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The following poem, called “Miriam’s Song,” was written by contemporary American poet named Eleanor Wilner. Born in Ohio in 1937, Eleanor was on the faculty of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She lived part of her life in Philadelphia. It strikes me as a beautiful addendum to my previous post, on women’s role in the Exodus.

Miriam’s Song by Eleanor Wilner

Death to the first born sons, always —
The first fruits to the gods of men.
She had not meant it so, standing in the reeds,
back then, the current tugging at her skirt
like hands, she had only meant to save
her little brother, Moses, red-faced with rage
when he was given
to the river. The long curve of the Nile
would keep their line, the promised land
around the bend. Years later
when the gray angel, like the smoke trail
of a dying comet, passed by their houses
with blood smeared over doorways, Miriam,
her head hot in her hands, wept
as the city swelled
with the wail of Egypt’s women.
Then she straightened up, slowly plaited
her hair and wound it tight around her head,
drew her long white cloak with its deep blue
threads
around her, went out to watch the river
where Osiris, in his golden funeral barge, floated by forever …
as if in offering, she placed a basket on the river,
this time an empty one, without the precious
cargo
of tomorrow. She watched it drift a little from the shore.
She threw one small stone in it,
then another, and another, til its weight
was too much for the water and it slowly turned
and sank. She watched the Nile gape and
shudder,
then heal its own green skin. She went
to join the others, to leave one ruler
for another, one Egypt for the next.
Some nights you still can see her, by some river
where the willows hang, listening to the heavy
tread
of armies, whose sons once hidden dark
in baskets, and in their mind she sees her sister,
the black-eyed Pharaoh’s daughter, lift the baby
like a gift from the brown flood waters
and take him home to save him, such  pretty
boy and so disarming, as his dimpled hands
reach up, his mouth already open
for the breast.

To hear an NPR podcast about Exodus and Wilner’s poem “Miriam’s Song,” click here! This interview first aired On Being in 2005 and includes an interview with Aviva Zornberg. Zornberg is a scholar of Torah and rabbinic literature, and author of several books including The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus.

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