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In 589 BCE, Zedekiah, king of Judea, led his people in a rebellion against Babylonian rule. Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, responded by having his army sack the city, plunder the temple, and deport thousands of Judea's peoples to Babylon.

This sequence of forty poems is written from the perspective of one of those exiles. It recounts his growing dissatisfaction with life as a slave, his despairing cries to his God for help, and his eventual escape into the wilderness. There he is reunited with the lover from whom he was separated during the sacking of Jerusalem. After an arduous desert trek they finally return to Jerusalem, their home.

Inspired by The Psalms, Song of Songs, and Isaiah, this book is written in direct language that evokes profound feelings and thoughts. Underpinning the sequence is a mystic journey in which the seeker departs the external reality of everyday life, enters the wilderness of struggle, and eventually arrives at an experience of spiritual wisdom. An afterword explores the poems' mystic implications by making connections between the mystic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

These poems reach back to a time when poets sang of the soul, and poetry provided the keys to the kingdom of heaven. It takes its place in a long line of Western mystical literature, which includes the writings of the Talmud mystics, the Persian Sufi poets, St John of the Cross, and William Blake.

Reflecting Keith's own spiritual quest, psalms of longing, lament, gratitude and celebration mark his journey. These are coupled with a series of profound love poems for his beloved, with whom he is re-united while travelling through the wilderness. An illuminating afterword relates the poems to the mystical traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Soft cover paperback
80 pages
ISBN:
978-0-473-10832-1

REVIEWS

"Beautifully produced book of writing inspired by the original Hebrew poetry of the Psalms and Songs of Songs. Hill’s first collection of poems follows the trials of an exile who eventually triumphs. Intriguing work, uplifting and worth reading, Hill’s poetry refreshes the meaning of ancient works while also relating age-old struggles to the present day. Much here to consider and enjoy." - Raewyn Alexander, Magazine

"At first glance this book would appear to be a book of psalms and indeed, Hill did return to the ancient Jewish poets as a literary model. More specifically though, his influence is St. John of the Cross. If this sounds complicated, it is, but don't let that put you off. The early psalms are not sect-driven and, according to Hill, are vital to readers from all religious backgrounds today. His psalms are more of a 'secular' response to those ancient ones and as such, in my opinion, make good, interesting reading. But see for yourself; a book well worth getting." - Trevor Reeves, Southern Ocean Review

"Keith Hill writes authentically of exile and return, alienation and  redemption. He has been there and back, and can be a guide to many. If you are lost and in the dark, this book may just be a candle of illumination." - Rabbi Rami Shapiro (USA)

"I truly enjoyed reading Psalms of Exile and Return. I have to say I felt transformed by 'your' language in the poems. They touched me. Very beauitful. Although I'm Jewish and these are 'my' ancestors stories, I enjoyed the linkage you made to the mystical traditions of other religions." - Jonathan Besser (USA/NZ)

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SAMPLE POEMS


4 His captors demand the slave sing

And there I sat, by the waters of Babylon.
I sat and I wept as I remembered Zion.

Disconsolate, alone, my heart reached out for death;
I hung my harp on a willow, and I bent my head.

Drunk, they cried, "Sing us a song of your great homeland;
Sing a hymn of how Yahweh’s strength helps you command."

And I put my face in my hands, I made no reply;
I hid my face from them so they wouldn’t hear me cry.

What do they know? Their breath stinks of their drunkenness;
I could never sing to you in their vile presence.

My Jerusalem! When I think of her I shiver;
If ever I forget her may my right hand wither!

Yahweh, you remember how they laughed at your laws;
Yes, and how they spat on Jerusalem’s pure walls.

This daughter of Babel’s a whore: return her mock;
Take her! crush her! throw her children screaming on the rock!

Yahweh, you’re my god. My song is for you alone.
They will never hear me sing, never of Zion, my home.



8 He perceives the reality of Babylon

I fall asleep, I die, I plummet through the dreams of men;
I wake, I live – yet seeing the world who would not die again?

For nation devours nation, whole peoples suffer for gain;
Kings kill, courtiers count, priests justify what their gods profane.

All wealth flows to Babylon, all power, knowledge, pride;
Her people suck on plunder, her leaders propound lies.

Each day Babylon's soldiers guard mute gods made of gold;
Their words, pronounced by prophets, enthral empty souls.

Babylon's wealthy are blind, they dress in bones for Baal;
Her usurers honoured, dissenters line the streets - impaled.

This is Baal's sorcery: those who have worship wealth's cold laws;
While death crawls from the desert to devour Babylon's poor.

Lord, I live in a land of ghosts, all are equally cursed;
Owner or owned, each occupies a house disturbed.

All this that pours into us sends shivers through our dreams;
Wake us, Lord, that your life, through us, may be redeemed.



17 The exile escapes

I paused. I waited for you to hear my cry.
And you heard! You stooped down from the sky!

You lifted me from the pit where, in clay, I slipped and turned;
You set my feet on the rock and made my footsteps firm.

