top of page

Know These Bones

Levi Morrow

February 26, 2024

Untitled_Artwork (2).png

 /Jay Smith/ 

Introduction:

This crown of poems is a collaboration, but

one where my coauthor, Maimonides (Rambam),

died over 800 years ago. As a collaborative pro-

ject, the poems are not guided solely by my own

language or concerns, but by Rambam’s as well.

“Foundation of foundations and pillar of all kno-

wledge,” begins his masterful code of law, the

Mishneh Torah. At the start of my poems, I have

given pride of place and priority to Rambam,

but perhaps given the most important word to

myself: “Foundation of foundations and pillar of all faith.” The poems are marked by medieval language, concerns, and categories such as the binaries of faith and knowledge, body and mind, matter and form, as well as the cosmology of the spheres. Some of these medieval elements are subverted, others simply rejected, and others poetically re-expressed. 

 

Each of the ten poems in the crown corresponds to a chapter in “Laws of the Foundations of the Torah,” the scientific-philosophical-theological treatise with which Rambam begins his massive legal compendium. I’ve learned, taught, and lived with this text for years, and it has on occasion carried me off on medieval flights of syllogism. In these poems, I have dragged Rambam along on a poetic journey down this path he himself paved. “Laws of the Foundations of the Torah” comprises those ideas and beliefs which Rambam sees as constituting the basis for all of Jewish law. These poems aim to do something similar, exploring foundational elements of life as a (modern, Orthodox) Jew as I experience it.

 

Thematically, “Laws of the Foundations of the Torah” breaks down into three sections: 1. God and the Universe (ch. 1–4), 2. Sanctifying and Desecrating the Divine Name (Ch. 5–6), 3. Prophecy and Torah (ch. 7–10). The poems in the crown break down similarly, though Rambam’s medieval metaphysics have been replaced by modern existential, psychoanalytic, and poetic tendencies. If I have done my work properly, the result bears witness to and reflects on a theological experience at once very modern and very committed to the medieval and the strange. Reading the poems will hopefully be a gratifying experience no matter what, but a reader familiar with “Laws of the Foundations of the Torah”—or who chooses to read the poems alongside it—will certainly have a richer experience.

I.

Foundation of foundations 

And pillar of all faith—

To desire you 

In my bones not

Bow before your empty

throne before 

The law the word

 

I pray 

 

That you are burning 

And becoming solid: you

My tendons turn: you 

My muscles burn: you

More solid than 

Words humming more 

Nimble than tongues running 

Like deer along a page 

 

Praying

 

That absent burning

I cannot do without

II.

I cannot do without the form you see

The body baked of mud that’s me

The ultimate opacity of God and 

 

Bodies with their scars

Their lines meridians

On little worlds are

Paths away from awe

From fact from powerglory

To life pathological

 

To me—this

Immanent ferment—Me

Right here

III.

Right here

In the center

Of circling spheres

My body takes shape

 

My face is wound from

Threads of my people

Circling round

 

Tying and binding 

Muscles to bones

Meaning to matter to

Deeds I have done

 

Right here

In the center

I cannot see 

What makes me me

I think I see

All there is

IV.

All there is calls for

Form to matter but it

Falls afoul of the matter

Which desires

 

To know

 

The bodiless imagined 

From within the flesh

That yearns not to be

All there is

 

Silence—don’t

Say—all there is

Is not one

V.

Not one but more

We become when we carve 

The letters in our skin 

 

From outside in

Down to the core 

We cut your lore your

Law you ancient of days

 

We say your names: We cry

For you to tell us

To die for you

Into the limbs of 

Your letters of your names

We say we pray 

 

We profane

 

What we call

Truth: to live 

With you on our lips

VI.

With you on my lips

I breathe your name: don’t

Blame the one who speaks

Your name profane—not mundane

No never mundane: I am

 

Your suffix—your name

Affixed behind my I 

Where eyes betray

Just what I think I mean.

 

I don’t know you to

Profess you but I know you

In my bones most biblical: don’t

Break the bones inscribed

with your name—

Wood for your altar—

Just know these bones

VII.

These bones without spirit

Never once called to transcend

And feel the spirit that

Descends down and down

And down.

 

Little empty hollows pock 

The surface of my stony

Heart, tiny letters graven where

Your name should be

 

What it should be

 

For me

You run like sap 

In the world to my gaps

A darkened glimmer 

A glow that echoes in

 

This thing itself,

A sign.

VIII.

A sign cannot see

To what it bears witness,

The absent event that 

Marks the horizon

 

The lingering dark and

Doubting unknown

Of what and why

I must do.

 

How am I to know

What of the past 

Withers or lasts

What names are written 

In the blood I cannot see

 

Veins on fire, this

Ritual pyre demands

I witness 

Everything

 

IX.

Everything moves

In place: sap in my

Bones transcending 

In, in, in

 

And yet I never succeed 

To transcend, to be 

 

What I should be

 

The only rule is to repeat 

The sins of days gone by

To try and fail to live 

As if I heard your name

Your law and word

 

X.

Law and word

Are their own events—

 

The force of their validity

An empty infinity that

Resounds and

Resounds and

Resounds—

 

Echoes without voices

Smoke without flame

 

We don’t test

We don’t we blame

We trust in the name which

We find in our bones

 

I speak what is given and

In speaking am riven 

In two: word and fire both 

Law and desire: the 

Being that burns down

To my foundation

Levi Morrow

Levi Morrow is a writer, teacher, and translator living in Jerusalem with his wife and their kids. He is a PhD candidate in the Jewish Philosophy Department at the Hebrew University, focusing on the Political Theology of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Levi he teaches medieval and modern Jewish thought at Yeshivat Orayta, and is a research fellow at both the Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center and the Shalom Hartman Institute. His poems and translations have been published in The Southshore Review, The Jewish Literary Journal, and The Barnacle Goose.

Headshot High Res Levy Morrow N_F_HR (7) - levi morrow.jpg
bottom of page