"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Lot's Wife, Who Gave Her Life
For a Single Glance

"The Sodom and Gomorrah motif
from the Nuremberg Chronicle by Hartmann Schedel, 1493.
Note Lot's wife, already transformed into a salt pillar, in the center."

A couple of connections to my two most recent previous posts:

1. Together with my Penelope poems, I have a collection of poems about a few more long - suffering legendary heroines, the nameless wife and daughters of the infamous Lot, Abraham's nephew, who ushers his small family away from the Biblical destruction of Sodom. His wife is often portrayed as shallow or heedless, with her priorities all mixed up, but these poems show otherwise.

2. One of my favorites is "Ms Lot" by Muriel Rukeyser, who also wrote "Waiting for Icarus" (click or scroll down). The voice of Lot's daughter is similar to that of Icarus's girlfriend, particularly the combination of lament and outrage. She is humiliated by her father's treatment of her, his inability to treat her or her mother with respect. How can he accord them so little dignity? Would he really have done away with his own daughters so easily? She does not question her mother's priorities, but she questions her father's:

Ms Lot
Well if he treats me like a young girl still,
That father of mine, and here’s my sister
And we’re still traveling into the hills—
But everyone on the road knows he offered us
To the Strangers, when all they wanted was men
And the cloud of smoke still over the twin cities
And mother a salt lick the animals come to—
Who’s going to want me now?
Mother did not even know
She was not to turn around and look.
God spoke to Lot, my father.
She was hard of hearing. He knew that.
I don't believe he told her, anyway.
What kind of father is that, or husband?
He offered us to those men. They didn't want women.
Mother always used to say:
Some normal man will come along and need you.

by Muriel Rukeyser, 1913 - 1980

Avant - gard band, Charming Hostess has set Rukeyser's lyrics to music: click to listen and analyze.

Lot Fleeing With His Daughters From Sodom
by Albrecht Durer
, 1471 - 1528

Another long - time favorite, from which I take my title today is the lyric poem "Lot's Wife" by Soviet modernist Anna Akhmatova, who wrote from personal experience about flight, exile, and staying put. During the 1920s and 30s, she saw many friends and fellow writers leave St. Petersburg, but she herself declined the option to flee. In the poem "When in Suicidal Anguish," she writes:

I heard a voice. It called consolingly,
It said, “Come here to me,
and leave your backward, sinful land,
abandon Russia for all time. . . .

But indifferently and calmly
I covered up my ears
so this dishonorable speech
could not defile my grieving spirit."

These stanzas suggest that Akhmatova understood very well the dilemma of Lot's wife. Thirty years ago, I typed up Akhmatova's poem, neglecting to include the name of the translator. Google has revealed a number of translations, though none precisely like this version from my personal archive:

Lot's Wife
And the just man walked behind the one sent by God
Enormous and bright along the black mountain
But alarm spoke loudly to the wife
"It's not too late; you can still take a look

At the red towers of your native Sodom
At the square where you sang, at the courtyard where you spun
At the empty window of the tall house
Where you bore children for your dear husband."

She glanced -- and riveted by a deadly pain
Her eyes were no longer able to look
And her body became transparent salt
And her quick feet grew to the earth.

Who will mourn for this woman?
Does she seem any the less for her losses?
Only my heart will never forget
She who gave her life for a single glance.

by Anna Akhmatova, 1889 - 1966
[Very similar to translations by Judith Hemschemeyer & Richard Wilbur]

Scholar and translator Clare Cavanagh mentions Akmatova's poem briefly in contrast to a longer poem on the topic, also entitled "Lot's Wife" (click to read) by recently deceased Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, 1923 - 2012 (excerpt):
They say I looked back out of curiosity.
But I could have had other reasons. . . .
I felt age within me. Distance.
The futility of wandering. Torpor. . . .
I looked back involuntarily. . . .
I crept, I flew upward
until darkness fell from the heavens
and with it scorching gravel and dead birds.
I couldn't breathe and spun around and around.
Anyone who saw me must have thought I was dancing.

Lot's Wife
by British artist John Bulloch Souter, 1890 - 1972

A few more recent poetical discoveries:

1. "Lot's Wife
by Katha Pollitt

2. "What Lot's Wife Would Have Said (If She Wasn't a Pillar of Salt)
by Karen Finneyfrock:

3. "Mrs. Lot"
by Vassar Miller

And, to conclude, one last favorite from my old notebook. It would have been nice if four of the seven poets mentioned here had not picked identical titles for their poems. We will, however, just have to work around the repetition. I'm sure that I can think of a subtitle for each. Akhmatova, obviously: "Lot's Wife: A Single Glance." For Szymborska, I'm thinking: "Lot's Wife: Involuntarily Dancing." And for Pollitt: "Lot's Wife: What Did She Expect?" Finally, I think "Lot's Wife: Drawn to Earth" captures the essence of Batey's message:

