The Book of Earth & Other Mysteries: a book review by Elizabeth Cunningham
When a poem shows me something in a strange and wonderful light and at the same time awakens some bone-deep knowing of my own, I feel more alive, I feel less alone. My soul is stirred and satisfied. The Book of Earth & Other Mysteries by Rabbi Jill Hammer, author, teacher, midrashist, mystic, poet, essayist, and priestess, is a whole collection of such poems.
Collection is not a vivid enough word. The structure of this book is more like a fairy palace, a sandcastle blazoned with shells, a dragon’s lair, a bold work of art in itself. The book begins with a five part prose piece called “Intentions,” the first four invoking an element and the last one holding open the door for us to enter the world of the poems. Here are a couple of sentences excerpted from each.
“Incantation makes prayer out of poetry, spell out of song, and myth out of magic.”
“I intend the poems of this book as incantation.”
“Midrash is the tree that grows in the soil of the text.”
“I intend the poems of this book as midrash.”
“The Hebrew word for wind is ruach, which can also mean breath or spirit.”
“I intend these poems as a string of moments of prayer and magic.”
“…dragons are a way of talking about the wildness and fierceness in us.”
“I intend these poems as an invitation to the dragon.”
“When I was a child, I would dream that somewhere in a closet or in a dingy mall there was a small door, and I would go through the door and there would be a vibrant mansion, palace, garden or cave—a bright, bold, dangerous, and beautiful world. I want this book to be a little like that.”
The book is not a little like. It is that. The author’s intentions are fully and wildly realized in the seven Books that follow: The Book of Earth; Mother and Daughter; The Presence; The Book of Sky; The Book of Midrash; The Book of Dragons; The Book of Ocean.
Midrash, in the author’s words, “the genre of Jewish literature that interprets sacred text (usually the bible) in ways that are additive and creative,” infuses the whole book. Hammer draws not only on biblical sources but on mythic ones. The section “Mother and Daughter” includes a series of poems interweaving the story of Demeter and Persephone with the author’s own experience as the mother of a daughter. Each begins with snippets of delightful conversation:
“Mama: You need to stay where I can see you.
Raya: You should get a telescope.”
Though it is challenging to select poems that reflect the range of the book, here are four, each one, for me, a fulfillment of the author’s intentions, starting with an incantation.
“I summon the spirit of earth
flowing like water,
curving and rising like a mansion
curling like an embryo of stone.
Volcano: fire within earth.
Wellspring: water within earth.
Geode: air within earth.
Seed: earth within earth.
I summon the ground of life
Here is one of many midrashim.
come up from the sea
seagulls dive to drink from them
the water welling up is fresh and sweet
halfway up the beach
she squats on her heels
watching the future in the tide pools
the smell is good near the sea
the air drums at her body as if it is hands
she lets light bake her like dough
inside her is music: many feet of silk
to spread out under the sky
inside her is the round sun
circle in hand
she has brought the fire with her
from the sea”
A poem that explores prayer and magic.
“If you want an animal spirit,
go out to the forest
or to the lake.
if you want a house spirit,
clean your windows
and let the moon shine in on your furniture.
If you want both,
leave your door open
for a month.
Things will go in and out
and soon it will become your habit
to be inside and outside.
And if you want neither.
say your prayers in a closed room
out of a closed book.
–note from a vanished shaman”
I close with a dragon poem and a hope that this review has helped hold open the door to Jill Hammer’s extraordinary world.
“Mistakes Often Made About Dragons
Children are told that we have scales,
but our skin is like yours.
Our babies are born
in homes and hospitals.
We do not live in mountain caves.
Although we have been known to hoard
gold or secrets, generally
we sleep in beds
without scorching our pillows.
It is not even true that we mate for life:
sometimes we divorce
in a hiss of pungent smoke.
This is how you may discern
place your hand on my chest
and feel the heart within
flower into fire.
stand with your back to the sun.
Examine your shadow
for the double-humped sign
of giant wings.
If you are one of us,
this is how you may find us:
walk away from what does not burn you.”
Poems are quoted with the author’s permission. Here is the link for purchasing The Book of Earth & Other Mysteries. http://dimus.parrhesia.press/?p=221 For more about Jill Hammer, visit her websites: www.rabbijillhammer.com and www.kohenet.org.
For a post script on the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday see my comment below.
Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen. She has published three collections of poems, most recently So Ecstasy Can Find You. Her debut mystery novel, Murder at the Rummage Sale, was released last summer. An interfaith minister and counselor in private practice, she lives in New York State’s Hudson Valley. She is a fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute.