Please excuse the title’s alliteration – I simply can’t resist a catchy title.
On the topic of titles, had this blog a place for subtitles, you might find this above as well:
On Allen Ginsberg’s “Jaweh and Allah Battle”: A very brief foray into poetry, religion, war, and opera.
Alright, now that the topic is properly introduced, let’s do some defining:
Jaweh (also Yahweh or Jehovah) – One form of the name of the Hebrew Old Testament God of Israel; regarded as too sacred to be spoken, the vowel sounds are not known.
Allah – The Arabic word for the God of Abrahamic faiths. Though commonly associated with the Islamic faith, but is also used by Arab – Christians to refer to God.
Battle – I really don’t think this needs explanation.
Allen Ginsberg – Poet, founding member, and spokesperson of the Beat Movement; author of “Howl” and “Wichita Vortex Sutra” among many other poems; gained international fame in the “Howl” obscenity trial in 1957. (See more here)
The intersection of these things? Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Jaweh and Allah Battle” (1974). Throw composer Philip Glass into the mix and you get the second song of Hydrogen Jukebox (1990), a chamber opera created by the setting of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry to music. The result – an hour and fifteen minutes worthy of your undivided attention.
At present, I have the pleasure of working on a production of Hydrogen Jukebox at Boston University’s Opera Institute (Stage direction by Emily Ranii, Music direction by Allison Voth and Matthew Larson), and thus was privy to conversations in table work of this piece in rehearsal this week. Table work is perhaps not the right word; a more accurate description would be collaborative poetry excavation. Every word and phrase has multiple meanings, multiple pathways of entrance or understanding, and a great deal of ambiguity. But one thing is certain – this poem is livid. Pitting Jaweh against Allah, the poem illustrates the great inimical divide between faiths of the same Abrahamic root – a divide that is all too familiar today in Islamophobia run rampant in the wake of 9/11, the rise of ISIS, and more recent terror attacks. The poem rails at the atrocities performed by nations in the name of God – or in the name of power under the guise of “God.” Ginsberg’s words call into question the nature of religion as an institution, the hostility between Israel and Palestine, and the origin of crimes against humanity in times of war. Exclamations of “Buchenwald sent me here! Mylai sent me here! My mother sent me here!” demand of us deeper thought about the interplay of religion, war, and simply growing up in a given environment. Ginsberg recognizes the often detrimental role that America plays in global struggles for power, and the senselessness of excessive violence in the name of God – or perhaps even of good.
As powerfully as his the words resonate alone, the collaboration of Ginsberg and Glass frames a gesamtkunstwerk. Synthesizing (if you’ve heard the score, you may see the pun here) music, poetry, and live performance into a whole, “Jaweh and Allah battle” becomes the embodiment of the chaos and violence of battle. Ginsberg and Glass adopt the fervor of religion and of war to subvert the very mediums of the beasts they perceive.
And still it echoes “War after war, who’s the enemy?”
(Allen Ginsberg, “Iron Horse,” 1966)
All this before we have even gotten the piece on its feet. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Hydrogen Jukebox will be performed October 13-16 in Lane-Comley Studio 210.