Many of our stories can be found in the great traditions. One of the oldest stories in existence, Gilgamesh & Enkidu is a love story of men. Another is the great love of David & Jonathan found in the Hebrew Tanakh, known as the Old Testament to Christians. The story of David & Jonathan has been retold for centuries. One gorgeous retelling is that of the contemporary poet Steven Schecter, who wrote a beautiful book-length poem titled David & Jonathan: An Epic Poem of Love & Power in Ancient Israel.
Today’s Gay Wisdom is an excerpt from the poem in which Schecter retells the exchange between the lovers told in two verses at the end of the 20th chapter of the book of Samuel. In the book of Samuel the story is recounted as:
41 And as soon as the lad was gone, David arose out of a place toward the South, and fell on his face to the ground, and bowed down three times; and they kissed one another, and wept one with another, until David exceeded.
41 ‘Go in peace, forasmuch as we have sworn both of us in the name of HaShem, saying: HaShem shall be between me and thee, and between my seed and thy seed, for ever.’
Schecter’s retelling fills in the unmistakable details of this meeting of lovers:
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David hears Jonathan’s lonely footsteps
and waits no longer.
At once rises.
A diver breaking the water’s surface.
A prisoner his bonds.
A wail its sorrow.
Three times rises and falls
until the full-length lover has turned
to a howl in the dust.
Jonathan stares like a bronze,
surprised at the derelict hands
encircling his feet.
They knew it could come to this,
David more than he,
but knowing the future is sometimes
like knowing the past,
the battle dates mere numbers
to reveal a tale of hope and ruin;
one is therefore well advised to sound one’s heart
before entering history.
Even a priest listens
before dashing blood against the altar.
But not David,
who picks up people like war campaigns
and figured it all as the calculus of God’s grace.
Jonathan does not approve,
has never approved,
has more than once told him he misreads his own heart,
but has come to appreciate
that his lover, like a caterpillar,
only learns by shedding his mistakes;
and so ought not to be surprised.
And yet is.
The man’s pain is so great
it cracks the ground on which he kneels
and runs the fault line to Jonathan’s heart
that weeps, weeps,
for this poor tumbleweed of love.
It is all he can do to pull the man up.
His cries screech against the air,
again rise up,
a mad assault on a sponge.
Jonathan hugs David close,
his lips on his neck, in his ear,
murmuring the prayer for ex-lovers:
"God Almighty, let him not fall by the wayside,
not rot in despair,
not spit on hope.
May he remember life is long,
and that I love him;"
and with the hand that caressed him to the tailbone
rubbed the prayer into his bones.
Quiet limped into David’s body.
His sobs grew less and turned to tears
that flowed over the prince’s shoulders,
wet, warm watermarks of love
that mingled with kisses;
and the kisses soon drew forth an embrace,
and one embrace drew forth another,
as tradition would later have it,
And then Jonathan sent him off
in peace as they had sworn,
tongue to tongue
and seed to seed
as God was their witness.
And when David could no longer be seen,
Jonathan also turned his back
and returned to the city of kings.
from Stephen Schecter’s David & Jonathan published by Robert Davies Publishing.
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This entry was also this day’s Gay Wisdom email.
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