The Art of Poetic Midrash – Guest Poetry Blog #18 – Introducing the Latest Contributor, Canadian Poet, Barbara Pelman – Part One of Two

Canadian poet Barbara Pelman. Photo Credit: Jackie Saunders-Ritchie.


—after Czeslaw Milosz's poem Should Should Not

A father should not lay his son upon an altar,
should not listen to all he is told.
He should not wander three days upon the road, thinking.
There should be discomfort between father and son, 
who look each other in the eye, and tell no truths.
Take everything you need on your back, but find in the bushes
	the one essential thing you missed.
Listen carefully to the sound the wind makes. It will tell you when to stop,
	when to turn around, when to bury yourself in grief.
They say there are angels, but they come in unfamiliar clothes, they speak 
	an unknown language, they come too late:
The feast you have laid for them has already turned to dust.

Barbara Pelman, Recovering Words, September 2023


Again, I am so pleased and honoured to feature another guest blogger. This time, the Canadian poet Barbara Pelman. Her post below, Part One, will be followed by Part Two: Barbara’s feature post on the Jewish American Alicia Ostriker (1937 – ).

I have titled Barabara’s post The Art of Poetic Midrashwhich she describes so well in her post. My other choice for a title could have been: Praise the Bent World which is taken from a poem of hers featured below. Oh, how Barbara in so many of her poems praises this bent world. And her lovely echo of the phrase Praise this mutilated world from a poem by the late great Polish poet Adam Zagajewski.

I first met Barbara at a Patrick Lane poetry retreat here on Vancouver Island B.C. many years ago. I have lost count of the Patrick Lane retreats we both attended. But I remember the particular good-natured intensity that she brought to each of these retreats. Nothing seemed to faze her. Her commitment to poetry and enhancing her craft always paramount.

And I was in the retreat where Barbara was inspired to write her epigraph poem, Isaac. It is based on a prompt of Patrick’s based on the lines from the title of the Czeslaw Milsoz poem cited above. Patrick also took a shot at using that prompt in his last book published while he was still alive, Washita. His poem, Ars Poetica.

Both Patrick’s and Czeslaw’s poem are full of imperatives, some that become wisdom aphorisms. (To read their poems please see below.) Barbara does something quite different. Takes the triggering prompt Should should not and ties it into a famous biblical story. Makes it her own and expands it.

In her poem the should should not prompt disappears after five lines once the speaker begins to turn the original story on its head. It is then the poem seems to expand and become more mysterious. And the imperatives change. The poem enlarges into one that seems to question the original biblical story and others. Wants to change them.

What a wonderfully undercutting line that begins with: they say there are angels... Angels did intervene in Isaac’s biblical story. Saved Isaac’s life. And angels did arrive disguised earlier in Abraham’s story; said Sarah, Abraham’s elderly wife, would have a son. Isaac. But here the angels come too late, any feast set for them turned to dust. How I love that last line; the overall tone of distrust in the poem. Perhaps, even, a distrust in God, the stories about him in the bible.

Midrash, the Jewish term for wrestling with sacred texts. And this practice, lies at the heart, of Barbara’s post below. Wrestling with sacred texts through poetry is becoming a more common practice. Well-known poet and podcaster Pádraig Ó Tuama is leading an online series this fall based on his own version of poetic Midrash with great biblical stories. Barbara, along with her Rabbi from Congregation Emanu-El in Victoria, B.C.,(see below) was ahead of the curve.


The tradition I was born into, the one referenced above in the story of the Binding of Isaac, is a great source of poetry. The Psalms, the Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes; stories that are full of symbolism and allegory — the Garden of Eden, Job, the Flood, the Exodus.

The phrasing of Hebrew, its lilting cadence, belongs to my days at Hebrew school and listening to my father sing in the choir loft on Friday evenings, where he was choir leader and lead tenor. Though I don’t sing, perhaps those cadences find themselves a place in my poems.

It took a long while, and even now is full of complexities, to find a way for Judaism to play an important part in my adult life. Though I am hardly observant, hardly religious, I have immersed myself in its scriptures and wrestle with the angel, and ask, like Jacob, Except you bless me, I will not let you go. But it is a fraught pathway; anti-semitism has increased alarmingly in recent years, and once, a friend at a poetry retreat, asked, “Why do people hate the Jews?” Why indeed?

My epigraph poem above and my continuing journey into Judaism connect directly with a project I help co-ordinate called Calling All Artists led by Rabbi Harry Brechner of Congregation Emanu-El.

Rabbi Harry asks: What happens when Midrash (interpretation of the sacred Jewish scriptures)is not generated by the Sages of the distant past but rather by contemporary artists? And to manifest the answer to his question, for the past eighteen years Rabbi Harry has taught biblical texts and rabbinical studies and folk tradition to artists who then interpret their learning through their art.

Chapters of Ezekiel. The story of Isaac. The Exodus. Traditions on Death and the Afterlife. Dreams and Visions. Memory. Encounters with God (which led to my last poem in this post featured below) — these have been some of our topics in the past years. Through this yearly project, I have discovered a way to blend my love of poetry with the traditions I grew up in, and through this combination, to explore the deeper questions that poets and rabbis wrestle with. These big questions. What is the meaning of our lives? What is our particular contribution and our singular purpose? How can we find it? Where and what brings you joy? How do we repair the world?

Judaism teaches that we live in a broken world, and that it is our task to fix it. One of my favorite sayings, which gave birth to the poem that follows, is: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Act justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, neither are you free to abandon it. And so our hearts beat on.


