the body of medieval poetry, one can see Deborah and read through her as a cipher only until peering into the depths of the poem. But it seems not to be an unfair legacy for the ancient woman who, as I will argue in these pages, is so profoundly not at the heart of the standard that later redactors and lectors have made her to bear. It is precisely in the gaps where the ineffable truest identity of Dunash’s wife does not lie flush against the one we as modern readers would wish her to embody that we can glance at the traces, the beloved ruins, of an earlier Deborah.

[1] I say “more unwitting” because there were certainly those poets who gladly embraced the identity of their biblical counterparts. Most notable among these is Ismā’il ibn Naġrila — Shemuel ha-Nagid — who famously proclaimed from within his poem The War with Yadayyir (The Dream of the Poem, trans. Peter Cole, 52): “I am the David of my age!”
[2] A high-resolution photograph of the complete fragment (TS-NS 143.46) may be found at the Cambridge University Library’s Genizah research unit web site: The accession numbers for the two halves of the incomplete fragment, also housed at Cambridge, are Mosseiri VIII.202 and Mosseiri VIII.387.
[3] Tova Rosen. Unveiling Eve: Reading Gender in Medieval Hebrew Literature  (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 2.
[4] Trans. Peter Cole, p. 27.
[5] Genizah Fragments, The exclamation point is original.
[6] That there is near but not total unanimity of opinion that the author of the poem was even a woman at all only serves to underscore the way in which the poet has been used the service of the modern imagination.
[7] And we do, in fact, find women (both Jewish and not) who wrote poetry in Arabic. See: Abdulla al-Udhari. Classical Poems by Arab Women. London: Saqi Books, 1999; Mahmud Sobh. Poetisas arábigo-andaluzas. Granada: Biblioteca de Ensayo, 1994; and Teresa Garulo. Diwan de las poetisas de al-Andalus. Madrid: Hiperión, 1986. The medieval Arabic literary critic Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyuṭī (d. 1505) also edited a treatise on and anthology of Arabic-language women poets: Nuzhāt al-Julasā’, ed. ‘Abd al-Latif al-Ashur. Cairo: Maktabat al-Qur’ān, 1986.
[8] Line 2 quotes from Cant. 8:6, line 3 from Cant. 5:7, and line 4 from Cant. 8:6-7.
[9] María Rosa Menocal. Writing in Dante’s Cult of Truth: From Borges to Bocaccio. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.  

*I'm adding a footnote here that was not original to this text as I wrote it just to stipulate that if I were going to expand it from long-form notes into something for publication, I would naturally develop my thoughts about the extent to which a medievalist is or is not obligated to understand text and circumstance as her medieval reader did or might have.


  1. Interesting! I'd be curious to see how the original Hebrew for the excerpt reads. There's a blank box next to the English text -- is there supposed to be something in there?

  2. Argh! (And welcome to the 21st century, where we still apparently can't consistently display non-Latin fonts correctly on the internet...Yes, the poem was supposed to be there...) I'll see if I can get that fixed; in the meantime, Princeton UP published online all the poems that are translated in that volume:
    So there's that. Also, I think that one of the Taylor-Schechter pages I linked to gives photos of the fragment if you want to have a look in MS form. (Well, it gives the photos even if you don't want to, but you know what I mean...)