And now a new song fills me, Yahweh; my freed heart sings;
Throat and tongue cry out, making the wilderness ring.

The night owl hears me, it looks from its nest and hoots;
The sheep stare at this madman: the goats stop chewing shoots.

Through these vast, rocky spaces my voice strides out, dies;
The stars, approving, ripple - truly I feel inspired!

You spoke to Moses from fire, turned Aaron’s rod into a snake;
Water you sprang from stone that our thirst might be slaked.

And now for me tonight you have again worked your will;
Where before I felt assaulted, now I am still.

Dawn stains the sk;: by freedom I’m now blessed;
Yahweh, how can I thank you? I am lifted out of death!



19 The exile is reunited with his lover


That night, in my tent, my existence was transformed;
From the darkness stepped she for whom I was born.

Her feet, with myrrh anointed, walked without a sound;
Her tender eyes grazed mine as, gently, she sat down.

A mystery she was, more serene than moon rise;
I bathed in her beauty, then fell into her eyes.

How long did we sit and gaze, as breezes stroked our hair?
Did we sit at all? Or did we rather float on air?

My heart, my soul, my love - we said what no lip speaks;
Then, when those lips touched, fountains flowered in the deep.

Wine and spices flowed, from our hearts across our tongues;
Ecstatic, our clothes fell: naked, two became one.

And there, among the stars, sailed a single rhapsodic cry;
Living, but dead, in bliss we both expired.

My love! In your presence I found what life truly means;
Your eyes, your touch, your laugh - all else is merely dream.



32 They arrive at Jerusalem


From the mist it emerged, gates glistening in the dew;
From mountains set like footstools rose pillars lit by the moon.

Walls made of glowing silver, it shimmered in the night;
While, through its foundations, a radiant river twined.

Jerusalem! we left divided, weeping, but return wrapped in song;
Eyes raised, united, we remember the mystery of Zion.

Fill our mouths with laughter, Lord, pour into us your joy;
Create in us your stillness, that what we are uncoils.

Across the plains you pulled us when doubt delayed our course;
Each night your silence loved us, dissolving us to our core.

And now we watch in wonder as clouds clear from the peaks;
And sublime, soaring, Jerusalem swells in the west.

Our lips praise only you, Yahweh, in whose presence we abide;
For we’re here because you opened, not because we arrived.



35 The exile weds his beloved


From above swoops the spirit, flowers sprout across the land;
Mountains spring like lions, the hills like frisking lambs.

In the garden our eyes open as, on us, blessings pour;
Heads bowed, grateful, we gather the gifts of our Lord.

There is wine to warm the heart, oil to make our faces shine;
Bread to strengthen our back, fruit to feed our minds.

And from their midst steps you, gorgeous, glowing, serene;
In the love your face radiates my existence is redeemed.

Put on your wedding dress, my love, weave blossoms in your hair;
Join me at the altar, for your virtues brought me here.

All I am I give to you, my desires, my future, my beliefs;
I surrender to your presence, for your touch sings of peace.

The days of my life lead here, to you who makes me whole;
From the seeds our love scatters may a new life now evolve.

Returned, raised up, on unity’s ladder we climb;
For I am your beloved, and you, my bride, are mine.



40 A song of celebration


In the beginning you were, Lord, before what was to be;
From you came the mountains, the plains and shifting seas.

In you the welling world dwells, cupped in both your hands;
For you are our source, Lord, in us your silence stands.

From dry dust you shaped us, put your pulse into our acts;
To dust we shall dissolve if we fail to fill our lack.

When your anger flares, forests wither, whirlwinds rake;
Driving on the storm, your wrath crushes all you hate.

Yet the tender rain that quenches is your requiting touch;
The desert bloom, the fecund fig, show your transforming love.

Your grace flows through us, giving life to senseless clay;
Our troubles fevered dreams you gently brush away.

All our secrets you see, Lord, trembling in your sight;
For you know all we do, transcendent in the heights.

Teach us to count our days, Lord, let wisdom swell our hearts;
May we be each morning grateful we’ve woken from the dark.

Let your servants show, Lord, what they can do for you;
And may your glory ignite us, transparent so you shine through.



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ABOUT KEITH HILL

Keith is an award-winning filmmaker and writer. Fourteen years in the writing, this book reflects Keith's own spiritual experiences. His spiritual search began with Christianity, which he was brought up in as a child. Seeking a spiritual teaching that would transform him, in 1975 he joined a New Zealand Fourth Way group led by Abdullah Dougan, a Naqshbandi Sufi shaikh who refined G.I. Gurdjieff's teaching. During the years since Keith has made extensive studies of the religious and spiritual traditions of the West and East. In addition to Fourth Way thought, Christian mysticism, Sufism, and Vedic philosophy and mediation practices have profoundly fed his spiritual understanding and experiences.

This book is the first in a series titled Foundations of Western Spirituality, which will inform seekers of key aspects from the history of Western spiritual practices. Keith's future publications include selections from the work of the Indian mystic poets, Mirabai and Kabir, a version of the Bhagavadgita with a commentary that interprets this ancient text for contemporary seekers, and an exploration of Greek philosophy from the perspective of esoteric spirituality.

