by Jeffrey Burghauser (September 2023)
Rest, Herwig Zens
From a translation of The Siege of Jerusalem, the anonymous fourteenth century Middle English epic. While it bears some connection with legitimate primary source material (including Josephus’s chronicle of the Revolt), The Siege of Jerusalem is a macabre fever-dream version of the story of Jerusalem’s destruction in AD 70. Of course, neither Vespasian nor Titus was a Christian; the circumstances surrounding the siege differed both in detail and character from what’s depicted here. The manner in which the characters are presented has more to do with the fourteenth century writer’s rhetorical priorities (he’s clearly a pro-Crusade propagandist) than with historical accuracy. Therefore, these characters should be regarded, for all intents and purposes, as fictional.
Jerusalem’s sorrows were awful to tell.
____Its citizens helplessly drowned
In thirstiness, lost in the baffling maze
Of Hunger, occasioning frantic malaise.
Indeed, it had been over forty dark days
____Of anguish since food had been found.
Alas, in the absence of fish or of flesh,
____Of olives or barley … in lieu
Of what had before been the émĕrăld fields’
Divinely voluminous, regular yields,
The Jews ate unusable sandals and shields—
____Not easy for ladies to chew.
A donkey’s old, half-rotten head could be had
____For fifty denarii; its lung,
For twice that. Where Hunger positions her fort,
Contriving decrees that admit no retort,
Five pieces of silver can buy you a quart
____Of dove or Leviathan dung.
Severe dehydration was worse than the work
____Of swords or a legion of spears.
New water was tainted. The cisterns were dry.
Since all of Jerusalem knew how to cry,
The only enduringly ample supply
____Of water was Israelite tears.
And hundreds cŏllápsed from Starvation’s resolve.
____The living soon suffered a plight
Exceeding the sting of Mortality’s aim.
The living were snared in a turbulent game
Revolting to Conscience. The Hebrews became
____Hyenas patrolling the night.
A woman named Mary, a wonderful wife,
____Starvation impairing her soul’s
Transcendent, intuitive exercise of
A woman’s inheritance, Motherly Love,
Implored the forgiveness of Heaven above,
____And roasted her son on the coals.
“My Father, alas!” she cried, flipping the ribs.
____“The battle surrounding the town
Devours the best of us! Hungers consume
Whoever remains in a city that Doom
Has made her encampment. The womb is a tomb,
____And martyrdom isn’t a crown.
“This beautiful baby that came from inside
____My body reënters: his hips,
His beautiful arms…—That Starvation outruns
My basic humanity no longer stuns.”
She shuddered, dispatching a piece of her son’s
____Left shoulder inside of her lips.
Aromas of roasting descended upon
____The squalid, crepuscular street
Where Jews in their thousands dementedly wore
Their hunger. A pack of them sniffed. With a roar,
They quickly locáted and busted the door
____In search of the scandalous meat.
And Mary declared: “I have roasted my son,
____And greedily gnawed on the bone!”
And then, in a broadly approximate sketch
Of sweet hospitality: “Pardon. I’ll fetch
A kitchen knife” —so each delusional wretch
____Could cleave off a piece of his own.
As Mary hysterically searched for the knife,
____The visitors’ stupor withdrew.
“It would have been better to fall in the fray,”
They bellowed, “than witness the Devil at play!—
The Good and the Beautiful: so far away
____From being the same as the True.
“O cónsummate Master, behold who You’ve done
This misery to! Shall the board
Of Hebrews be laden with babies released
From living? Shall Man be reduced to a Beast?
O Master of Mercy! Shall Prophet and Priest
Be slain in the House of the Lord?”
The seething extent of the Jewish distress
____And shame had so thoroughly bruised
Their will to continue their war against Good,
Against a perfection they now understood,
They brokenly asked if the Christiäns would
____Have mercy. But Titus refused.
(He’s bursting with Absolute Wisdom who knows,
____Before the Fiasco can feed
Upon him—before the Catastrophe that
Devours insanely; before all the fat
Is rendered—to deal with Duplicity at
____A generous distance indeed.)
The Hebrews continued to tunnel beneath
____The walls that were built to protect
Jerusalem from the incursions of foes,
But now were obscenely enlisted to close
Within its mephitic perimeter those
____United in Vanity’s sect.
Jeffrey Burghauser is a teacher in Columbus, Ohio. He was educated at SUNY-Buffalo and the University of Leeds. He currently studies the five-string banjo with a focus on pre-WWII picking styles. A former artist-in-residence at the Arad Arts Project (Israel), his poems have appeared (or are forthcoming) in Appalachian Journal, Fearsome Critters, Iceview, Lehrhaus, and New English Review. Jeffrey’s book-length collections are available on Amazon, and his website is www.jeffreyburghauser.com.
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