Shahar Bram – The Sentience of Stones

Shahar Bram

Shahar Bram – The Sentience of Stones

Shahar Bram is a poet, translator and scholar who works in both English and Hebrew. The author of Charles Olson and Alfred North Whitehead: An Essay on Poetry, he lives in Jerusalem, and talked via Skype on June 17, 2012 with Paul Nelson about his new book The Stones. It is a story of one man’s quest to find his missing lover in present-day Jerusalem, scrambling madly through sites of famous biblical scenes, while dealing with the ghosts who seem to eat the future there “bite by bite.”

 

The Stones

Part 1 (15:33)

Part 2 (16:03)

 

Date Recorded: 6/17/12

 

The transcript (eleven printed pages):

PN    I don’t read much fiction as I’m fascinated by poetry and regularly disappointed by fiction, which is usually about entertainment or provocation rather than transcendence.

When I saw that the author of Charles Olson and Alfred North Whitehead: An Essay on Poetry had a book of fiction, I had a feeling it went beyond what passes for story telling on this side of the Atlantic.

The story of a young man whose lover disappears and how he searches for her past ancient landmarks and manages to hold on to his dream is the plot.

Shahar Bram is a poet, translator and scholar who works in both English and Hebrew. He lives in Jerusalem, and his book may give us the key to the source of unrest in the Middle East—the one conflict that seems to be at the core of most of problems on our planet.

The Book is The Stones published by Two Cities Press and Shahar Bram is our guest. Shahar, it’s a pleasure to talk to you today about this.

SB    Thank you so much, it’s a pleasure.

PN    You’re an Olson fan, and a fan of Alfred North Whitehead obviously, by the book I have made reference to, so you are interested in something beyond entertainment or intellect when you read, are you bored by most fiction?

SB    That’s a tough one, I’m bored by a lot of it, let’s put it this way. I’m used to reading poetry but I do read some fiction.

PN    What was the inspiration for The Stones?

SB    Living in Jerusalem. That’s the basic answer.

PN    I’ve never been there, but, you know, in reading the book, and getting a sense—a tour of Jerusalem—places like, Valley of Hinnom, The Tower of David, Jaffa Gate, you get a sense of being there, when we’re being lead through, as this man who is going after his lover who was…we don’t know at first, is she kidnapped? has she been murdered? And these kind of things unfortunately are things that happen regularly in your city.

SB    That’s true, it was my intention to mix everyday life in Jerusalem with the past, and give the audience, give the reader, a feeling of really, what I feel is kind of a mad place, where past and present are mixed, and terrible things happen and yet, at the same time, everyday life is going on, you know, it’s just a regular city.

PN    There’s a murder, you get a cup of coffee, and everything in between.

SB    In a way that’s how it works here. You know, we get some periods where it is quiet and everything seems fine but then again, without any…(warning) you know, just suddenly something happens and it all has to do with the past, the past rules this city.

PN    We’ll certainly get into that. That’s obviously the meat of the book.
The narrator, the protagonist, pines for Boston, and I get a sense that there’s some autobiography in this book.

SB    Well, not exactly, you know, it’s my love for Boston, for Gloucester and for the northeast, but I was born in Israel, born in Jerusalem, I was raised, grew up in Haifa. I never lived in the US except for like one year in my sabbatical, or two years. I was visiting many times.

PN    Interesting, because it reads like that to me.
In the story, the narrator/protagonist, tells of how as a child he saw ghosts.

SB    Yes. Well, some ghosts are…how shall I put it, some ghosts are more material than others, so the book mixes some types of ghosts— some are more personal, we can say, and some are more historic-like—so some are ghosts that a kid might…you know, a kid whose childhood is not that happy, and things are happening around him, might get to know these ghosts, and then there’s the city—the city with its past, it’s heavy. The city fills the kid’s heart with other ghosts. So it’s a mixture of the personal and the historic. This is the kind of experience that I think Jerusalemites experience.

PN    Yes, and as we are led through the tour of the ancient city, are they ghosts? Are they phantasms? Are they hallucinations? We’re not exactly sure, nor is the narrator sure, so, there’s a mix of different things that we might call ghosts, but they not ghosts as they may be defined on Dictionary.com or something like that. You know, those of us interested in poetry in the US, certainly the Beat poets, might know the phrase Moloch, or the character Moloch, from Allen Ginsberg’s  poem ‘Howl’, others may know it from Bible studies or from Paradise Lost, but in the book is described an experience at a place in Jerusalem called Sultan’s Pool, in which this narrator has a flash back to the time when people were sacrificing their children to Moloch.

