‘Qoheleth’ is the narrator of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. This Hebrew name is often translated ‘Teacher’ or ‘Preacher’, and originally referred to someone who gathered a congregation together in order to speak to them. His most famous catchphrase was ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!’
from 'On Swimming with Dolphins; and other poems'
On Swimming with Dolphins
At the midpoint of my life,
Towards the close of day,
I came upon a darkened wood
and did not know the way.
The simple path I’d followed
moved into woody terrain,
and then it zigzagged to and fro,
and forked, and forked again.
I looked, and saw that all these paths
became more intertwined;
there was no route that led me through
the mazes of my mind.
It all seemed so straightforward
when I first began to roam;
but the shadows now were lengthening,
and I was far from home.
I remembered other travellers –
we had shared our wine and bread,
but they were now a distant dream,
and they were home in bed.
The air grew even colder
and the wind began to rise.
A spitting rain began to fall
from ever-darkening skies.
I checked my map and compass
to find where I was, if I could;
but however hard I searched for it,
no trace could I find of this wood.
I fought to be still, and listened hard
for a voice to show me the way,
but all I heard was a distant owl
seeking for its prey.
I then got down on hands and knees
and prayed to God for a sign;
I searched on the ground for footprints,
but all I could see were mine.
With sinking heart I looked around,
fearing the fading light,
and then in despair I began to seek
some shelter from the night.
But the night grew even darker
and I did not see a stone –
in my haste I tripped and fell,
and lay, in pain, alone.
I crept into the undergrowth,
next to the bole of a tree.
Roots became my pillow,
and branches, my canopy.
There I lay in deep despair,
my ankle throbbing with pain,
and I stared into the blackness
and listened to the rain.
I thought of home and family
and then began to weep,
until not long before the dawn
I slipped into a broken sleep.
But my mind was haunted by demons
tempting me to scream –
I called on God to give me light –
but instead he gave me a dream.
An angel came and called my name
and shook me wide awake.
He led me deep within the wood;
we stood by the side of a lake.
There he stripped me of my rags –
poor did they seem next to him –
and then he pointed to the lake
and ordered me to swim.
I turned, with questions in my heart,
but all he said was, ‘Go’ –
and an eagle flew above me
and a dolphin swam below.
At last we reached an island
where I walked across the sand,
towards an ancient oak tree
at the centre of the land.
Among the roots of the ancient tree
lay a figure tied with rope.
His wrists were cut and bleeding
and his face had lost all hope.
The rope was tied around the tree,
while not far from his head,
just within reach of his tethered arm
lay water and dry bread.
He slept the sleep of a prisoner,
of a man with a tortured mind,
and when I woke him from his dreams
I saw that he was blind.
I thought I recognized the man
so I sat down by his side
and asked him to tell me his story,
but all he muttered was, ‘Pride’.
I thought I could release him,
and give him freedom again,
but I had no knife to cut the rope,
and my efforts were in vain.
The eagle swept in front of me
and I knew that I should go,
so with heavy heart I followed
down to the shore below.
The eagle flew ahead once more
as I stepped into the lake;
the dolphin circled round, and on,
and I followed in their wake.
We reached a second island
and walked once more on sand,
and once again an oak tree
lay at the heart of the land.
And in the roots of the oak tree
a child sat holding a scroll.
He said, ‘A map of the wood for you –
drawn in the shape of your soul.’
I opened an ancient papyrus
but my mind was at a loss,
for every tree was marked with thorns
and every track was a cross.
I could make no sense of what I saw,
so I turned back to the child
and asked him, ‘Can you help me?’
and he looked at me and smiled.
‘You’ve a longer road to travel,
and your strength is growing weak.
Your only hope is to eat the scroll
then search for what you seek.’
He saw my hesitation,
and repeated, ‘You must eat!’
And so I broke a corner,
and it tasted strong and sweet.
When I had finished this strangest of meals
I lay in pain for an hour,
for what had tasted sweet in my mouth
turned my stomach sour.
‘It is time to continue,’ the child said,
‘there is one island more.
Your companions now are waiting
down on the further shore.’
And so we continued our journey
through waters on no earthly charts;
but the eagle flew and the dolphin swam
with certainty in their hearts.
My strength was finally giving out
and I knew that death was in store
when I saw an island straight ahead,
and a fire on its shore.
A figure stood upon the beach;
I finally sank at his feet,
but he said, ‘Let me give you a robe to wear,
and come, have something to eat.’
He brought to me some fish and bread
and gave me a cup of wine,
and he looked into my eyes and said,
‘Why do you seek for a sign?
‘Why do you want me to show you the way?
Your route lies through suffering and pain,
but if you could see the end of each path
you’d lose a lot more than you’d gain.
‘When you’re within the darkened wood
know that you’re walking with me.
For the road I walked upon the earth
lay through Gethsemane.
‘You do not need to know my will –
you need to know my grace.
Take your eyes from off your feet
and look into my face.’
And in my dream I looked at him,
and wondered what I’d feared;
ropes around my wrists fell off
and the vision disappeared.
I woke, and still the rain came down,
but I bandaged my ankle tight,
then got up from the ancient tree
and limped towards the light.
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