Painting: Pharaoh’s Daughter & Moses by Marc Chagall
As we go deep into the story of Exodus, and learn more about Jewish midrash from Karl Stevens and Daniel Bogard’s “Lost in the Wilderness” podcast, it makes sense to explore some of the “cultural midrash” that have been drawn out of the biblical narrative by both Christian and secular artists and writers. A beautiful example of this is Eleanor Wilner’s poem Epitaph. Wilner teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA program, and has received the Juniper Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the MacArthur Foundation. In describing her own poetic vision, she writes:
“In order to validate my experience of poetic vision, I studied comparative mythology and anthropology, looking at new visions to understand their source, and saw the ways in which collective vision always began with a communal crisis and an individual who, in essence, dreamed for the community. This is what I think a poet does, and I think our culture has made us shallow and dreamless by inculcating the myth that the individual is defined and set apart by his or her own personal experience.”
You can read more about Wilner by visiting the Poetry Foundation’s website. Here’s her poem Epitaph:
by Eleanor Wilner
Though only a girl,
the first born of the Pharoah,
I was the first to die.
we were bored already,
rouged pink as oleanders
on the palace grounds, petted
by the eunuchs, overfed
from gem‑encrusted bowls, barren
with wealth, until the hours of the afternoon
seemed to outlast even
my grandmother’s mummy, a perfect
little dried apricot
in a golden skin. We would paint
to pass the time, with delicate
brushes dipped in char
on clay, or on our own blank lids.
So it was that day we found him
wailing in the reeds, he seemed
a miracle to us, plucked
from the lotus by the ibis’ beak,
the squalling seed of the sacred
Nile. He was permitted
as a toy; while I pretended play
I honed him like a sword.
For him, I was as polished and as perfect
as a pebble in a stutterer’s mouth.
While the slaves’ fans beat
incessantly as insect wings,
I taught him how to hate
this painted Pharoah’s tomb
this palace built of brick
and dung, and gilded like a poet’s
tongue; these painted eyes.