I have written a short lyric poem ‘Zion’ as a riposte to a tendency within British poetry to fetishise Zion. Two 21st century poetry volumes will suffice to illustrate my point: Geoffrey Hill’s The Orchards of Syon and Kei Miller’s The Cartographer Tries to Map A Way to Zion.
Both of these books contain the fetish-word in their titles, and throughout their poems. It is a refrain in which the keyword grows more magical with repetition. Arguably Hill’s ‘Syon’ should not be targeted as it is not the same as the word ‘Zion’. Well actually, it’s just an Anglicisation of the Latin ‘Sion’. The writer Thomas L. Jeffers explains that The Orchards of Syon is “a title having less to do with Syon Park, the London home of the Duke of Northumberland and famous for its 18th-century gardens, than with a visionary place named for the Mount Zion that overlooks Jerusalem”. In Hill it seems like British-Israelism, but he is too complex a poet to be pinned down to simplicities. Is his Anglicised Zion a badge for Anglo-Zionism? The poet Mark Wilson claims that Hill “has absolutely no respect for present day Zionism and has actually attacked it in two recent Daybook sequences: ‘Odi Barbare’ and ‘Liber Illustrium Virorum’.”
Hill imaginatively merges two places – Goldengrove (from Hopkins) and Syon – as idyll. Goldengrove is perhaps the English countryside of Hill’s childhood; Syon perhaps the spiritual aspiration of his adulthood. Syon is where Hill wants to be, but this is in a 2002 book widely seen as offering readers a poetic consolatio after the world-changing events of 9/11. There is little doubt that Hill is right-leaning, physically aligned with such British institutions as the Monarchy, the Church of England, Oxford University etc. Here for me is the most odious passage Hill has ever written:
Syon! Syon! that which sustains us and is
not the politics of envy, nor solidarnosc,
a hard-won knowledge of what wears us down.
Syon is not Fern Hill; it is grown-up, a place where the political right is rampant and the left is banished. Hill blatantly rejects left-wing politics i.e. solidarnosc, dismissing it as ‘the politics of envy’. Syon, on the other hand, is ‘that which sustains us’, and is defined as the very opposite of this undesirable left. Who is the ‘us’? There is grammatical ambiguity. Is Syon the ‘hard-won knowledge of what wears us down’, or is it not? That Syon is the opposite of solidarnosc – solidarity – and the Polish Labour movement that breached the Iron Curtain, seems damning, even self-contradictory. The thing is, even if Hill is not the curmudgeonly champion of British hierarchy we know him to be, and does not harbour Zionist views, his use of ‘Syon’ as mantra is still questionable. If he is anti-Zionist, it is more questionable, though perhaps he has developed his position since publishing the book 13 years ago. ‘Syon’ lacks the innocence its author sees in it, is some kind of subliminal advertising, some kind of approval. That said, I am an admirer of much of Hill’s work including some of the poems in this volume. I understand why he transposes the yearnings of the Jewish exiles in Babylon for their homeland into his own – perhaps exiled in America, or in internal exile – yearnings for an English equivalent, and appreciate how his change of spelling is sonically less harsh, and modifies his meaning.
The same problem applies to Kei Miller’s volume, but in a different way. ‘Zion’ and its Anglicised variants is a huge concept and means different things to different people. I very much enjoyed The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, even though I’m not mad about cartography as a metaphor, and have problems with the use of the word ‘Zion’. Miller is drawing on the Rastafarian cosmology of Zion as “a utopian place of unity, peace and freedom as opposed to Babylon, the oppressing and exploiting system of the materialistic modern world and a place of evil” (Wikipedia). Miller’s book is as much a heartfelt cry for a better world as Hill’s, and there is no way I would infer any literal Zionism intended or suggested in his utterance.
I should add that I myself do not contest Israel’s right to exist, and am more generally a deeply philosemitic person. Also, I am prone to fetishising the closely related word of ‘Jerusalem’. (One of the many meanings of the Hebrew usage of Zion is ‘Jerusalem’). I therefore understand the urge to have a name for a mystical place of total human liberation. Miller’s Zion is imagined in the following passage:
…You find your feet at last straying off the marl roads,
the bauxite roads, the slaving roads
and the marooning roads, and you would be
turning now onto the singing roads
and the sweeting roads that lift you up
to such a place as cannot be held on maps or charts,
a place that does not keep still at the end of paths.
Know this, that lions who trod don’t worry
bout reaching Zion. In time
is Zion that reach to the lions.
Imagine, however, if you were to ask a Palestinain intellectual what s/he thinks of an English poet or a Jamaican poet using Zion as a talismanic word for the place of human perfectibility. After informing you that ‘Sahyun’ is a wadi a mile from Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate, you would probably be told that Zion is the ‘Babylon’ of the Palestinians; it is where death comes from, airstrikes, tanks, quads, soldiers, security walls, observation points, exorbitant taxes, punitive regulations etc. The ‘lions of Zion’ is a popular idea for Zionists also, as in the ‘Lion of Judah’, but showcases its powerful predatory nature.
I am not Palestinian. What I believe about the word ‘Zion’ is that it is a degraded word, a degraded concept, so deeply sullied by the military imperialism of the Israeli government, that it may never recover. There is no exact verbal equivalent of ‘apartheid’ to describe Israeli policy, which is why the word ‘apartheid’ is now so frequently used. The actual word to describe it is ‘Zionism’, which began as a movement to create a nation state for the Jewish people, but has ended up as a movement to wage a colonial settler-state war against the Palestinian people. Therefore the word ‘Zion’ has become synonymous with the word ‘apartheid’. It’s impossible to hear it in any context without a feeling of distaste. It is its own death-knell.
My poem ‘Zion’ is based on the actual topography of Jerusalem which I visited in 2014. That Zion is an ever-expanding concept can be seen in how it can refer to the Holy of Holies, to Solomon’s Temple, to Temple Mount, to Mount Moriah, and to Jerusalem itself. But the geography of Jerusalem also includes Mount Zion which is just outside the Old City walls. Its terrain boasts such landmarks as King David’s Tomb, the Cenacle (site of the Last Supper) and the Mount Zion Protestant Cemetery, where many English are buried. They died in Jerusalem, for Jerusalem. It is a symbol of the Anglo-Zionism which is a major belief-system of such British leaders as Blair and Cameron. It being a hill means that I can use the word ‘hill’ with a double meaning, a passing nod to Sir Geoffrey.
‘Zion’ has been published in the groundbreaking political and artistic magazine STRIKE! in the March-April 2015 edition, with a photograph by Max Reeves, to coincide with the Israeli election in which Netanyahu’s Likud Party defeated the opposition Zionist Union.
To contemplate how a word can become dirty, think of the word ‘cleansing’.