Q + A WITH KEITH HILL

In this day and age, why write a collection of psalms?

My decision goes back to the 1970s, when I was exploring spiritual philosophies and practices, and came across the work of the Persian Sufis, particularly that of Jalal al-Din Rumi. Rumi is now very popular, but back then there were only translations by R.A. Nicholson and A.J. Arberry, two English scholars who were more concerned with providing a literal prose translation, rather than a poetic experience. Despite this, the mystical intent behind the words really grabbed me, and being at a formative stage in my own writing, I tried my hand at the same style of poetry. Then, in 1979, I stayed on an ashram in Rajasthan for a few weeks, and was asked to work on translations of two Indian mystical poets, Mirabai and Kabir. That experience, coupled with my own previous reading, led me to decide to try writing a sequence of mystical poems of my own.

The mystical poets you mentioned are Indian and Persian, yet you turned to the ancient Jewish poets for a literary model?

The first problem faced by a writer wanting to write contemporary mystical poetry is the question of what language to use – given it is not a tradition of writing that is alive today, and there are no living models whose work today’s writers can build on. There are of course small pockets – such as the Beat poets, particularly Allen Ginsberg, who turned to Blake, and Gary Snyder, who has a Buddhist and nature orientation. For me, a solution came via the work of St John of the Cross. He only wrote around a dozen poems, but most are masterpieces of Western mystical poetry. His primary inspiration, in turn, was the Song of Songs, which he drew on to write his major poem, Spiritual Canticle, while in prison. He also wrote a version of Psalm 136 – “There I sat, by the waters of Babylon.” So his example spurred me to go back to ancient Jewish poets, with whom I was familiar through childhood Christian Bible studies. I was soon reading the Psalms and Isaiah, as well as the Song of Songs. So it was that reading, combined my interest in Sufi poetry, and thinking about how St John of the Cross put a mystical interpretation on what he wrote, that lead to the idea that eventually became Psalms of Exile of Exile and Return.

One of the interesting aspects of those ancient Jewish texts is that today we tend to read them through the lens of religious tradition, whether Jewish or Christian. But the original Jewish writers had no systematic theology to draw on, and while they definitely had a religious and political outlook to express, and a shared history, basically all drew on their own experiences to write of what was most important to them. This is why the Psalms still to vital to readers of all religious backgrounds today – they encapsulate experience, rather than formulate it. So the Psalms offer a poetic language that is expressive of our deepest spiritual concerns, yet is simultaneously very open; their language draws readers in, but they then require us to measure our personal experience against what is being expressed. So we, as readers, become active participants in the experience of the poetry – in fact, if we don’t actively bring ourselves to the poems, they don’t resonate as deeply at the deepest levels. This openness of expression and interpretation is what drew me to the Psalms as a literary model.

I guess what I’m getting at here is that, as a poet, I asked, “What might mystical poetry look like if it was written by an author living today?” Psalms of Exile and Return is the answer I came up with.

Do you think that, in placing a mystical interpretation on the Psalms and the Song of Song, you are projecting something onto it that isn’t there?

Not at all. The Talmudic mystics of the first century read the Song of Song as a mystical text, so that text has a long tradition of spiritual interpretation, while the Psalms have also long been read by exponents of the Kabbalah from a mystical perspective. And in the Qu’ran the Psalms are referred to as directly inspired by God, and as being one of the foundation books of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. So the fact that we today don’t naturally interpret these texts as mystical, or can’t even conceive that they might be mystical, is due to a limitation in us, not in the texts.

That leads to the afterword, where you explore some fascinating connections between Judaic, Christian and Islamic mystical thought.
You know, in today’s overheated political and religious environment, we forget that Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship the God of Abraham. Whatever name Jews, Christians and Muslims give to their God, and however differently they might conceive of their God – in reality, they are all worshipping the same God! Given the religious differences that have evolved over the centuries, for me one way to see the similarities is via the mystical traditions, because they all have very similar ways of conceiving and talking about the seeker’s relationship to God. In fact, over the centuries, the mystical traditions of the three religions have shared a huge amount of thoughts, experiences and language. Al-Arabi, who was one of the inspirations behind my Psalms, was familiar with Kabbalistic thought, as were many Rabbis with Sufi practices; and it is highly probable that St Frances of Assisi came into direct contact with Sufis in Spain.

I found that reading the ancient Jewish poetic texts was a springboard for me personally on a number of levels. Those texts fed my on-going question regarding the nature of spirituality and spiritual experience; they led me into an exploration of the traditions of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic mysticism; and they offered a direction for me to experiment with the forms of mystical poetic expression. I’d like to think that readers will find in my book the same kind of springboard for their own thoughts, feelings and experiences.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading your book?

Hope itself – that religion has the power to us unite us; that the past is a place that can feed us; and that poetry can inspire us to pursue experience and knowledge of a greater reality.