Black lava startles. Fingers and knuckles Clutch cobalt sky. Rocks and bones bleached, Skulls picked clean. I live here. No one knows my name. I tend bleating goats, Pound barley, feed hearth, Bake my husband’s gritty bread. He stinks of rank beer, Smokes the choking reek of poppies. Our nights are best forgotten. Angry chameleons hiss, Spike eyes whirling. I bear his daughters, Tiny fists round my fingers. Soft lips brush my neck. I wash their hair with orris root, Twine it with wildflowers, Desert crocus and black iris. He cruises bruisers On the downlow, Offers our blameless girls To leering creeps and sleazes, The filth of Sodom — Grooms them, Plugs them with babies, His copperhead eyes Pitiless pits. Lie with me. Lie for me. They tremble and obey. Angels appear, Guests with pale pretty faces. Phosphorescent nimbus Crackles on taut dry wind. Mud huts slump like wax, Limbs writhe like bees ablaze. Kin flee tumbling In piteous disarray, A panic of stricken scattering, Each fragile bride shackled To her nightmare. My crime? I look back enraged. I stand on bitter badlands. My legacy is salt. As Moses coaxed water from rock, I howl flames.
Refael Paul Arenson
3 Questions for Refael
What inspired the piece and what was your writing process?
During the High Holidays of 2020, over the height of the pandemic and the lunacy of the former presidency, Lot’s Wife came to me shouting and demanding to be heard. So I listened, and wrote down what she told me – even during the reading of the Torah, when her voice came in most clearly and loudly. I knew what she had pent up inside has huge import today – that we all need to listen to Lot’s Wife.
This piece has gone through many transformations, and benefitted from insightful critique by poets Alison Turner and Michael Wynn, as well as the craft writings of James Longenbach and Gary Lutz. I’m also hugely grateful for the editorial support of Janel Galnares and the editors of Harpy Hybrid Review.
What is the significance of the form you chose for this work?
This piece in its first shape was a long-form epic poem, a prism of Lot’s Wife’s long-range vision, topping out at 10 pages. The poem was resolutely political in nature, extending over three thousand years, flashing between ancient and modern times, and commenting on the cruelties, injustices and wars of today’s newsfeeds.
Still, it’s a challenge to market such a long piece, especially as a first-time poet. Successive revisions over two years hacked out the extraneous and the overtly political, zeroed in on the most elemental images, and redimensioned the piece into a short-form lyric poem. I had help, for which I’m grateful. It’s possible Lot’s Wife sent me this help, because she grew tired of waiting.
What is the significance of this work to you?
My ekphrastic poem “Lot’s Wife” gives voice to the Biblical wife of Lot. Genesis 19 says she turned back to see her home city of Sodom destroyed, and was zapped into a pillar of salt. The Old Testament withholds her name and silences her, despite her family’s hell in the days prior to Sodom’s destruction, about which she surely had views. Given that deafening silence, I aimed to channel her voice and restore her agency, uncovering a powerful role and a cogent point of view. There’s power in concealment, and thus I glimpse in Lot’s Wife a hidden tzadikah, a righteous woman who helps all who ask. Lot’s Wife speaks down through generations about ongoing violence against women and girls, and the wreckage wrought by war, hatred and intolerance, including execrable policy decisions and eternal migrant crises.
Other poets have sought to retell Lot’s Wife’s story, most notably Anna Akhmatova who writes for her an elegy. Though I admire Akhmatova’s poem, I felt in Lot’s Wife something much stronger – a blistering, prophetic Jeremiad, that draws power from Biblical roots but also from reverberations in the contemporary world.
Refael Paul Arenson’s past writing has found a home at The North American Review, Past Ten, Queen Mob's Tea House, The Rattling Wall and other venues. His work has been picked up online in Utne Reader and Art Daily. Born near Seattle, raised in Berkeley, he lived in Rome for 15 years, and is currently based in Northern California. He is an MFA graduate from Vermont College of Fine Arts, Winter 2015.
The author can be found on Instagram and Twitter at @refaelpaulo.