Today I work, I got a call from one of my former professors. She was looking for a poem written by a local writer, Eliza Jane Poitevant Nicholson, who wrote under the pen name Pearl Rivers. Eliza Jane was the first woman publisher of a major daily newspaper, the Picayune. She was a real feminist in a strict time of no feminism.
To my surprise, we have many works of Pearl Rivers, and I spent the morning sifting through them. Her poem, Hagar, immediately caught my attention. I guess wrapping up my Philosophy of Religion class, wherein I learned the connections between Islam and Christianity, really helped spark my interest in the poem.
So, according to the story, Abraham’s wife, Sara, could not bear children, so she asked him to father a child with Hagar, her bondswoman. So –Ishmael was born to Abraham and Hagar. God tells Abraham all about being the “Father of Nations,” and makes the covenant with him and so on and so forth. Some years later, God tells Abraham that Sara is going to have a baby and the child is to be named Isaac. So Sara gives birth to Isaac. One day, Sara sees Isaac playing with Ishmael, and she flips her lid, saying "Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac." God, as it happens, sides with Sara, telling Abraham to cast out Hagar and his first son, Ishmael. And that is exactly what Abraham did – he cast them out, with only a loaf of bread and some water to carry out into the desert wilderness.
I have always felt so badly for Hagar. I don't understand how one could simply cast out another human - let alone your very own child. I have often imagined Hagar's response to this news. God didn't speak to Hagar until after she was cast away. Think of what she must have thought in those hours. Think of the turmoil and the sheer terror she faced, carrying her baby boy into the desert with only a loaf of bread and a pitcher of water. Hagar is constantly on the losing end - constantly being commanded and forced to do whatever Sara wants, and Abraham always obeys.
This poem is slow and sweet, though it full of contempt and fury. It feels like the embodiment of wilderness – long and lonely and back and forth. I felt like I was moving with Hagar through these emotions, through this disbelief and anguish and hatred. It burns like the desert – snakes uncoiling and hissing, memories blurring together, the constant refrain, “Go back!” It feels like abandonment, like complete hopelessness, with the whole spectrum of human emotion binding the poem together. We go with Hagar, emotionally and physically.
My favorite part is a litany of Sara’s desires – all the richest, finest things – followed by Hagar’s simple retort:
“Leave all your wealth to Sara. Sara loves
The touch of costly linen and the scent
Of precious Chaldean spices, and to bind
Her brow with golden fillets, and perfume
Her hair with ointment. Sara loves the sound
Of many cattle lowing on the hills;
And Sara loves the slow and stealthy tread
Of many camels moving on the plains.
Hagar loves you.”
It is at times like these I just adore my job.