Hannah and Her Sisters

The Best American Poetry Blog
November 14, 2009

It so happened: a group of us were having dinner in Miami last night, sitting on a dock on one of the islands in the shallows of Biscayne Bay.

We had wine and a cool breeze and we were doing nothing more than sighing about the glories of potatoes served a certain way when the poet and musician Alicia Jo Rabins came down and joined us and told us the story of Hannah.

Rabins has a new band called “Girls in Trouble” and they have a stunning debut album just out this week called, hey, guess what?—“Girls in Trouble.”

The girls Alicia sings about are women from the Bible—most are lesser-known and even obscure—and their desert world is harsh, gruesome, mysterious, out of control. These are strong, fascinating women, unremembered and struggling in the desert for survival, family, for some understanding of the capricious ways of God, for a way to live with grace amidst the impossible. We know these women. The voices of our mothers and sisters and friends echo in these experiences of love and suffering, sacrifice and anger, jealousy, hunger, danger, doubt. Kith and kin depend on the wisdom, love and wile of these women.

“Girls in Trouble” is musical midrash—Rabins interprets the texts these women have somewhat disappeared within—and a necessary effort of feminist respect and recovery. But it’s also really cool music: ten haunting songs with vocals and fiddles and strings of all kinds and drums and vibraphone and city urgency mixed up with the mood of Appalachia.

Okay, so back to our Miami mood—on the dock, under the stars, with wine and Hannah. Or “Chana” if I step out of my own familiarities with the King James Bible and go Torah—which is definitely what you do if you’re listening to a nice Jewish girl named Alicia Jo Rabins sing songs and tell stories of biblical girls in trouble. Make that: nice Jewish girl who’s also a brilliant and gorgeous artist, intellectual, storyteller and songwriting macher-ette. And, remember, “girl” is her word, not mine.

Chana was the mother of Samuel. For many years in her marriage to Elkanah, Chana was barren. But she was still Elkanah’s favorite, his spiritual soul mate. Big surprise, this did not endear Chana to Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah. So Chana lived life taunted and abused by wife number two, who bore and raised the kids. Finally, Chana prayed and asked Hashem (God) for a child of her own. But, to sweeten the deal, she vowed, if her prayer were answered, to give her son to Hashem and send him away from her to live as a priest for life.

There are many moving parts to this story. Okay, that’s a bad, but I hope, multivalent pun, because Rabins was retelling the Song of Hannah, which became for Jews the model of how to pray, and became, for Christians, the basis of the Magnifcat, the Song of Mary in the Gospel of Luke when Mary visits Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist and Elizabeth praises Mary for her faith. And the rest is music history.

Rabins has a song about Chana called “Marble Floor,” that focuses on the fact that when Chana prayed, her lips moved—and yet no one could hear her:

“Now Hannah, she spake in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard.” Samuel I:13

This was not, it seems, the common practice. And it startled the local priest. He was watching Chana pray and came to the conclusion that she must have been drunk. (And there we all were on the dock, enrapt by AJR telling this story, holding our glasses of wine.)

But Chana responded to the priest, “No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the LORD.” Samuel I:15

Later, I read that in Judaism, this pouring out of the soul is called כוונה, “kavanah,” or being full of purpose. It is condition of the heart and mind essential to prayer. But here’s the fascinating thing. If your heart is pouring forth and your lips are moving and making the shapes of words into expressions of hope and pain and belief, then why no sound? Why didn’t Chana simply cry out in her pain and hope for all the world to hear?

If I have this right, and Alicia Jo Rabins is not here to correct me, the answer can be found in the conflict inherent in Chana’s sorrowful spirit. It is almost as if she’s eating her words as she prays. She must speak to God. And she feels as if she has no choice but to say what she does. Thoughts and feelings are not enough. There must be specific sentences to articulate her need, her hunger, her willingness and reluctance to sacrifice a child she doesn’t yet have.

And, yet, Chana is human. Her reluctance is almost as physical as her desire. You can almost imagine her asking herself, “What am I saying?”

By now, we had had coffee and chocolate. Water was lapping up against the dock. Other than that, it was silent and we were nodding our heads in the candlelit dark. We were a group of writers listening to Chana’s story. We could all put ourselves exactly there—at that shaky and foundational moment of commitment to our own words: we have the need, even the compulsion to speak, to sing, to praise. And yet we start to mumble into doubt and retreat even as we begin: What am I saying? What have I done?

Which brings me back to the question my friend’s daughter asked and I revealed perhaps too easily here, a week ago here: What is the difference between asking a question and wondering?

I told the girl (no, her name is not Hannah–though it’s very, very tempting to lie to you now and make it neat) that she should worry about anyone willing to give her an easy answer.

And then I thought, maybe worrying is the answer: it can tip one way to lots of good questions and it can tip the other to lots of wonder about what’s coming, what is and what was. Either way, worry is a blissful and neurotic moment of entitlement to indecision and nothingness, a rare child-like chance to hope and doubt and leave it be. Worry is the permission to ponder.

That’s the Song of Hannah. Maybe that’s something a secularist could call a cousin of prayer.

Can I tell you? While I’ve loved learning how to blog this week: thank whatever god or heaven you choose or know or imagine, that after seven days, it’s over. I need to go back to worrying—but without a deadline, my lips in motion and my daily words, quite happily, an unpublished mumble.

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