rose, the wily thistle by Sebastian Schulman (found in “The Song of Songs: A New Translation,” trans. By Chana Bloch with Ariel Bloch)
The Song of Songs—shir hashirim in the original Hebrew—is one of the most compelling and mystifying religious texts in the Jewish tradition. Traditionally attributed to King Solomon, the text is suffused with heterosexual erotic imagery depicting the courtship and physical encounter of two unmarried lovers. Seeking to neutralize its sensual charge and quiet its apparent improprieties, theologians have traditionally explained the text as an allegory for the close relationship between God and the Jewish People or, in later Christian sources, between Christ and the Church. Yet despite centuries of pious rationalizations, the Song’s contradictions and sensuality endure, inviting artists, scholars, and everyday readers to interpret it anew in every generation.
Entitled “rose, the wily thistle,” the piece published here is a found poem carved from a section of Chana and Ariel Bloch’s 1995 translation of The Song of Songs. Dispensing quickly with the usual allusions, in this adaption I transform the text from a sacred script of idealized, straight romance to a brash and graphic description of homoerotic sex. The form of found poetry, here presented with thick black lines like a page from a classified government document, underscores the subversive yet precarious and hidden yet ubiquitous nature of so many queer encounters, especially in a religious context.
The poem was written at the KlezKanada Poetry Retreat led by Canadian poet and performance artist Adeena Karasick. The retreat is part of the larger KlezKanada festival that takes place for a week every summer, an event that celebrates the transmission and innovation of Yiddish and Jewish arts, culture, and music in a radically inclusive community of all sorts—religious and secular, Jewish and non-Jewish, young and old, queer and straight.
The literary constraint of found poetry is particularly attractive to me for the way it complicates the usual relationship of author to text. One might even say that it queers this relationship. Especially given that the “original” from which I derive my new poem is itself a translation, there is no clear claim that can be made as to who is playing the usual, traditional roles of poet, writer, or adaptor. The found poem exists as a kind of interstitial text. Like a literary translation, it is simultaneously an independent creative work, but one that exists only in relation to another unseen piece of art. At once an act of erasure and creation, the form of found poem allows me to plunge into mishmash of poetry, translation, sexuality, and religion and revel in all their wonderful and messy ambiguities.
Sebastian Schulman is the Executive Director of KlezKanada, an organization based in Montreal devoted to Yiddish and Jewish arts, culture, music and literature. His writing and translations from Yiddish and Esperanto have appeared in Words Without Borders, Tupelo Quarterly, Forward, and elsewhere. His translation of Spomenka Stimec’s Esperanto-language novel Croatian War Nocturnal was published by Phoneme Media in 2017.
Original artwork by Michael Welsh.