by Lucille Lang Day
Inner East: Illuminated Poems and Blessings, by Marcia Falk, Oak & Acorn Press, Berkeley, California, 2018, 48 color plates, limited edition, 106 pages, $30.00 paperback www.marciafalk.com.
MARCIA FALK IS BEST known as a poet, translator, and Judaic scholar, but she is also an artist who has had many solo exhibitions of her oil pastel paintings, and who has created her own art form based on the traditional decorative Jewish plaques called mizrachs, which are hung on the eastern walls of homes and synagogues to show the direction to face during prayer. In Western countries one faces east during prayer, the direction of Jerusalem. Falk's new mizrachs pair her paintings with her poems and blessings to inspire viewers to enter a contemplative, prayerful state, i.e., to find the "inner east" within themselves.
Her latest book, Inner East: Illuminated Poems and Blessings, is a collection of painting/poem and painting/blessing pairs, such as those in her mizrachs. This is Falk's first book in which her paintings have appeared. Delicate and hauntingly beautiful, reminiscent of Impressionist work, the paintings add a whole new dimension to the poems and blessings, many of which appeared in Falk's previous books, including her liturgical works, The Book of Blessings and The Days Between, and her poetry collection This Year in Jerusalem. The paintings contain forests, fields, clouds, mountains, oceans, sunsets, and flowers. The words, together with the images, invite us to let go of mundane fears and worries, and seek our spiritual core.
This is "Blessing of Creation":
Let us bless the source
of darkness and light—
heart of harmony and chaos,
creativity and creation.
It is paired with a painting of a sea at dusk, shimmering in the day's last light under darkening clouds. For me, pairing "creativity" and "creation" brings human creativity into the realm of divine creation and implies that humans can share in the ongoing process of creation. In fact, all of the paintings depict aspects of divine creation in the form of gorgeous earthly scenes for us to meditate upon.
For Falk, the divine takes neither a male nor female human form. Instead, the divine is, for example, "the source of life," "the well/eternally giving," "the breath/of all living things," or "the flow of life." In English, the nouns are genderless, but Falk's blessings also appear in Hebrew, a language in which all nouns have gender. In the Hebrew, Falk alternates between grammatically masculine and feminine nouns to represent the divine, carefully avoiding words such as "Lord" and "mother," which are semantically as well as grammatically male or female. This, too, is a way of saying that the divine is neither male nor female but transcends the conventions of patriarchy and gender.
In addition to being a groundbreaking work of feminist spirituality, Inner East is a book that reflects acute environmental awareness. Every painting offers a richly beautiful scene from the natural world. Also, the Earth and its creatures—birds, deer, flowers, trees—appear in the poems and blessings, where there is an abundance of memorable images such as "fat globes of white sugarmum/where bees suck love" ("The Feast") and "yellow birch shivering in the green light of ferns" ("The Guests"). More than just pretty images, collectively, the paintings and words tell us that the Earth we inhabit is of the utmost importance. We must notice it, revere it, and protect it, because this is the closest we can get to the divine.
Lucille Lang Day is a poet, science educator, and children's book writer. Her poetry books include Becoming an Ancestor and Dreaming of Sunflowers: Museum Poems; her latest children's book is The Rainbow Zoo. Her memoir, Married at Fourteen: A True Story, received the 2013 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award, and was a nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Creative Non-Fiction. She is coeditor of multiple anthologies, most recently Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California, and lives in Oakland, California.