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“Remember, No Matter Where You Are, You Are Never Safe.”

December 30, 2021
Written by Consequence Forum

Prophecy and History in Aviya Kushner’s Wolf Lamb Bomb
By Peter Brown

 

Image: Aviya Kushner

 

Prophecy and History in Aviya Kushner’s Wolf Lamb Bomb
By Peter Brown

 

Wolf Lamb Bomb, by Aviya Kushner, reminds me of my Jewish friend’s warning to her young daughter: “Remember, no matter where you are, you are never safe.” This dread runs like an emotional third rail through the heart of this masterful first book of poems. Kushner grew up speaking Hebrew in an Orthodox family in Monsey, New York and her engagement with The Book of Isaiah in Wolf Lamb Bomb is fierce, fueled by obsession with prophecy and the horrors of history. While the book does not focus on the Holocaust or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict per se, these tragedies shadow its obsessions, which are collective and individual destiny and a mythical enemy, the ever-present Assyria, who “never dies, just returns in disguise.” Is there an end to genocide, exile, and war? What do you tell your children? Would you want Isaiah to do the explaining? Kushner’s text wants to know how to live with an ancient, ever-present menace and whether Jewish history must always be formulated this way. 

 

Kushner’s intimacy with The Book of Isaiah is the key element of her collection. She seems to know the text as well as she does the sound of her own breathing, and her deep love of the verses permeates her dismay and her wish to evade their claim on her. In Wolf Lamb Bomb, she encounters the prophet in many forms: in a traumatized stranger she meets in Iowa, in an old man who desires her, in a Jerusalem bombing she witnesses, where the attack brings a terrible self-recognition:

     An old woman wailing, insane at the end
     Wild in her anger at God, at the holy city.

 

Her poems take on the prophecies—the cycle of fury, witness, solace—and become a form of prophecy themselves, messing with the registers we expect of biblical utterance:

     I’m gonna thank you one day because you got angry
     At me. I’m gonna crawl back now

     

     Or: 

     Oh man, let me be—
     I want to weep, I want to take
     my high-heeled sandals off and walk
     in the desert

Kushner often wonders about the poetics of prophecy, how we distinguish a prophet from a “crooner” on a stage, placing herself in “the light of an audience, the light of the world.” Carnality, atrocity, and song intermingle throughout what she and Isaiah share:

 

     Was the night of pleasure you sing
     about the one of darkness and explosions,
     of bodies incinerated to bits, to heads
     and rolling parts, the most public 
     of humiliations, the quivering dead tongues

 

Here and elsewhere, as in Isaiah, the prophetic cycle repeats at an often dizzying speed, a whirlwind where God’s love, the horror of His fury, and His redemption are as good as simultaneous.

Sometimes the pace slows down. In New York after 9/11, Kushner reminds us of an exquisite aftermath:

 

     how quiet it was on the highways,
     how drivers let other pass,
     how even the Hudson seemed to mourn,
     and how we began to be thankful […]
     and how the smoke was followed 
     by a mild winter,
     and how everything seems more
     beautiful, I suppose,
     and temporary after the sword, after the worst.

 

But like Isaiah’s, the solace Kushner evokes only follows from the horror that proceeds it. Like Isaiah’s it is cyclical, temporary in nature. She wishes otherwise, of course, and we recognize wishful thinking when she implores the prophet:

 

     Speak to Jerusalem tenderly, speak to her heart,
     tell her quietly that it’s over—
     that she’s suffered doubly for all her sins. 


That the words “Palestinian,” “Gaza,” and “West Bank” appear nowhere in the book risks reducing modern Palestine to the role of “Assyria,” Israel’s mythical enemy, as if the Palestinians had no projects of their own.  But to justly consider the rage and suffering of Israel’s most intimate, contemporary enemy might have distorted Kushner’s book beyond recognition. This omission, which had to have been a tough decision to make, is only one of the many awful injuries found (or disguised) in these pages. Wolf Lamb Bomb is a page-turner for a reader like me, thanks to its obsessive engagement of a sacred text, how it presents a theory of history that affects us all every day—and for its loving and fearless argument with God, for how fiercely it remains true to its side of the argument.

Consequence Forum

Consequence Forum addresses the human consequences and realities of war and geopolitical violence through literature, art, and community events offering intellectual and emotional access to the experiences of combatants, victims, and witnesses. We provide the public with works and voices from a...

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