You are not obligated to complete the work,
Neither are you free to abandon it

—The Talmud

Every tiny bit counts. Choose peace
in your own life. Forgive your own flailing self,
your wrinkled face, your wrecked knees.
Make friends with failure. Praise
the getting up, forgive the falling down.
Buy the electric bike, the solar roof, the heat pump.
Learn to say no quietly and yes exuberantly.
Praise the bent world, offer it
whatever solace you can.

Barbara Pelman, from Brief and Endless Sea, forthcoming from Caitlin Press, October, 2023

Most of my poetry centres on the personal, even the domestic. Daughters and ancient mothers and grandsons, tomatoes in a tiny garden, words on a page, travels to Sweden. I’m afraid to write about the huge political issues — climate change, democracy in tatters, refugees, extinctions. Daily news about wildfires and hurricanes — the Earth very angry at human greed and stupidity —doesn’t find purchase in my poems, except in small bits, a reference or two.

I find it hard to find a place for ‘righteous indignation’ in a poem—it either comes out glibly or in sputters. So I go back to the roses and the sweet peas, the light through the window. And, through Calling All Artists, long poems struggling with strange and evocative biblical stories.

I’m about to turn 80 (oh my god). When I turned 60, newly divorced and still full of rage and grief, I took on the task of learning to read and chant a passage of Torah (the Five Books). Each week in the synagogue we read a portion of the Five Books, and my birthday portion is Lech L’Cha which translates as to go forward. But the verb is reflexive, so it actually means, to go toward yourself. It is the story of Abraham leaving his home to travel to a new place: which I the Lord will show you. How appropriate! What wise advice, to travel always toward your authentic self! And fittingly, too, the portion we will read on my 80th birthday is Genesis. The Beginning. And in another beginning I have my new poetry collection, Brief and Endless Sea, coming out in October, my fourth full-length collection.

To conclude: this next poem that, once again, came out of Calling All Artists:


Lay your head upon a stone,
a pillow of rock.
Dream of ladders, sulam, a staircase.

The beard, the white robes,
the hand raised in judgment,
the maleness of Him. It won’t do.

Sunday morning on Kootenay Lake,
a Quaker meeting at Argenta.
Sun, burnished blue.
What is it that fills me with joy?

It helps to have a practice.
Ride a bike, sit in lotus, write in your journal.
It helps to find a silence—
in the forest, at a park, in a quiet corner
of the library.
Who is speaking?

Search for her, for Shekhinah, who has vanished
from your world. In the jeweled and ivory palace
she lives a narrow life. Yearn for her,
take this longing with every step through the forest.
Do not lie down by the wine-red lake.
Do not reach for the apples in the tree. Eyes open
in the wilderness.

Have faith, emunah,
in your head, in your heart, in your gut.
The thing that moves your foot each heavy step.
Some call it hope. How do you find it?
Can it be taught? I am a slow learner.

Every day, a hummingbird on a branch of hawthorn.
On my birthday, two, where usually there is one.
Coincidence? Mere loveliness? A sign?
Coincidence is a spiritual pun (Chesterton)

Every night, I recite a brief version of the Shema.
Then a prayer for my niece: heal her cancer.
A prayer for my family in Sweden: keep them safe.

Blessing in winter:
one yellow crocus under the snow.

Ayecha? Where are you in the world?
At the table, with my mother,
learning patience. Ayecha?
tongue-tied with my daughter.
Ayecha? By the ruby lake,
fast asleep.

A stone, a pillow, a place.
God was here and I did not know it.

The raven flies over the hills.
Sun on the lake. A stirring in the leaves.
The wind.
Hineni. I am here.

It begins with wonder.
It begins with praise.
It begins with gratitude:
green leaves after a long winter,
daughter returning home.

Stanza I: refers to Jacob’s dream of the ladder to Heaven
Stanza III: Argenta: a Quaker community on Kootenay Lake
Stanza V and Stanza X: refers to the Rabbinical story of the Lost Princess: Shekinah, the female aspect of God
Stanza X: Ayecha: translates as “where are you” but it’s the larger existential question.

Barbara Pelman, from Brief and Endless Sea, ibid

Guest Poetry Blog Post, Barbara Pelman, September, 2023

Two Additional Poems
by Czeslaw Milosz and Patrick Lane

Should, Should Not

A man should not love the moon.
An ax should not lose weight in his hand.
His garden should smell of rotting apples
And grow a fair amount of nettles.
A man when he talks should not use words that are dear to him,
Or split open a seed to find out what is inside it.
He should not drop a crumb of bread, or spit in the fire
(So at least I was taught in Lithuania).
When he steps on marble stairs,
He may, the boor, try to chip them with his boot
As a reminder that the stars will not last forever.

Berkeley, 1961

Czeslaw Milosz from New and Collected Poems (1931-2001), Ecco Press, 2003


A man should not dream of the frilled skirts of the hooves of horses.
An apple should not be eaten with the burned shadow of a leaf in its flesh.
A woman should bury her man’s nail clippings under the dark moon.
There should be no trail to that place, no trail to the fragments of his hair, his spittle.
A mole’s tooth, a cat’s tail, the heart of a dog, the eye of a frog.
Bring none of these as gifts to the year’s first lamb.
A man should not be witness to his daughter’s birth or dress his mother’s corpse
(This last the teaching of the Greeks on Ios).
A man should burn the branches of the weeping willow. Should he,
Then his sons will have sons, his daughters ovens.
A mother says you should leave your footprint in the dust of her grave
So the wind will remember her. But that mother is dead now.
And the wind forgets and forgets without mercy her passing.

—After Czeslaw Milosz’s poem, “Should, Should Not

Patrick Lane from Washita, Harbour Publishing, 2014


  1. Pamela Porter
    Posted September 12, 2023 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Well done, Barbara!

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted October 6, 2023 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Pam: thank you for the comment and for your guest blogs!

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