What alarmed you, O sea, that you fled?
River Jordan, that you ran backward?
— Psalms 114:5
After the thrill-flash in the storm-dark,
chant-count your prayers, a child’s wish
for crash-boom: One Mississippi, two
Mississippi, three… rhythmic until the measured
truth cracks, redounding in glass panes,
floorboards, and our bones the epiphany of an eye,
a storm, a blink of a mile or five, or one too distant
for danger. Nature runs its course:
The Gulf Stream is warm and swift,
birds migrate, you age, loved ones die,
matter cannot be created or destroyed,
the Ol’ Man flows south to the delta
until it doesn’t. Until Ida runs
its course into the ground, and your dead
splash all around you, laughing.
Click here to read Pamela Wax on the origin of the poem.
Image:Photo by Brian Sumner on Unsplash, licensed under CC 2.0.
As a rabbi, I am aware of the verse in Psalms that mentions the River Jordan running backwards as a miracle, perhaps whimsical, perhaps hyperbolic. But when I heard that the strength of Hurricane Ida had caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards, it felt like a modern-day biblical horror story: cataclysmic, dystopian, terrifying. I had to rethink everything I thought I understood about that biblical verse, as well as everything I thought I understood about the normal course of nature. I called up my childhood association to the Mississippi River: counting between thunder and lightning, as well as some of my basic understandings about “the natural course of things” and created a poem that spoke to the possibility that if the Mississippi can run backwards, then perhaps something else outrageously “unnatural” can happen as well: we may yet get to see our dead, but in a way that is a curse. The laughter may not be joyous.
- The Mighty Mississippi, August 29, 2021 - May 31, 2022
- Nacre - September 7, 2021