SB    Well, Moloch…you know, living in Jerusalem Moloch becomes…it’s not a legend anymore, it’s not a literary… (PN – “trope?”) Yes, exactly. If you are sensitive, and if you walk in the streets of Jerusalem … you feel history around you, it’s coming alive, so this is where it happened, this is where it took place. These are the places… That was part of my intention in the book, I wanted to take the reader by the hand and lead him through the streets of Jerusalem where it all took place, according to the stories, according to history.

PN    We’re talking with Shahar Bram, he is the author of the book, The Stones, published by Two Cities Press, I’m Paul Nelson.

You know, when I was reading the  book, I had a sense of who you were, after I read Charles Olson and Alfred North Whitehead: An Essay on Poetry, and some of the similarities I see in Olson, what he was after, and Whitehead, what Whitehead was after, is this notion of material reality, where people believe that reality is only the things that you can see, or that you can touch or smell, or what have you. That approach is a very limited approach and Olson and Whitehead understood that reality was much more complicated than that. That it involved energetics, and so when you call the book The Stones, I began to think about Native American philosophy where stones are honored in sweat lodge ceremonies as grandfathers and that have knowledge for us, and that stones, and what we might consider inert things, like mountains, actually have some kind of sentience, is that you were going for, in part, with this book?

SB    Partly so, I would say that stones carry history in them, you know, in a way, and it’s a mixture of…imagine a city where people mumble holy phrases and read the Bible every day or whatever holy scriptures, and then touch the stones, and have all the rituals with the stones or the walls or whatever inside and touch them and so on. So it’s a mixture, it’s a reality of mixed forces, like energy is a mixture of material and words and…it is a kind of strange thing to say but, in a way, if you are sensitive enough, and you open your eyes, you know, you can see it happening all the time in Jerusalem. That’s what happens. Stones do carry some inheritance or some powers or some energy if you are willing, you know, you have to have the will to reach for that energy. So, in this regard, I guess Jerusalem is really special, I mean, there are other places, but the mixture of scriptures and stones, you know, this is a very particular way in which Jerusalem is different and everyday life in Jerusalem is a mixture of past and present and scriptures and material world.

PN    Yes, something that we don’t have quite in the same way here in North America, we have it in a different way but certainly not the intensity of all those prayers in that very small location, the Old City of Jerusalem, the prayers of different traditions, traditions that have, for the ages, been warring and yet saturating stones with this energy, that is in part, a very holy and to be admired and in another way with, you know, with the images of Moloch, and what have you, to be feared or something to be concerned with. And I think what you are talking about people being sensitive, is about people being open, and that’s where I see the connection with Olson and Whitehead and your work there. You know they were talking about open form and so, to be open to a certain extent on the one hand you expose yourself to these ghosts and phantasms and can go crazy but on the other hand, you can have a deeper sense, I feel, of how reality actually happens as occasions of experience; which is what Whitehead was talking about and Olson saying that not only is the way to write a poem, but a way to live your life.

SB    Exactly, one difference though, I would say that, you mentioned go crazy, The Stones is, in parts of it about this thin line, on which a man walks, trying to stay, you know, in between, being open, reaching out for the stones, reaching out for the environment around him, reaching out for history and holiness and whatever it is, and at the same time, keeping away from getting crazy, literally, you know, getting crazy, because in some aspect Jerusalem is a really mad place, it’s a crazy place. People do things which you wouldn’t expect people to do. So, in a way I think…Jonah is trying to walk the thin line in between. I’m not really sure how successful he is, but there’s a thin line and it’s…the line is…to find the right path is not that easy, I would say, ‘cause this mixture of all these traditions you spoke about is felt, Jerusalem is filled with different people, different traditions. Holiness from you know, Christian, Arab, that is Muslims, Jewish, all over the world, people from all different places coming here, and just walking the path in between and staying sane in a way.

PN    Very difficult to do in a city like that. Even if you’re not an open person, I mean, seeing people get blown up in a bus, and you just have to maintain normal life, if you’re on your way, commuting, or going to your job in a cubicle somewhere, and a bus blows up, I mean, it’s not something that happens very often here in the US but it’s something that, you know, the memory of which is in everyone who lives in Jerusalem.

SB    Yes, certainly, the present as the past is filled with unexpected events, politically, you know, the book is, in a way, if it surreal in a way, it’s because politics gets, but not in a regular way, into the book—this (man)…his loved one is kidnapped which is a thing that happens here you know, that’s reality in here, at the same time he walks in the streets imagining himself as walking between the dead, so… it’s a mixture. Sometimes it is really crazy and I wanted the American reader, you know, someone who is not familiar with living in Jerusalem whose experience is different.

