The order of the next posts has changed slightly, but here is the second in our group of three posts. Next week will be by Lynn Martin.

He Will Empty

by Obi Martin

“Jabbok,” the name of the river that Jacob crossed, and where he wrestled God, means “he will empty.” He will empty of what? He will empty.

This Side Jabbok

by Conrad Martin

You are patient.
But I am endless.
Drawn line and twisted
red gold to a
wick of your ecstasy.

You are not fair.
You are not there, and yet Your endlessness is fire
and pain as a mind in color.

I am out-thought,
Inwhelmed, unverbed, and understood.
(Jabbok lies unsilent)
Defense undone,
Resistance is become the violence of Your glory,
Your conquest my obedient rebellion,
Your dear, sweet conquering—won,
(how Jabbok roars)
Your truest, truly,
(now is red)
unruly Yours.

The first thing that I love about “This Side Jabbok” is that it’s uncertain from the title or from the poem exactly which side Jabbok. Is the struggle, the conquering, the surrender within the poem seen clearly before or after its full occurrence? Because of the present violence of the poem, I choose to read “this side” as the “far side,” the side of woundedness and dawn. It seems to me that the awareness in the poem, the loss and the peace, are things which follow the struggle, but which follow it so surely that they must be a part of it. The loss, the peace, the surrender in the end of the poem are no less a part of night, for all their rest is rife with unrest and prophecy, and infinite, unfulfilled potential. Only from without, in the naming, in the telling, in the title, can we say which side (of) Jabbok we are on. In the poem itself, in the experience of growth and desire itself, one cycle of prophecy, struggle, and surrender follows another, so that it is impossible from within to ever finally say which side Jabbok.

The thing most striking to me in this poem is desire. If the poem were seen as one unit of meaning, all running together as a single word, I think that word would be a synonym of desire. There is one who is longed for, one fought for, one within its separate self withheld, and nowhere a resolution of that withholding. To me, the two possible dominant interpretations of this poem are those not very different needs at the base of our persons: of possessing and of being possessed. Neither a neat categorization of this poem as a love poem or as a religious poem will exhaust its meaning. Subjectively, the poem could speak to a human beloved, known and unknown, or to the Divine Love and to the stamp of loss that each soul carries in its distance from it. Neither reading will invalidate or suppress the other; however, to me, the person and action agreements in the poem make clearest sense when read as written to a human beloved. Of course, though, poets of Christian mysticism have long used the two loves to illuminate each other, and either focus should help us better understand and appreciate the other.

You are patient.
But I am endless.
Drawn line and twisted
red gold to a
wick of your ecstasy.

The beloved is waiting. Patient—perhaps infuriatingly so. The first line to me is a compliment that obscures and replaces a complaint. In the first line there is waiting, resistance, and the need for assurance. There is more patience in the second line, though, for there is more desire. If this desire were mathematical, it could be plotted across a graph that out-burns candles and solar systems, following the curve of infinite latitudes. It’s a desire that gathers to a point and from a point to a line, and from a line desires to follow parallel lines until beyond infinity, where they meet and burn together. The speaker of the poem is the drawn line, and the entirety of his desire (is/equal to igniting) merely the beginning (wick) of the beloved’s own desire/ecstasy. That said, lines like these push language to its limits in order to open up the widest gauge of meaning possible, and therefore can be read primarily for the feeling, without strict grammatical cohesion.

You are not fair.
You are not there, and yet Your endlessness is fire

But the beloved is unfair, to the endlessness of desire. This is irrational, but rationality is irrelevant. The beloved is not there, in the infinite graph encompassed by desire. The beloved is also endless, and is endlessly not there. The beloved’s un-thereness is present at every point along the infinite graph. The speaker’s mind is aware of this, and of this unthereness at every point, and so cannot experience itself, cannot reference commitment or feeling; for it burns in red gold, more a burden of awareness than actuality of definition. Planning and knowing fall away in such knowledge, such absence of knowledge, and are dismantled. The beloved’s endlessness is what makes her beloved, the reason for the fire of both the beauty and the pain.

and yet Your endlessness is fire
and pain as a mind in color.
I am out-thought,
Inwhelmed, unverbed, and understood.
(Jabbok lies unsilent)

Perhaps “pain as a mind in color” says the same thing as “I am out-thought” in a different way. Both show a mind stymied, at blockades with its beloved and therefore with itself. The next lines show interiority, and inaction, inability of response, whether actional or locutional. Inwhelmed, like a lung, the mind is collapsed on itself. Unverbed, the speaker is crucified to the moment, shocked out of the spirituality of memory and of hope. The verb is the part of speech resembling the spirit, like a craft upon the surface of the water, it transcends the fixed frame of the present. Unlike subjects and modifiers dependent upon definition, the verb transforms definition, transitioning across time.

The preceding negative prefixes, if allowed to continue their pattern, imply a new understanding of “under-stood.” The speaker is foiled, cut off at the knees, pre-existed. The beloved’s patience, the endless unthereness, is the bedrock of reality and assumption upon which and from which all the inwhelming and unverbing take place. And yet the ordinary version of “understood” holds true as well. The speaker in his struggle and endlessness is known by the mirror endlessness (and wick) of his desire (beloved), and in being known, knows himself all the better (worse).

Defense undone,
Resistance is become the violence of Your glory,
Your conquest my obedient rebellion,
Your dear, sweet conquering—won,
(how Jabbok roars)
Your truest, truly,
(now is red)
unruly Yours.

There is the possibility of a pun in “Defense undone.” The beloved’s first defenses have been crossed (undone), but the defense is not done. The resistance, the unthereness, goes on. To resist a desire such as this, with such endlessness, could only be done by a violence, and that violence glorious in its necessary strength. The beloved in her endlessness, resistance, and fire, is a violence so glorious, that any conquest is both obedience and rebellion. On the next line hangs, I think, the entire fate of the poem. On it perhaps hangs, which side of Jabbok. “Your dear, sweet conquering—won,” again contains the possibly of punning. “Your dear, sweet conquering” could just as easily be the conquering of resistance or of desire. Your conquering could mean your vanquishment, just as easily as it could mean your triumph. In which personality does the conquering occur? in the speaker or in the beloved?

One very beautiful thing about this poem is how personality, otherness, and difference between the speaker and the beloved are defined and undefined. Which personality really is the subject and which is the object in lines like “a/wick of your ecstasy”, “Your endlessness is fire/and pain as a mind in color”, or “Your resistance my obedient rebellion/Your dear, sweet conquering—won”? The ownership of the action and definition of these lines is, in a sense, shared, by both personalities. That the shades of meaning and ownership are not clear is right, for theirs is phenomena that arises not within persons but only between.

No matter what conquest is conquered, what resistance is conqueror, the lover in the poem is surrendered: his struggle, his desire, his endlessness are truly the beloved’s. Whether he has lost or won, he will empty. “Jabbok,” to me, is the grounding of this poem. The sustainer, the roaring Christ, the lover of both the lover and the beloved. Jabbok, that roars, Jabbok that lies unsilent, will not be stopped, will not close in upon itself, will not hold back. But he will empty. The lover, requited or unrequited will flow out of himself, in struggle, in belonging and surrender. Beside Jabbok he will empty.


Artwork: A Tropical Forest In Venezuela, Ferdinand Bellerman (1814-1889).