(To J. M. Kaplan)

I was a mere boy in a stone-cutter’s shop
When, early one evening, my raised
Was halted and the soundless voice said:
“Depart from your father and your country
And the things to which you are accustomed,
Go now into a country unknown and strange,
I will make of your children a great nation,
Your generations will haunt every
    generation of all the nations,
They will be like the stars at midnight,
    like the sand of the sea.”
Then I looked up at the infinite sky,
Star-pointing and silent, and it was then,
    on that evening, that I
Became a man: that evening was my
    manhood’s birthday.
I went then to Egypt, the greatest of nations.
There I encountered the Pharaoh who built
    the tombs,
Great public buildings, many theaters, and
    seashore villas:
And my wife’s beauty was such that, fearing
    his power and lust,
I called her my sister, a girl neither for
    him nor for me.
And soon was fugitive, homeless and almost
    helpless again.
Living alone with my sister, becoming very
In all but children, in herds, in possessions,
    the herds continually and newly
Increased my possessions through sublime
    prodigies of progeny, and
From time to time, in the afternoon’s revery
In the late sunlight or the cool of the
I called to mind the protracted vanity of the
Which had called me forth from my father’s
    house unwillingly
Into the last strangeness of Egypt and the
    childless desert.
Then Sarah gave me her handmaid, a young
That I might at least at last have children
    by another.
And later, when a great deal else had
I put away Hagar, with almost unbearable
Because the child was the cause of so much
    rivalry and jealousy.

At last when all this had passed or when
The promise seemed the puzzle parts of an
    old dream,
When we were worn out and patient in all
The stranger came, suave and elegant,
A messenger who renewed the promise,
    making Sarah
Burst out laughing hysterically!

But the boy was born and grew and I saw
What I had known, I knew what I had seen,
    for he
Possessed his mother’s beauty and his
    father’s humility,
And was not marked and marred by her sour
    irony and my endless anxiety.

Then the angel returned, asking that I
My son as a lamb to show that humility
Still lived in me, and was not altered by
    old age and prosperity.

I said nothing, shocked and passive. Then
    I said, but to myself alone:
“This was to be expected. These promises
Are never unequivocal or unambiguous, in
As in all things which are desired the most:
I have had great riches and great beauty.
I cannot expect the perfection of every wish
And if I deny the command, who knows
    what will happen?”

But his life was forgiven and given back
    to me:
His children and their children are an
    endless nation:
Dispersed on every coast. And I am not
Nor astonished. It has never been otherwise:
Exiled, wandering, dumbfounded by riches,
Estranged among strangers, dismayed by the
    infinite sky,
An alien to myself until at last the caste
    of the last alienation,
The angel of death comes to make the
    alienated and indestructible one a
    part of his famous and democratic society.




The angel said to me: “Why are you
“Laughing! Not me! Who was laughing? I
    did not laugh. It was
A cough. I was coughing. Only hyenas
It was the cold I caught nine minutes after
Abraham married me: when I saw
How I was slender and beautiful, more and
Slender and beautiful.
                                  I was also
Clearing my throat; something inside of me
Is continually telling me something
I do not wish to hear: a joke: a big joke:
But the joke is always just on me.
He said: you will have more children than
    the sky’s stars
And the seashore’s sands, if you just wait
Wait: patiently: ninety years? You see:
The joke’s on me!”



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