[“Jacob’s children”] (my title)
As sad as the scent of smoked fish
is up in the attic
as loving the chimney leans
against a tight sky,
an erratic ladder seeking a gap
in the stream of yellow cloud.
The wall holds up the sudden drop
of a branch, the flight
of sweet cherries is either mad – upwards –
or inconsolable – downwards.
The worst is when their flesh remains
there where it hurts – a shade
out of reach. I’ve seen you, father, fetch
the ladder as if it was
just another assumption, bleached and
blotted from your paint-jobs, the sheer
gumption of graffiti on concrete. The rot
always orbits the stone, less a
varicose vulture picking at your leg
than a worm of light rustling back
the soft leaves. Whether bad luck hit you
or a stroke of genius,
the earth always grieves its own gravity.
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran [Genesis 11:31 for the significance of “Haran”]. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder [stairway, ramp] set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Issac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth [really God? “like?”], and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
So Jacob rose early in the morning and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.”
– Genesis 28: 1-22
I can only comment on this briefly: it has been a long while since I looked at Genesis, and there is a quite complicated poem meriting comment above. Obviously Jacob and Abraham have to be compared: what the Lord told Jacob sounds similar to Abraham, but why are we “dust” instead of “stars?” (Genesis 15:5, although we are like dust in terms of being counted at 13:16) Haran is hallowed because it is from where Abraham originated; it is already the “house of God,” no matter what Jacob may do later. Notice that Issac is skipped in Jacob’s vision: it is as if Jacob and Abraham are the only two in his family that matter; another word for “gate of heaven” is “Babylon;” is tithing something you do after God gives a lot, or something you’re supposed to do because you respect God in the first place?
Remember what happens with Jacob’s kids: they try to kill Joseph, being the nice people they are, and Joseph, being the not-so-arrogant guy he is, ends up bringing all of them and a bunch more to Egypt so they can be slaves to Pharaoh, who of course is a god. The distinction between “Bethel” – where the heavenly ascend and descend – and the city of Luz is everything: when did Jacob return to his father’s house in peace, exactly?
I’m not saying this is a moral comment on Jacob or his sons: there is a bit of that, but again, the Bible rarely shies away from serious questions or concerns. What’s really happening here is that all of us want to make something of our lives (establish cities, maybe?) – we each want to “wrestle with God” – but what binds us to the Law isn’t the continual renewal of covenant, but our actual obedience to the Law and our parents (i.e. “honor thy father and mother”). Jacob had this vision while being sent by Issac to go get a wife from where Issac told him to go get a wife.
II. Two similes introduce the “erratic ladder:” the smell of “smoked fish” and all the memories evoked trapped in the highest part of the house, and a chimney’s relation to the narrowness of sky around it. That latter “pillar” is loving, supposedly. From smell and touch we move to sight (“seeking”) – “stream of yellow cloud” is from Prufrock, but not quite: there it was the sulfurous fumes of early 20th c. Boston forming a fog, I think. Here it is merely sunlight giving dark(er) clouds a rich glow. Why the hell is Dad outside? Hasn’t he conflated enough issues already?
“Sudden drop of a branch,” against a “wall:” we know these are cherries; “sudden drop” explains us, though, all too well. We bleed and blush when we least expect it. Here is the break with the more traditional Scriptural teaching (i.e. everything Jacob did was holy): those cherries are sweet, our humanity is something achieved. It hovers, though, and that’s a trap: move towards it, engage its flight, and one is “mad.” Fail – perhaps to even try – and one is “inconsolable.” “Flesh,” “a shade out of reach:” we’re in an erotic realm now.
So what’s Dad up to exactly? He’s got his assumptions, and in (ab)using them, he may be erasing the writing on the wall or painting badly (“gumption of graffiti on concrete”). More important is the ladder itself: it could be splashed with paint such that it is the graffiti, but “bleached and blotted” emphatically indicates that these assumptions are brought up and then disappear while in use. In short: “Jacob” and “thinking things through” aren’t compatible propositions.
We don’t need to imagine Dad falling: misplaced assumptions mean that has already happened. The rot “orbits the stone,” it does not affect the foundation as much as the caretaker thinks it does: it affects the caretaker more. Dad focuses on his physical aging, that “varicose vulture” makes it harder to get at the cherries even as the cherries have been consumed. That’s exactly the wrong emphasis: the “worm of light” is what you want to fight – didn’t you want to remember before sticking that ladder up into the air?
Again, I’m sounding moralistic here, like there’s a character defect. There is and there isn’t: to be pure mind is to be “no one,” and the Biblical account I opened with that anchors this poem does not bother with problems of mind. Individuals are always “some one,” and they are erotic. The issue is how long one can try to run one’s family, one’s house, entirely. The answer is obviously “not long,” but Dad keeps plodding until he can’t do it anymore and is a literally sad irony. Properly speaking, the sort of knowledge that would establish a household well is not knowledge in the sense of knowing physics. In fact, it’s a kind of economics which is very difficult to term knowledge; it hearkens back nearly entirely even in Socratic dialogues to respect for the ancestral (Cephalus maintaining his wealth, same idea with Naboth, sort of).
Dad mistakes preservation with founding, and it’s a big mistake: turning one’s family into an existential cry isn’t what family is about. It is ultimately fortunate the earth grieves its own gravity: instead of falling outright in this poem, the days of ladder climbing are numbered, replaced by more appropriate past-times with those who would later mourn.