on Israel Har’s Pauper’s Discourse on a Bush
“[My] word that goes forth from my mouth…shall not return to me empty”
Israel Har’s Pauper’s Discourse on a Bush is apparently about sleeplessness caused by hunger, and two types of plants, but actually the poem is also about the thirst for communication, the hunger for human contact and the need for understanding. The title is ambiguous, and difficult to translate, because the Hebrew word siach means both “shrub” or “bush” and “discourse” or “conversation.” The poet adds the adjective “poor” to this noun, causing the reader to wonder immediately about which of the two meanings he intended. As the rest of the poem relates to nettle and myrtle bushes, and includes two different and lonely monologues which take the place of a dialogue (a morning song and the prophet Isaiah’s cry), the riddle is never solved, and the confusion that arises at the beginning of the poem remains at its end.
Nettles and myrtles exist in one sense in opposition: the nettle is neither beautiful nor fragrant, and because of its acidity, causes burns when coming into contact with human skin. Nonetheless, the plant provides nutrition to animals, and, in times of war, saves humans from starvation. In contrast, the myrtle is known as tasteless if scented; that is, it arouses hunger which it does not satisfy. The poet turns the nettle, which under ordinary conditions is not used as food, to a myrtle, which stimulates appetite but does not deliver on its promise.
The pauper’s bush is an allegory, as is the pauper’s discourse. Har depicts a lonely hunger at night, relating to another hunger, no less terrible. At the beginning of the poem, hunger is bodily, whose satiation cannot quench the hunger of the soul – to speak with others, conduct a conversation with a friend or a relationship with a woman, to feel close to another person. It is known to all that “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18), and in Har’s poetry, loneliness and hunger are twins. Only discourse, connection with others, can somewhat ameliorate existential loneliness and spiritual hunger.
As the poet writes toward the end of the poem, the prophet Isaiah calls out, “Ho, every one who thirsts” (55:1), but the prophet’s remarks are not primarily concerned with physical hungers. Isaiah, speaking of God’s compassion, says, “Hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness” (55:2). The final conclusion of this biblical sermon is: “Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;/ instead of the [nettle] brier shall come up the myrtle;/ and it shall be to the Lord a memorial,/for an everlasting sign which shall not be cut off” (55:13). In the poet’s description of the nettle and the myrtle is the distress of a lonely person drawn toward company, and the poet’s desire that others will understand his words, a desire common to poets and other people. Everything positive about human connections depends on mutual understanding, which depends on deeds but also on words:
[S]o shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands…