“Learning To Make An Oud In Nazareth,” The New Yorker October 27, 2008
“Learning To Make An Oud” is built in six ten-line stanzas with lines generally on the longer side. It bears the guise of a fairly easy-to-follow narrative, but a handful of italicized lines throw the story out of kilter by telling an imbedded story whose plotline is more loosely tethered. As such, though the narrative mode dominates, the poem’s lyrical moments add a layer of difficulty and disjointedness.
Basically, this poem is a devotional. Through all but the last five lines, it easily enough could be a love poem in the voice of a woman (wife?) describing her love for a man (husband?). He is an oud luthier (see a pic of an oud and hear the oud here) who on “the first day . . . cut rosewood for the back” of the stringed instrument and on the fifth day “whittle[d] an eagle feather, a plectrum / to celebrate the angel of improvisation,” effectively finishing the piece. The body is inlaid with gold, with graceful decorations of “ivory swan,” and replete with detail that makes this oud (and its maker) quite a bit better than average. It’s “tuning pegs,” for example, are made “of apricot / to give a good smell when rubbed.” How very nice! Other images point to tender loving care, too. The swans circling the oud’s soundhole are “a valentine of entangled necks.” My very favorite image of endearment arrives in stanza four as Padel finishes off a metaphor about the plectrum—the pick—made “to celebrate the angel of improvisation / who dwells in clefts of the Nazareth ridge / where love waits—and grows, if you give it time.” With its Vs (and the near-V in clefts), short Es (as in plectrum and cleft) and increasingly iambic gait, it’s a pretty passage. It’s unexpected, too—really the first time (maybe the only time) Padel carries any a metaphor very far past its original application (she started the moment by talking about a pick, ended it by talking about love waiting and possibly growing in a cave). In fact, it is only metaphor to stretch across two lines, the others (two in the second stanza, one in the third) are short and to the point.
Because this narrative part of the poem—the majority of the poem—is lacking in figurative language and is very chronological organized (four of the six stanzas begin with “The [insert # of day here] day . . .), its easy to follow. There’s little to have to think about although the language is generally acoustically pleasant and interesting (as in the second stanza: “He damascened a rose of horn / with arabesques / as lustrous as under-leaves of olive beside the sea,” which is followed a few words later with the sly, internal rhyme “soul loves”), the lines have a sense of rhythm, and the images of the oud’s construction (“rosewood . . . sycamore . . . . camel-bone” and so on) are crisp and specific.
The italicized lines are no less interesting, but they are more loosely put together: the first set details the methodical construction of an instrument, the second the less methodical construction of a relationship. As well, the voice of the first seems to be the woman speaking to her audience—poet to readers. The voice of the second is a combination of the speaker talking to the lover and to us, which can make things a tad confusing. The fact that the italicized portions are set apart from each other by at least several lines adds to this disjointedness. Smashed together, separated only by respective line and stanza breaks, they are in their entirety as follows:
Let us go early to the vineyard
and see if the vines have budded
I sat down under his shadow with delight.
I have found him whom my soul loves.
His left hand
shall be under my head.
He shall lie all night between my breasts
Our couch is green and the beams of our house
are cedar and pine.
My beloved is a cluster of camphire
in the vineyards of En-gedi.
Set me as a seal upon your heart.
I sought him and found him not.
I called but he gave no answer—
Until the day break
and shadows flee away
I will get me to the mountain of myrrh.
Come with me from Lebanon,
my spouse, look from the top
of Shenir and Hermon, from the lions’ dens.
and his banner over me was love.
So, for four stanzas, these lines signify romance although each shall suggests it is a romance that may not be realized, only desired. If so, then “Set me as a seal upon your heart” sounds more like a plead than a loving request to which the beloved will give in. This idea of requited love is reinforced by the last two stanzas in which the beloved isn’t found, in which death and suffering is referenced through the symbolism of myrrh, and by the anomalous last line/sentence, which begins with a decapitalized A. For me, that last line undercuts the lovey-doveyness of the poem. I no longer trust it.
By the end of stanza four, things in general begin to fall apart. Padel writes, “On the sixth day the soldiers came / for his genetic code. / We have no record of what happened.” I take his genetic code to mean him in general, the beloved, snatched up because of his ethnicity. The ensuing stanza likens him to Christ, persecuted in part because of his ethnicity, who stood in “the selfsame spot when . . . townsfolk tried / to throw him from the rocks.” So, the beloved is killed? Taken away? Whatever the case, he overtly becomes the speaker’s sacrificial lamb through which new life is received. The numerous references to Christ, to resurrection, and creation—all incorporated as early as the first stanza and as late as the last—turn the beloved into a martyr through which the speaker acquires a new lease on life. Strangely enough, this new life leads her to the internet where “We started over / with a child’s oud bought on eBay.” Does the mere mention of eBay make this otherwise eloquently-phrased poem trite? For me, it does—not so much because the speaker turns to her own devices to make oud-playing dreams come true, but because of the speed with which it happens. What had been pragmatic and methodical becomes capricious in comparison. And, there is potential for great power and import in the ethnic-cleansing implications of the poem’s sixth day when the soldiers come. While the poem need not go there by taking the implication further, the turn to eBay makes such implications moot—irrelevant. For me, the turn makes much of the poem irrelevant.