PN    Yeah, I get the politics when Jonah talks about the sacrifice of children and how that hasn’t stopped and that servants of past prophecies want the reign of the past to return. I mean, as a person with, I guess you can call them, progressive, or libertarian-type tendencies, I think immediately of Netanyahu, or people like that.

SB    Well, I wouldn’t go in politics certainly, but you felt right. Prophecies are part of the present not of the past, you know; they take words from the past and use it … for ideological reasons to serve the present. And Indeed politics is there, it’s in the book but not directly; and that’s one thing, I wanted to touch it and, as you said, the sacrifice of the son – this is the main theme, in a way, this is the most important thing in a way, for me because it goes on, it goes on and I don’t see a stop to it, I don’t see any…I don’t see a future where it stops. So this is the main issue, you touched, the sacrifice of the son, the book leads to it. You know, Jonah walks the streets of the ancient city and it leads him to the place of sacrifice.

PN    And he goes to places like the Valley of Ghosts, Emek Refaim, for example, and you know, it called The Valley of Ghosts back then, what is it 2000 years later? You could just imagine…

SB    Exactly yes, ghosts are still running in this city…

PN    And it’s also suggested that the dead are enlisted in current wars, and you know, when I think about this image from your book, I think about Lord of the Rings—I don’t know if you saw that movie—where they, in fact, DID enlist the dead so, maybe there, it’s not such a fictional thing, but it’s a metaphor, it’s like fiction that’s trying to tell us something, that the dead do have a role to play but not only in wars but in our lives in a more mundane way as well.

SB    Exactly, enlisting the dead, that’s a good question, I mean, who is in command? Who’s taking the lead and who’s enlisting the dead to his own army? And, if you look around you, you see that different people who see themselves as commanders, general or whatever, or leaders, they enlist the dead to their own ideological army.

PN    You ask a question, “where does it stop?’, and before the interview you mentioned that you have an 18 year old son and a 16 year old son; does it not stop with people like you who begin to teach their children that these ways of dealing with the world are, you know, lead to disappointment and sorrow and grief and that the way is negotiating, how to be open without going crazy—are these the lessons your kids get?

SB    I hope so, I hope so, I actually think, well, I hope I’m successful. But if you think about not only myself but about Israel as a whole, about the Israeli public opinion maybe, I’m not that sure that we are in a good position here. Seems to me that … the tendency right now in Israel is right-wing, that’s where we’re heading, and the situation in the middle east is not getting better, it’s in the other direction. So, maybe, you know, as an individual, I can give my kids my own impressions of reality, and my own lessons from reality, but at the same time, I’m not optimistic about the future of this place, I’m sorry to say it.

PN    I understand. You know, you mentioned the experience of reality, the protagonist Jonah at one point in the book, is set to “experience reality in a different way.” Obviously we’re talking about something that goes beyond materialism. I also think about the Charles Olson quote from Projective Verse about “…what stance toward reality brings such verse into being.” So we’re hinting at this notion again, that life is perhaps 5% material and 95% energetic and people don’t seem to know that.

SB    Well, you know, you read a lot of poetry—it makes a difference. That’s a good question, I mean, how much people read how much poetry? Poetry is a great lead, it takes you to other realms, and I’m not sure how many people read the right stuff.

PN    I think you’re right, I think most of the poetry that gets consumed—and I would use this word specifically ‘consumed’—is that which doesn’t seem to be difficult or that which seems to be difficult for the purposes of evasion, so it’s a very interesting sort of middle ground that you and I are after. There’s another line that haunt the narrator, Jonah, in the book, and it is “weep me not dead.” At the moment of the story it is said to refer to his loved one who he’s looking for, and ‘weep me not dead,’ is, hey, keep hope alive, is like a way of interpreting that. But I’m also, thinking of indigenous culture, Dogon culture, in which the dead use the energy expanded by survivor grief to move on to the next world. In other words, the dead will hang around here unless we cry enough to push them into the next realm. And it would seem to me that ‘weep me not dead’ might refer to that; it might refer to the, you know, throngs of ghosts that you have in the city where maybe the impulse to more revenge rather than to grief work.

