Wolf Lamb Bomb

  • Review
By – May 24, 2021

Aviya Kushner’s Wolf Lamb Bomb is a con­tem­po­rary, poet­ic explo­ration of the Book of Isa­iah. Span­ning from Jerusalem to Iowa, and from Bib­li­cal times to 9/11, these stir­ring poems chal­lenge any com­pla­cent read­ing of the prophet. As bombs det­o­nate in Jerusalem and planes are weaponized in New York, Kush­n­er imbues Isaiah’s icon­ic vers­es nation shall not lift the sword against nation, nei­ther shall they learn war any­more” and a wolf shall live with a lamb” with new urgency.

Kush­n­er is the author of The Gram­mar of God: A Jour­ney into the Words and Worlds of the Bible (Spiegel & Grau / Pen­guin Ran­dom House, 2015), and her engage­ment with Isaiah’s Hebrew is one of the high­lights of her Eng­lish poet­ry. For exam­ple, in Ancient Hebrew,” Kush­n­er explains that in Isa­iah 32:5 when the vow­els beneath the let­ters of the word for vil­lain’ in that verse are cov­ered, the word becomes harp’”: How close the vil­lain is to the harp!/Two vow­els sep­a­rate them, just as two small/​letters sep­a­rate the harp from the gen­er­ous..” She then asks why no one learns lan­guages like this” — why her way of approach­ing the Hebrew is con­sid­ered wrong, ridicu­lous.” The poem ends with a Whit­manesque expan­sive­ness — an argu­ment that Kusher’s read­ing of Isa­iah is vital because it allows for the mul­ti­plic­i­ty and con­tra­dic­tions of our con­di­tion: I am giv­ing and vil­lain­ous and musical./In my body I car­ry clar­i­ty and crime and the harp..” In her poem, the visu­al and son­ic close­ness of the two Hebrew words (נָָָָבָל/נֶבֶל—naval, nevel)becomes a med­i­ta­tion on the speaker’s own prox­im­i­ty to the dan­ger the poems so often confront.

In Shards,” the speak­er again exam­ines the lan­guage of the Book of Isa­iah, this time con­trast­ing her read­ing with the bib­li­cal commentary:

Baby­lon has fall­en, fallen—

and all her idols have col­lapsed, in del­i­cate detail,

in pre­cise shards. So says the messenger,

so he reports, but I want to know about those shards,[…]

Tell me, once split, once shamed,

what did they do next?

Her ques­tion about the shards is not answered in the text or com­men­tary — Isa­iah, you don’t say, and the commentators,[…]/you don’t care either” — yet the speak­er is insis­tent in want­i­ng the details, I want the identities/​of the lit­tle shards,/their exact address­es and con­di­tions.” As in Ancient Hebrew,” Shards” fea­tures a speak­er ask­ing why her ques­tion about the text is wrong” despite the rich­ness of its inves­ti­ga­tion. The speaker’s ques­tion is gen­dered — it is of no inter­est to the male com­men­ta­tors — and shifts our atten­tion to details over­looked in canon­i­cal nar­ra­tives. As Ancient Hebrew” exam­ines the slight­est shift of vow­els, Shards” calls on us to inves­ti­gate the small­est splin­ters of shame. Both poems cap­ture the vital­i­ty of the col­lec­tion: they insist that ask­ing the Book of Isa­iah new ques­tions will result in new answers, mys­ter­ies, and the divi­sions between them as sub­tle yet sig­nif­i­cant as vow­els. Wolf Lamb Bomb turns and turns Isaiah’s verse, and dis­cov­ers the ways in which it speaks to our con­tem­po­rary strug­gles, but per­haps the most strik­ing poet­ry comes when Kush­n­er faces the bib­li­cal and speaks back.

Alli­son Pitinii Davis is the author of Line Study of a Motel Clerk (Baobab Press, 2017), a final­ist for the Berru Poet­ry Award and the Ohioana Book Award. 

Discussion Questions