In Shake & Tremor, Deborah Bacharach’s new book of poetry, characters from the book of Genesis are reimagined through a contemporary, feminist lens. Those who are nameless: Lot’s wife, Potiphar’s wife, Lot’s daughters, are given voice. Lot, Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar also speak. This territory has been explored before by other female poets, notably, Louise Glück in her poem “Abishag” and Alicia Ostriker in her book, The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions. Their focus was often on rescuing women from their muteness. Bacharach continues this approach in Shake & Tremor. We hear these characters, especially the women, speaking voluminously about marriage, polyamorous relationships, surrogacy, infertility, and female sexual desire. They speak about motherhood and loss as well. These characters’ stories are the substance for Bacharach’s prodigious and imaginative retelling as she seeks to answer these questions: How do we modern humans relate to our ancestors and ancestral stories? What is my place as a woman, and as a descendent of more than five thousand years of Jewish history?
Bacharach adds her own slant to the Midrash, the textural interpretations of the Torah. Historically, these commentaries were mostly written by men. But in the past 50 years or so we have seen a burgeoning of women’s opinions on the subject. In the Acknowledgements section of the book, Bacharach says she was influenced by a seminar she attended with Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, “Feminist Interpretation of Scripture,” at Swarthmore College. Dr. Levine is a scholar in Jewish-Christian relations, but Ellen Frankel, in The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, reconstitutes many of these same characters situating them in “our collective legacy.” She says, “one of the many meanings of the word ‘Torah’ is ‘to take aim.’” This is exactly what Bacharach does, and she does it using humor, surrealism, and authority.
Her own creative aim begins in the first poem of the book, “When God Is a Woman,” which is a prologue preceding the first section itself. Here it is in its entirety:
She does not accept apologies
for the incessant thrum.
She explains obtuse angles,
how to lay cable.
She understands that tigers eat alligators.
She set it up that way.
She rides the New York subways,
looks strangers in the eye.
She has her first child at ninety,
changes her name. It’s amazing
what a woman can accomplish
when she is not afraid.
In this poem, the feminine God has sexual desires. She is capable of physical action and intellectual thought, hence “obtuse angles” and “how to lay cable.” And the fantastical idea that Sarah could have a child at ninety is reframed as “what a woman can accomplish / when she is not afraid.” Desire, survival, and agency are recurring and intersecting threads.
Though many of the poems in each section reference stories in Genesis, they do not always follow the same order as in the Bible. Bacharach is choosing to highlight themes that often relate to these stories, until the third and final section of Shake & Tremor where she resides mostly in the present moment.
In the first section of the book, the poems speak directly to sexual desires and their complications. Biblical characters appear at times in contemporary guises or settings. Remember that Hagar, a slave and maid servant of Sarah’s, is given to Abraham in the hopes that she will conceive a child for them, as Sarah is very old, and barren. “Sex in Genesis” speaks to Hagar’s own desire while copulating with Abraham. She “squeezes it like a cow’s teat” Abraham “shakes” and “As best he can, / he hauls her into his arms. // Tremors.” Then Hagar bites back when Abraham bites her shoulder, “to keep / from laughing the tent down.” Hagar seems to acknowledge the absurdity of the situation. Yet, she knows in order to survive, she must play this part.
Segueing to a contemporary moment in an extramarital affair, a woman, perhaps a persona for Bacharach, or someone she knows intimately, imagines herself in relation to Hagar. The opening stanza of “The Husband’s Lover Speaks Up” introduces us to her:
Whose turn to romanticize
She laughs louder than they expect, then
leaves her hand on the crease of his khakis.
Later in this poem the lover reads about Hagar, “…surrogate on command, she thinks, / I’m my own sovereign.” Was Hagar, the slave, her own sovereign?
As Hagar’s story unfolds in the Bible, she becomes pregnant and Sarah, in jealousy, banishes her from the home. “And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.” (Genesis 21:14). In “Hagar’s Banishment,” Bacharach again conflates contemporary images with historical ones. “Before she hits the wilderness, / Hagar considers a pay phone and her last quarter / just to hear his voice.” Yet, even as she walks into the desert, which also seems barren, she endures. “Denuded earth. Abandoned sky. / Hagar still, stands.” No matter the trials and inequities of her situation, Hagar, like many women throughout history, finds myriad ways to survive.
Humor and laughter also abound in Shake & Tremor. “Advice from the Polyamorous” extends the theme of multiple lovers, with the lines, “Carry toothbrushes, / condoms, a spare pair of underwear.” And later in the poem, “it’s possible to know your lover / takes up with another while you walk / through Chihuly’s glass garden…” Here, the glass garden seems a transparent metaphor for Eden, but it is also a fragile one, as many relationships of threes can be. Importantly though, this woman is not a victim, she owns her desire, and accepts the tenuousness of a triangular relationship.
The second section of Bacharach’s book focuses on the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his family, and Potiphar and his wife, again weaving in themes about love, longing, motherhood and loss. Here, in several poems, Lot’s wife is fleshed out, so to speak, before and after she turns to salt. A central question throughout history has been: Why does she look back at Sodom and Gomorrah when God says not to? In one poem Bacharach imagines her as a pillar of salt speaking to an audience. “You want to know why / I looked back. I tripped. / I caught a flash and thought // my wedding ring.’’ Or, “I had two daughters in front / two behind.” I think of the movie, Sophie’s Choice, where Sophie, a Jew and a mother, must choose which of her two children to give up to the Gestapo, ultimately to be sent to a death camp. She makes the choice and is forever guilt-ridden; the loss is unbearable. She survives but it is as if she too has turned into a pillar of salt. Bacharach understands that part of loving, of motherhood itself, involves sacrifice. Lot’s wife’s desires doomed her. Some losses are never resolved.
Then, in “Lot’s Daughter Dreams the Sheep Aflame,” Bacharach emphasizes the idea that though we may want to control our lives, “…every body persists in its state / except as it is compelled to change.” Lot does not look back, “…He does not choose / to lunge for her hand…” Lot’s wife however, “…regrets the scratches / on their records, the way // the call to glory gets shredded and flayed.” She is unable to move forward, perhaps unable to accept the terms under which she is asked to flee, not look back, not think of her old life, not grieve, only obey the patriarchal commands.
The final section of Shake & Tremor opens with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by a female God who “wears black leather boots, big metal hoops / at the ankles and her tight jeans…” She is disgusted with the state of humanity, with the sexual escapades of the residents of Sodom, including Lot, and his betrayal of his daughters, giving them to other men for their sexual pleasure. She commands its destruction saying: “I wish the wars were all over.” Bacharach intimates there are consequences for certain acts of sexual desire, there are morals to be upheld, and we humans war with those societal strictures and our own desires.
We move through this reckoning for a few more poems and then the work abruptly transitions to the contemporary world returning to the themes of love, marriage, motherhood, and loss. In titles like “What I Like About Men,” “Marriage,” and “Valentine’s Day with Teenager,” Bacharach’s speaker claims her love of dance, of men and sex, and finally, reckons with loss and the deaths of family members. The final poem, “Our Lot,” is both a nod to the biblical character who must find his way out of grief, his betrayal of his daughters, loss of home and wife, and a metaphor for how we must view, and reckon with, our lot. Bacharach aims us toward remembering, claiming our pasts, and finding ways to move forward, as she says, in these two verses of the poem,
Lot tied a string to the table leg.
It unwound past where he refused
to stay. Out of the caves,
it wandered the lineage with him.
We eat the tangled grasses of the dead.
We wear the flowers of the dead.
We smoke long pipes with the dead.
We make claims for the dead,
follow the thread.