SB    I didn’t quite follow your last sentence about the revenge…

PN    You ask a question, “where does it stop?’, and before the interview you mentioned that you have an 18 year old son and a 16 year old son; does it not stop with people like you who begin to teach their children that these ways of dealing with the world are, you know, lead to disappointment and sorrow and grief and that the way is negotiating, how to be open without going crazy—are these the lessons your kids get?
SB    I hope so, I hope so, I actually think, well, I hope I’m successful. But if you think about not only myself but about Israel as a whole, about the Israeli public opinion maybe, I’m not that sure that we are in a good position here. Seems to me that … the tendency right now in Israel is right-wing, that’s where we’re heading, and the situation in the middle east is not getting better, it’s in the other direction. So, maybe, you know, as an individual, I can give my kids my own impressions of reality, and my own lessons from reality, but at the same time, I’m not optimistic about the future of this place, I’m sorry to say it.

PN    I understand. You know, you mentioned the experience of reality, the protagonist Jonah at one point in the book, is set to “experience reality in a different way.” Obviously we’re talking about something that goes beyond materialism. I also think about the Charles Olson quote from Projective Verse about “…what stance toward reality brings such verse into being.” So we’re hinting at this notion again, that life is perhaps 5% material and 95% energetic and people don’t seem to know that.

SB    Well, you know, you read a lot of poetry—it makes a difference. That’s a good question, I mean, how much people read how much poetry? Poetry is a great lead, it takes you to other realms, and I’m not sure how many people read the right stuff.

PN    I think you’re right, I think most of the poetry that gets consumed—and I would use this word specifically ‘consumed’—is that which doesn’t seem to be difficult or that which seems to be difficult for the purposes of evasion, so it’s a very interesting sort of middle ground that you and I are after. There’s another line that haunt the narrator, Jonah, in the book, and it is “weep me not dead.” At the moment of the story it is said to refer to his loved one who he’s looking for, and ‘weep me not dead,’ is, hey, keep hope alive, is like a way of interpreting that. But I’m also, thinking of indigenous culture, Dogon culture, in which the dead use the energy expanded by survivor grief to move on to the next world. In other words, the dead will hang around here unless we cry enough to push them into the next realm. And it would seem to me that ‘weep me not dead’ might refer to that; it might refer to the, you know, throngs of ghosts that you have in the city where maybe the impulse to more revenge rather than to grief work.

SB    I didn’t quite follow your last sentence about the revenge…

PN    Perhaps the emphasis in Jerusalem and in the world in general, has been toward revenge rather than simply entrenching oneself in genuine grief so that the dead could be propelled into the next realm and not hang around here and not interfere so much in what’s going on.

SB    Yes, exactly, let the dead, leave the dead behind in a way, don’t forget them, but don’t keep them alive, don’t give them presence in your life, your everyday life and stand in your way to the future. Take what is best from the past, take the memories of the past, take the good things from the past, and follow your way, onward to the future. Don’t … that’s like your previous question was about the army of the dead, it’s the same thing. Don’t let, don’t enlist the dead in order to bring the past, to keep the past, and don’t lose yourself in the past. Keep going further. There’s a battle, there’s a battle going on—what’s our lesson from history? What do we take from history? History offers us so much, so what do we take from that, what do we leave behind? And I think there’s a real battle going on because, part of, maybe the majority takes, what I believe is, not the right stuff from the past.

PN    Right.

SB    Jonah is talking in the book about taking or not leaving behind the beauty of the past, leaving behind the evil, and the ideology that sometime  too often, and people use beauty as a means to serve for ideological purposes.

PN    Yeah, or as you say in the book, “the past eats the future bite by bite.”

SB    Bite by bite, yes, well you know, I mean, once again, I’m talking specifically about ancient Jerusalem , what we call the Old City, walking in the Old City of Jerusalem is walking in the past, is walking in a reality where past and present are mixed. And sometimes you feel that the past is eating your life. You do feel it.

PN    And that might be … that leads us to another sort of Biblical notion that’s brought up in the book, that the past, if one lets the past and the ghosts and the entities, take over oneself, like perhaps the politicians who start the wars, turns one into a Golem. A clay automaton, and the notion here, part of the subtext is, we need to resist that, it goes back thousands of years, we were warned about it in the Bible, here again we are reminded of it, but in Jerusalem, it’s easy to be reminded of it and yet, in Jerusalem, it’s more easy to become a Golem.

