I have long harbored a suspicion that Wallace Stevens wrote “The Idea of Order at Key West” with Shirat Hayam in mind.
In Shirat Hayam (Exodus 15), Miriam leads the women of Israel in a poem/song praising God for miraculously delivering Bnei Yisrael from the hands of the Egyptians. The Israelites are passing through the Red Sea on dry land with the waters piled up on either side of them as the Egyptians, hot on their trail, drown in the waters that close in upon them. It’s all rather devastating and dramatic, and one has to wonder: Did the Israelites turn around and see the terrible human catastrophe behind them, as Lot’s wife (let’s call her Eurydice) surely would have done? Could they see the Egyptians gasping for breath and hear them crying out for deliverance? Or did they have their sights firmly fixed on the path before them, believing steadfastly and unwaveringly in God and Moshe His servant? And when exactly did they start to sing: After they had already crossed the sea and they were assured of their victory? Or while they were still passing through, at a time when their fate still very much hang in the balance?
Both Ramban and Sforno suggest the latter: Bnei Yisrael were still walking through the split sea at the moment when they began to sing. As Sforno puts it, “The Az Yashir occurred when Pharaoh’s horses went in with his chariots and horsemen into the sea, and God, the Blessed One, drowned them while the Children of Israel were still walking on the dry land in the midst of the sea. Before they came out they began to sing.” Aviva Zornberg points out that according to Sforno’s reading, Shirat Hayam was not a victorious exaltation, but rather an expression of deep faith. At the time when BY began singing, they still did not know that they would survive. For all they knew, the waters that had begun to engulf the Egyptians would then creep up upon them. After all, they were used to a Pharaoh who was notorious for his changes of heart; why should their new Ruler be any different? And yet they believed in His steadfastness, at least enough to begin singing a song of thanksgiving even before there was anything concrete for which to be grateful.
I want to suggest a somewhat different reading of Sforno. As I see it, Bnei Yisrael (and then the women among them) were not singing out of faith in God; they were rather singing as a way of “drowning out” the sounds of disaster behind them. As the Egyptians were crying out in utter horror (picture the blockbuster film Titanic), Bnei Yisrael were trying to impose some sense of order amidst the chaos. And so they sang out in very measured, crafted speech –i.e. poetry—as a way of creating some sense in the midst of the mighty waves and gales engulfing the Egyptians who stood only a few feet behind them. The scene recalls Meg Wallace reciting the multiplication tables in the face of IT: when confronted with horror, a person copes by creating a different rhythm, any rhythm that is not the rhythm of the horror. And so the women took out their drums.
But it is not just any song they sing. They depict in vivid detail their miraculous deliverance in the hands of God, a deliverance which, as Sforno tells us, has not even happened yet. I tend to think that it was the singing of the women that delivered them, in the same way that the “va-yehi or” of God created light. The utterance was performative: The women sang that “He cast Pharaoh’s chariots and his army into the sea,” and lo and behold, God cast Pharaoh’s chariots and his army into the sea. And then they sang “You made the wind blow; the sea covered them,” and lo and behold, the wind blew and the sea covered them. Their very expression of faith was what enabled God to stretch out his mighty hand and bring His people forth on dry land.
Wallace Stevens depicts a similar scenario in “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Here we have a poem about a woman who walks beside the sea and sings a song: She sang beyond the genius of the sea… She sings of the tragic-gestured sea, and of the mayim la-hem chomah: the sunken corral water-walled. It is a song of water and wind, much like Shirat Hayam:
It may be that in all here phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind. . .
Moreover, her singing creates the reality around her, much as Bnei Yisrael’s singing creates (rather than merely depicts) the conditions for their salvation:
But it was she and not the sea we heard.
For she was the maker of the song she sang…
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker.
Stevens’ poetic subject is the maker both of the song and of the world, just as Miriam’s singing creates the split sea. This is evident even visually in the Torah scroll, where the words of the song are printed in two columns like two walls of water facing one another. Stevens tells us that “the song and water were not medleyed sound,” and yet I cannot help but wonder: if all the heavens were parchment and all the seas were ink, wouldn’t poetry have the power to split the waters?
Like Miriam, the woman of this poem sings to an audience that recognizes the power of her words and her melody:
Whose spirit is this? We said “Mi chamocha ba-elim HaShem?”
It was the spirit that we sought and knew “Zeh Eli v’anvehu!”
By singing out in call-and-response to Miriam, and by invoking God’s omnipotence, the Israelites are able to make some sense out of Stevens’ “meaningless plungings of water and the wind.” These sounds become no longer meaningless plunges, but rather the sounds of God’s enemies “sinking like lead in the majestic waters.” And so although “terror and dread descend upon them [the Egyptians],” Bnei Yisrael are able to manufacture some degree of order, i.e. some “seder,” as we say on Pesach. Stevens captures this “rage for order” at the end of his poem:
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
Led by Miriam, Bnei Yisrael are able to “make” order, both by singing out amidst the horror and by narrating the story of themselves and of their origins as a people chosen by God:
You will bring them and plant the in Your own mountain,
The place You made to dwell in, O Lord,
The sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands established.
The Lord will reign for ever and ever!
With this triumphant declaration, Miriam of prophetic voice and vision sings beyond the genius of the sea and creates the idea of order at Yam Suf.