Lot's Wife
While Lot, the conscience of a nation,
struggles with the Lord,
she struggles with the housework.
The City of Sin is where
she raises the children.
Ba'al or Adonai--
Whoever is God--
the bread must still be made
and the doorsill swept.
The Lord may kill the children tomorrow,
but today they must be bathed and fed.
Well and good to condemn your neighbors' religion,
but weren't they there
when the baby was born,
and when the well collapsed?
While her husband communes with God,
she tucks the children into bed.
In the morning, when he tells her of the judgment,
[that is, God's decision to destroy the city]
she puts down the lamp she is cleaning
and calmly begins to pack.
In between bundling up the children
and deciding what will go,
she runs for a moment
to say goodbye to the herd,
gently patting each soft head
with tears in her eyes for the animals that will not understand.
She smiles blindly to the woman
who held her hand at childbed.
It is easy for eyes that have always turned to heaven
not to look back;
those who have been--by necessity--drawn to earth
cannot forget that life is lived from day to day.
Good, to a God, and good in human terms
are two different things.
On the breast of the hill, she chooses to be human,
and turns, in farewell--
and never regrets
the sacrifice.

by Kristine Batey, b. 1951

Lot's Wife Looking Back at the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
by Toussaint Dubreuil, 1561 - 1602

Previous References to Muriel Rukeyser
on my daily blog The Quotidian Kit
All the Little Animals
Another Good Poem by Muriel Rukeyser
The Wrong Answer

Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, November 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

And check out
Prodigal: Poems by Francine Marie Tolf

which includes this poem:

One Family's Story
Genesis 19

Her body shook from the explosions,
hot wind and horror sang in her ears.
She looked back at what had been home,
not prudent like her husband
who did not waste a glance on her cinder.
An expedient man. Quick to choose,
years earlier, the greenest pastureland
when he and his herdsman brother parted ways,
but ingratiating when it served--
offering, in those days before catastrophe,
his own daughters to drunken thugs,
rather than risk insult to guests
who could help him escape.
He made forgetting an art,
but could never erase his wife's last soft cry,
or the moans of his two girls,
pressed against him on the cave's floor
that evening the sheets of fire
finally stopped raining,
and the three of them drank a calfskin of wine
to celebrate their deliverance.


  1. This is the umpteenth time I'm come back to this. Talk about tragedy. And this same dynamic exists across all places and times, doesn't it? Perhaps this hints at our species' fundamental flaw.

  2. Jason, thank you so much for your thoughts & insights.

  3. Cate writes: "I loved all of 'Lot's Wife' -- I had just read a biblical novel that portrayed her terribly, but all of the poems were so wonderful, and you know how I love first person narratives in poetry. The line from 'When In Suicidal Anguish' -- 'could not defile my grieving spirit' -- how beautiful!

    "Our lives are also like Ssymborska says, 'They say I looked back out of curiosity, but I could have had other reasons.' Don't we all turn to salt when we insist on 'looking back,' wanting the past to hold our future?"

  4. from "The Center of Everything" by Laura Moriarity:

    "I have never seen salt in pillar form, and am not sure what it would look like. I don't know if she was still shaped like herself, or if she just turned into a big pile of salt that you would never know used to be a person. It's scary to think something like that could happen to you, just for not listening to directions." (128)

    "And Jesus, I understand is nicer than God, a little less likely to kill you if you do something wrong." (120)

  5. Thanks to Anna Friedman for suggesting this translation:

    Lot's Wife

    The just man followed then his angel guide
    Where he strode on the black highway, hulking and bright;
    But a wild grief in his wife's bosom cried,
    Look back, it is not too late for a last sight

    Of the red towers of your native Sodom, the square
    Where once you sang, the gardens you shall mourn,
    And the tall house with empty windows where
    You loved your husband and your babes were born.

    She turned, and looking on the bitter view
    Her eyes were welded shut by mortal pain;
    Into transparent salt her body grew,
    And her quick feet were rooted in the plain.

    Who would waste tears upon her? Is she not
    The least of our losses, this unhappy wife?
    Yet in my heart she will not be forgot
    Who, for a single glance, gave up her life.

    by Anna Akhmatova
    Russian; trans. Richard Wilbur

  6. Thanks to Nataliya Semchynska for suggesting this translation:

    Lot's Wife

    And he who was righteous
    Loomed radiant, striding
    Behind the Lord's messenger up the black hill
    But she walked reluctant-alarm
    Spoke within her
    "It is not too late, you may look on it still
    Upon the vermilion-stained
    Towers of Sodom
    You spun in that court, and
    You sang on that square
    That house whose tall windows
    Confront you with blankness
    Once knew you, a bride
    You bore your sons there."

    She turned to behold it, and
    Pain was her master
    Her eyes yearning toward
    It could no longer see
    Salt-white grew her body
    The blood in it withered
    Firm earth held her feet that
    Would never go free

    And is there not one who
    Would weep for this woman
    Or one who would find her
    Loss bitter to brook?
    Alone in my heart uneclipsed, unforgotten
    Is she who gave over her life for one look.

    by Anna Akhmatova
    Russian; trans. Babette Deutsch

    set to music and sung by Iris DeMent on the CD "The Trackless Woods"