SB    It is. Well, you know, like Jonah is walking his way in the streets, his legs, so to speak, take him on a tour to David’s grave, King David’s grave, and inside this very unpleasant place, I must say, he sees two Golems, because these two men are acting like automatons, like Golems, they appear to be mumbling or acting like people whose mind is not in control, or lost their minds, or whatever. And this is supposedly a very holy and important place; a place where people should come and think about the past not stand as Golems mumbling phrases from the past. But think what this past means for us, now, these days, what can we do with it? But, once again, material life takes over, because it’s a grave, you know, it’s a stone. It’s this thing which is taking, in a simple and unsophisticated way, in which a stone takes with it … something of people, I don’t know, like these two automatons standing near the stone and they feel that the stone is holy, the stones is…they can’t acknowledge themselves as human beings near this stone. This shouldn’t happen you know, a man shouldn’t lose himself as a human being, shouldn’t acknowledge himself as null, as nothing, when he stands near a holy place.

PN    It’s very interesting. I took the book to a writing retreat in the islands here in the northwest and, you know, I was just committed to, well, you know, when you get the book I the mail form a  publisher, with a nice inscription, from a person whose work has inspired you, you feel responsibility, to at least take a look at it. And then , when I started reading it, I was really drawn into it, and read it very quickly which is a rare thing for me in fiction, because most fiction I see, is junk, and I’m not interested in it. Maybe I haven’t seen the right kinds, but  there was an interesting kind of synchronicity that happened for me, because I am also reading Ramon Gómez de la Serna who is a Neo-Baroque poet, he writes these Aphorisms, these one-liners and I came to this one liner by chance when I was reading your book and the line was: “Living in one century would be like living in them all if one only knew how to look at stones with serenity.”

SB    That’s beautiful. You should send me a link to the book, because I’m not familiar with this author, yes, that’s very good.

PN    That’s really the key of what’s going on, isn’t it, Shahar?

SB    Yes, if I knew, I could have used it as a motto for the book.

PN    I think, what he is getting to is what we’ve been getting to regarding seeing reality as a little more complex than things and when we do that, it opens up a lot of possibilities but it probably opens up a million more questions. And for someone who retains this way of being in the world and who’s at work and communicating it in such an artful way, in from a place, which probably most necessary in the world, somewhere in the middle east, in the hot spot of really the core of what’s going on, it’s really yeoman’s work that you’re doing and I’m really grateful to ne connected to you, to be able to have this exchange.

My last question is, I got a sense from reading this book that this notion of going out like an automaton and not realizing how the dead affect the present, is really at the core of what’s going on in the middle east, which is really at the core of what happens with the U.S. and essentially the whole world, I mean, if we can really get to the core of this issue, we can really transcend as a species—is that being too grandiose or do you think there is truth in it?

SB    Oh no, that’s…I think there’s truth in it, I mean, that’s the whole point. I don’t know, I wouldn’t say about the U.S. because I’m not American. So I wouldn’t dare talk about the U.S., but certainly if you talk about the middle east, the past rules the present. People look at the past and they see the future. I think Jonah says something like that in the book: they look at the past…you know, realizing that that’s over and that’s the past and whatever it was, these are, you know, scriptures or the myth or legend or words, just words that are left.  And relics to some, or archeological stuff, but these are all remains that we should interpret in certain ways, and once we make the change and start looking at the future not at the past and leave the past, you know, take the past only those things will enable us to move forward, not going back to the past that’s the only change that could happen, a real change. I completely agree with you that that is the main issue here. Sticking to the dead, instead of sticking to the living.

PN    Right, and yet, as scholars of Whitehead, we must point out his quote: “it is the business of the future to be dangerous.”

SB    Dangerous is good, because, you know, it makes you aware. Right, if you are aware of certain possibilities, you move forward, you move very cautiously but you move forward. So it’s not totally a bad thing, you know.

PN    It’s just an amazing book, it’s really thought provoking. I can see someone reading this several times. I can see it existing as a classic that is relevant for hundreds of years to come. Thank you for taking time to talk about it and for writing it in the first place. I’m so grateful, thanks Shahar.

SB    Thank you so much Paul for this interview, thank you so much.

2 Responses to Shahar Bram – The Sentience of Stones

  1. Henry says:

    Paul,

    Greetings from Gloucester.

    Great interview and a wonderful read. I too devoured it. Thanks for posting.

    Shahar, a modern day Charon,

    ferryman with a keen eye

    paddles the reader through the

    ghostbelly of Jerusalem.

    To my filmmaking eye, it was a feast.

    cheers,

    Henry

    Here’s a link.
    http://www.amazon.com/stones-shahar-bram/dp/9659182503

    • Splabman says:

      Henry,

      You are the reason Shahar and I connected and he reminded me of that on Sunday. Bless you.

      I hope to visit the GWC some day. Thanks for the emails and all your fine work.

      Paul

      P.S. I recently came across a WONDERFUL essay on Olson: summit.sfu.ca/system/files/iritems1/6392/b16648699.pdf

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