Writing Beyond the Human
Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Joy Ladin’s poem “Comfort Animal” appears in the January 2019 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.
Like many transgender kids, I grew up hiding who I was, which in my case meant hiding my female gender identification and pretending to be the boy I was supposed to be. I was sure that I was too different for anyone else to accept or understand me. That belief made it hard to write poetry, the one thing that made me feel truly alive.
I had only one relationship in which I felt seen, known, and understood: my relationship with God. To God, the difference that seemed to cut me off from the rest of humanity didn’t matter at all.
Now, as I did when I was a child, I am looking beyond the human for a perspective from which my sense of humanity isn’t hobbled by my sense of difference, embarking on a series of poems written in the voice of the Shekhinah—the immanent, feminine aspect of God who, according to Jewish mystical tradition, dwells among human beings, sharing our suffering, reminding us that even when we feel exiled from ourselves, God remembers who we are and is always there to welcome us back.
To the Shekhinah, the differences that yawn between us—gender, race, religion, ethnicity, personal or collective history, or even position in time and space—are as trivial as sidewalk cracks. When she looks at humanity, she sees creatures who, whatever our differences, feel punished by the terms of mortal existence, and who habitually ignore the divinity that dwells among and within us, that calls us beyond anxiety and anguish:
A voice says, “Your punishment has ended.”You never listen to that voice. You really suckat being comforted.Another voice says, “Cry.”That voice always gets your attention...........................................................Death tramples you, an un-housebroken pettrailing prints and broken stems,pooping anxiety, PTSD, depression.
Jewish tradition generally imagines the Shekhinah as a passive, quiet presence; the feminine complement to the active, thunderous, masculine divinity who punishes and redeems in the Hebrew Bible. In other words, the traditional Shekhinah is imagined in terms of what trans activists call the gender binary, according to which the female is defined as the opposite of whatever is seen as male.
To the pioneering Jewish feminist Marcia Falk, the Shekhinah was little more than a theological expression of patriarchal assumptions: “Sad as it is, I cannot help but feel that, far from redeeming women, the image of the Shekhinah has, until now, only supported the male-centered vision.” Instead, Falk called for portrayals of female divinity that are not defined by the gender binary: “I would like to see autonomous female images, not ones that imply the essential otherness of women.”
The Shekhinah who speaks in my series, which “Comfort Animal” is part of, is one example of an autonomous female image: as God says at the burning bush, she is what she is, without regard for binary ideas of maleness and femaleness. Though Falk was probably not thinking about transgender identities when she called for autonomous female images, for me, the Shekhinah’s autonomy, her identification as female despite her lack of a body, and her refusal to limit her language to fit gender binary ideas of femininity make her a trans female archetype, a signifier of the liberating potential of trans identities.
Most modern portrayals of the Shekhinah, even powerful, explicitly feminist texts such as Alicia Ostriker’s famous “A Prayer to the Shekhinah,” speak to or about the Shekhinah rather than letting her speak for herself. As a result, there aren’t many examples that suggest how a Shekhinah who is not defined by the gender binary might speak, what she would say, or what kind of language she would say it in.
When I began to live my female gender identity 10 years ago, I faced similar questions about how to express myself. At first I tried to fit my language, voice, and demeanor to conventional ideas of femininity, hoping that this would prompt others to accept my female gender identity despite the fact that I had been born and lived most of my life as male. But I gradually realized that I was not willing to cut myself off from kinds of language and modes of expression that I had found comfortable and effective when presenting myself as male. In order to express my true identity—to live as the person I am rather than a binary-gender-defined persona—I needed to use any form of expression that rang true for me, whether it was considered feminine or masculine.
I came to a similar realization in writing these poems. The binary conventions I found inadequate to express my female-identified humanity were even less adequate to express the Shekhinah’s female-identified divinity. To create a female language that was not defined in opposition to maleness, I fused Biblical diction drawn from God’s monologues in Isaiah—magnificent poetry charged with the power and authority traditionally associated with male images of God—with language from Cosmopolitan articles written by and for women and charged with different, and differently gendered, forms of power and authority. For example, “Comfort Animal” fuses language from a passage from Isaiah in which God says, “Comfort, comfort my people,” with an article from Cosmopolitan titled “Here’s Absolutely Everything You Need to Know About Getting an Emotional Support Animal.” The result is a Shekhinah who samples and remixes gendered forms of diction, enabling her to speak in ways that reflect her unbridled divinity and female identification:
I take you everywhere,which is why, wherever you go, I’m there,keeping you hydrated, stroking your hair,laughing when you chase your tail,gathering you to my invisible breastsmore tenderly than any mother.You’re right—you never asked for this. I’m the reasonyour valleys are being lifted up,the source of your life laid bare.Mine is the voice that decrees—that begs—your anguish to end.When you suffer, I suffer.Comfort meby being comforted.
The God who speaks in Isaiah usually addresses specific, well-defined human groups: the people of Israel or other nations, Jews in exile or the remnant who remained after the destruction of Jerusalem, the poor and dispossessed or the wealthy and powerful. As you can see, when the Shekhinah addresses humanity, she ignores such distinctions, along with contemporary identity markers. She does not distinguish between black people or white people, heteronormative or queer, progressive or conservative, immigrant or native, disabled or able-bodied, believer or atheist. No matter how different we seem to one another, to the Shekhinah, all human beings are comprehended by the same “you.” Wielding the second-person pronoun to simultaneously single us out as individuals and insist on our common humanity, she summons all of us beyond habits of thinking and feeling that prevent us from recognizing her presence, her love, and our power—our need—to embrace them.