we who desire

poems and Torah riffs

by Sue Swartz


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About this book

From Genesis to Deuteronomy, from Bereshit to Zot Haberacha, from Eden to Gaza, from Eve to Emma Goldman, we who desire interweaves the mythic and the mundane as it follows the arc of the Torah with carefully chosen words, astute observations, and deep emotion.

we who desire began as daily writing practice, a poem on the weekly Torah portion. I refined, edited, slashed, leaving only those words that tell a story, the real story of creation and covenant, liberation and desire. Especially desire. I have turned it and turned it for decades, this manual of instruction, this text that called me into forever. Turned it until the words felt right, until I was able to admit its hold on me. Fire and splendor. Fire and splendor.” —Sue Swartz

Advance praise

Sue Swartz has used a brilliant, fortified, playful, serious, humanely furious moral imagination, and a poet’s love of the music of language, to re-tell the saga of the Bible you thought you knew—and make its implications crystal clear for the life you are right now living. Amen.
—Alicia Ostriker, author, For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book

Consistently on key, Swartz’s lyrical voice moves deftly between the Biblical past and our gritty, contemporary moment—often interweaving the two in surprising ways.
—Yehoshua November, author, God’s Optimism

Sue Swartz does magnificent acrobatics with the Torah in We Who Desire. She takes the English that’s become staid and boring, and adds something that’s new and strange and exciting. These are poems that leave a taste in your mouth, and you walk away from them thinking, what did I just read? Oh, yeah. It’s the Bible.
—Matthue Roth, author, Yom Kippur A Go-Go, My First Kafka

It is more than their accessibility that marks Sue Swartz’s poems as special — it is the access they give the reader to sudden emotion: wonder, desire, laughter, hurt. Swartz has taken the well-worn motif of Torah commentary-in-verse and created something entirely new and entirely wonderful.
—Lawrence Bush, author, American Torah Toons, Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist


“Abraham: Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land I will show you.”

We are nothing at first. Little more than dust, lucid
with possibility—
Then fruit flies and feral dogs on our way
to becoming a different kind of multitude.

Go forth, we are commanded, and one by one we go
careening into an arrangement we barely understand,
leave our ancestral home to make our way, strangers
parading about in fancy suits of flesh.

We sacrifice our choicest herds, mark the bodies
of our young, yet nothing seems to make us right.
Like a bird we crash into windows.

Like an inflamed god we destroy our things.

To be fair, there is naiveté on every side. The first law
of the universe goes like this—
Energy neither comes nor goes, just whirls
about, fools us into believing there’s something new
under the sun.

The second? Live long enough in the closed system
of a promise and things will go wrong.

Stars will fall off the edge, solar plexus flicker,
kneecap spin off wildly. This is the truth the dead know:
The meat on our bones is dodge & ruse,
short-lived show to tempt our acceptance.

And we do again and again, sign on the dotted line.
Even as eternity rights itself & the skin of our lives
fails to outlast time. Still we invoke the third law, the favored,
the one we call perfection.

Apologia (at the foot of the mountain)

Praise the contrary and its defenders

Now Korach rose up before Moses together with 250 Israelites—

For the chief musician, on common instrument:
A song of rebellion.

Praise rising up. Praise unlawful assembly. Praise the road of excess
and the palace of wisdom. Praise glass houses & the hand
that cradles the stone.

Praise Galileo. Praise acceleration.
Praise the medium and the message.

Praise en masse and the pull of a straight line.
Praise outside agitators
and inside jobs. Praise Red Emma. Praise Joan of Arc.

Praise wayward daughters and praise, praise their wayward sons.

Praise the power of indulgence. Praise Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses.
Praise the nail and the printing press. Praise free verse.
Praise the First Amendment.
Praise illicit beauty, yellow sunflowers and red wheelbarrows.
Praise the poets of Guantanamo.

Praise the noisy midnight streets.
Praise the crazy birds at dawn and praise their woven nests.
Praise Isaac Newton. Praise the apple.

Praise Letters from Prison. Praise the bound notebook and what
is found within. Praise Legal Aid attorneys. Praise kitchen-table
conspiracies. Praise our hunger and the days we are the bread.

Praise farmers’ markets. Praise heirloom tomatoes,
Al Gore and quantum physics. Praise Schrödinger and praise his cat.
Praise talking snakes. Praise run-on sentences.

Praise the best minds of any generation. Praise other people’s poems,
especially the fickle and freckled. Praise Norma Jean. Praise standing
on the table. Praise John Brown and all that trouble in river city.

Praise Walt Whitman & Jimi Hendrix. Praise the body’s
wild intelligence. Praise the giraffe and the porcupine.
Praise getting satisfaction. Praise cross-dressing. Praise untouchables,
undesirables, partisans and riffraff. Praise slackers.

Praise those who talk back. Praise sympathy for the devil.
Praise mothers of the disappeared. Praise mothers of the found.
Praise Planned Parenthood and the siren song.

Praise singers and psalm-makers, Freud and Sinatra.
Praise Gertrude Stein and all thirteen ways of looking at that blackbird.

Praise nude beaches. Praise the terrible twos. Praise hitting
your head against the wall. Praise giving peace a chance.
Praise Selma, Alabama. Praise the Abraham Lincoln Brigades.
Praise Sacco and Vanzetti. Praise Jobs
& Curie. Praise Einstein and his bad posture.

Praise Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Praise crossing party lines.
Praise playing footsy under the table. Praise street puppets and LSD
and stealing this poem. Praise backyard whiskey.

Praise Priscilla the Monkey Girl. Praise her admirers.
Praise Earhart and those who remember what they are told
to forget. Praise agnostics.

Praise what we are not supposed to praise. Praise the electrical storm
and the still small voice. Praise all the proverbs of hell.
Praise this feeling of trying to write about the truth.

Praise those who see it coming. Praise those who do it
anyway. Praise what swallows us whole.

Praise what happens next.

On the Eighth Day

Aaron’s sons Nadav & Avihu… offered before God
strange fire that had not been commanded—

On the eighth day, Alessandro Volta
put metal coins on his tongue
and prophesied sulfurous electricity.

On the eighth day, Leucippus
considered the true nature of the void,
Teller the true capacity of the sun.

Curie was entranced by radium,
and Maxwell by luminous radiations.

On the eighth day, there were isotopes,
cloud chambers, alpha rays.

Life was vaporized in a simple test of hydrogen.

On that day outside planned creation,
God peered into the universe and was afraid for us—

Noisy children snapping berries
off a poisonous bush, racing down the street
with pointy twigs—

Didn’t I tell you to knock that off?

And burned to the nub two sons of priestly
inheritance. Before the whole assembly
were they offered up, a soothing savor.

Object lesson: this may you burn
in your copper pan, of this sinew and thigh
may you eat.

But this intoxicating notion, this 4-legged
It is polluted meat. Strange fire.

Your blowtorch future.