published by Finishing Line Press, 2011
more info here and here
visit her site and watch her read from the book

I’m not a fan of the long poem.  My mind’s eyes tend to glaze over after a fourth page or so, whether it’s by Whitman, Eliot (Waste Land excluded), William Carlos Williams, Browning or Byron.  However, like a comet, a gripping equator-length work comes along every once in a generation and sucks me in for the long haul.  Rena Lee’s Captive of Jerusalem: Song of Shulamite is such a work: because I’m a fan of Israel and Jewish culture, because I easily fall into the arms of sonority and because I dig perfect (and quotable) lines rather than whole pieces.

The best and most efficient way for me to describe Captive of Jerusalem?  It’s Rena’s Song of Songs.  This is no deep insight, of course, for “Shulamite” is the feminine form of “Solomon.”  Also, the second part of “Jerusalem” is derived from “shalom” (peace), from which “Solomon” comes.  The fruits of my scriptural exploration rang like bells, the Tanakh vibrated beneath my reading, making many passages seem compellingly familiar even in their ingenuity.  Finally it sunk through my thick skull that most of the italicized lines and stanzas are direct quotes from the Song of Songs, as well as Isaiah, Psalms, Ezekiel and Habakkuk.

There are different interpretations of who is speaking in the biblical Song: an intimate man and woman, God and Israel.  Chinese Christian martyr Watchman Nee interpreted the Song as the relationship between God and each (bride-like) human under courted by the future Christ via the Holy Spirit.  Rena wittingly or unwittingly plays on such perspectives by appropriating actual lines from scripture for personal poetic purposes.  The narration is decidedly feminine, inverting the main sensibility of the masculine “Solomon” and making the song belong to the receptive “Shulamite” rather than the courting king: “I am the rose plucked of the Sharon, the lily picked/of the valley.”

As in Solomon’s Song, literal and figurative lover-to-lover language is strong in Captive, and, just as in the Song, its love object fluctuates.  Rena, who was raised in Tel Aviv, exclaims love for her birth country as well as a longed-for deceased man (soldier) who is indelibly associated with memories of and from Israel.  Sometimes the land and the person blur, and it almost doesn’t matter which is which.  The narrator is compelled to revisit Jerusalem similarly to how the attraction of a past romance pulls and pulls at the heart until one’s dying breath. “Back and forth I go to Jerusalem, to look once again/for traces of a youth buried in the hills,” she writes in the Prologue.  Then the focus shifts on the unnamed human lover: “I carry you with me wherever I may be/as one carries soil from the Holy Land.”  At first glance the closing line refers to her land of origin: “I come from a country that never lets you go.”  But it also can be taken as “I come from a [lover who] never lets [me] go” or “I come from a country that never lets you [the lover] go” (notice my emphasis on “you”).  Sometimes the city and the narrator are interchangeable metaphors:

Like Jerusalem I’m sealed with stones,
full of unanswered questions.

Stones that cling together to cover any gap,
Always conspiring to have the spirit committed.

And (in “Song of Myself” fashion):

In the shape of my country, I am made of streams and deserts,
Cities and open fields, and many different people.

Her soil is my flesh.
Like her Jordan river, controversy runs me

through and through.

I’m her split image.

Like my country, I too practice the art of living
without peace.

Of course, the not-so-subtle irony of a city with “peace” in its name is the unrest associated with the areas in and around Israel.  Though the general tragedy of the ancient and blood-soaked Middle East disheartens me, I’m pleased that this poem is not yet another voice in the vast chorus against Israel’s interests and survival.  (“I cry “J’accuse!” with Zola indefinitely.)  When I read this line I cheered inside: “[T]his isn’t just a borderline case/but a question of life and death.”

Overall, the book is about recurring loss and constant rediscovery.  “I keep looking for/the passage to a lost Eden./How does one get round the Cherubim/and the flaming sword?” go two lines in part eight of the poem.  Likening herself to the Jerusalem women mourning Tammuz and riffing on the traditional sense of disintegration and forlorn wandering in Jewish history, the narrator mourns the loss of the lover, using the “my beloved is gone down into his garden” line from the Song of Songs to place him in a hidden, forbidden Eden perhaps, underscoring the finality by omitting the last four words of the line so that it becomes “My beloved is gone.”  Or is he?  As it goes in part eight: “Death is the only surety,” you said, yet yours remains/shrouded in doubt.”

I also said that Captive is a constant rediscovery, made possible by Rena’s revisits to Israel, which prevent her from dying spiritually in Manhattan, so far removed from the “summer country,” the “country of countless revelations/where each soul’s nakedness is brought to light,” the “country pregnant with hope, and dreams.”  An oil painting of Jerusalem and a framed photo of the forever-young dead soldier decorate the Manhattan apartment, but they are essentially relics, not lifethings.  It’s as if the returns to the beloved city (“where old grief is forever renewed”) rekindle the smothered fire and deter death-like closure, creating a makeshift micro-eternity.  The following favorite stanzas from part two and the Epilogue put it best.

Summer after summer in Jerusalem, I attempt to collect
And recollect remnants of memories,

Enact and reenact instances of our love,
And sometimes, as I become alive again through reliving,

I succeed to kill your death.


Alas.  On the way…In an infinite U turn.
Bumping into you everywhere I turn,

invariably scorched by the torch
I continue carrying for you.  My love,

Thou art the clefts of the rock,
one with Jerusalem, you are my country…

review by David Herrle, December 2013

Postscript: After finishing this review and trying to contact Rena about it, I learned that she passed away in August 2013.  Though I didn’t know her personally, I grew to respect her through her work, and she seemed to like SubtleTea, contributing to it every once in a while.  As I look at the handwritten note she slipped between the pages of my copy of Captive of Jerusalem, I feel solemn and regretful of her passing.  Truly she was an interesting, sharp, deep-thinking, creative woman.