Jerome Rothenberg: A Gematria Sampler

[In response to questions about my use of traditional gematria as a means of poetic composition, the following sampler draws poems from two books of mine previously published and still, I believe, in circulation: Gematria, Sun & Moon Press, 1994, and Gematria Complete, Marick Press, 2009.  That the works were part of an ongoing dialogue between myself and Jackson Mac Low may also be worth noting.]


Gematria — a form of traditional Jewish numerology — plays off the fact that every letter of the Hebrew alphabet (see above) is also a number, and that words or phrases the sums of whose letters are equal are at some level meaningfully connected. In the course of compiling A Big Jewish Book, I came across a number of traditional combinations of words associated (usually in pairs) through gematria, and I juxtaposed one of the words with the other so as to form miniature poems. A few years later I came across Gutman G. Locks’s The Spice of Torah — Gematria, which offers easy access to the numerical value of every word in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. With its more than three hundred pages of Hebrew word lists translated into English words and phrases, I began to construct new poems based on combinations that I discovered or that I calculated on my own.  Unlike the traditionalists of gematria, I have seen these coincidences/synchronicities not as hermeneutic substantiations for religious and ethical doctrines, but as an entry into the kinds of correspondences/constellations that have been central to modernist and “post”modernist poetry experiments over the last century and a half. I have proceeded in these works in several different ways: by using one word or word-phrase as title and others (numerically equivalent) as poem; by using the gematria number as a title and constructing poems of single lines and/or stanzas of two or several lines that fall under or add up to that number; and occasionally by using a freer selection of words brought to my attention by gematria, but combining and adding to them with considerably more freedom of choice.  To the degree that all such works are substantially aleatory, they are full of surprises that have added greatly to my own excitement in the act of writing.


Of the poems presented here, only the final one diverges significantly from the stricter mode of composition.


A Gematria for Jackson Mac Low




made it happen.


Chance = 310.


Fourth Gematria

“In the Shadow”


Gematria 372




A Week.




My Heart (1)                            My Heart (2)


Flaming.                                   Blood




The Sign


I see

a word / spoken.




In the Shadow (1)                     In the Shadow (2)


A womb                                   I am

he devours.                              nothing.





                        for Charles Reznikoff


The light.

The terror.






Your beautiful




at the entry.




A Fountain (1)                          A Fountain (2)


An eye.                        Shall I hide?




A Window



& forward.





Colors (1)                                Colors (2)


Yellow                                     His red

stars                                         throne.            





The Candlestick / The Fire


The yellow



like a god.




A Vision (1)                              A Vision (2)


Beat it                                      God

with power.                              is crushed.






& a double.




The City









Flesh (1)                                  Flesh (2)


An ark                                      Before

& a worm.                                & bitter.




The Rock






A Curse


Your father

shall live.




A Cloud (1)                              A Cloud (2)


In wood.                                  Forever.





or enough.




Cities, Cities



& speckled.


A tree

fallen down.




My country

a fire








The Voice (1)                            The Voice (2)


will answer.                              A voice.



From More Gematrias 1–100



His red




& water.

The adam, the man,


& bloody.                                                         [50]





the old man,


brought us up,

a living substance


in your sight,

like sheep


he has upheld

your flock —


out of the thousands

— & has brought


a sprig of calamus

& wormwood



in your eye


& birds

& from his people


in the tree

an unjust gain


they rose up,

they shall rise up                                              [161, 162]



Gematria 444




& cakes


& a cake of




Gematria 456



You will become unclean

You will become unclean


You will defile yourselves

in uncleanness


You will go

You will die


You will die

in uncleanness


And she went

And he died


And he died

And it ended




Gematria 519

“Around Midnight”


so he drove out

& was silent


& she took it

& when it rose



the song


at their door

around midnight




Your Loins


The thighs

he stripped naked.                                             [560]




Sad Gematria


I am old




& I fell down.                                                   [567]



Gematria 780



He made you.



From my book.


In the ashes.









Gematria 988


I know

his dreams.










bruised testicles.




Almond blossoms.





And the open





Chains (1)                                Chains (2)


Your six                                   False

gates.                                       eagles.                          [1200]



From Beyond Gematria


Gematria One


Laughter. Of their blood into his nostrils. Numbed. And the window numbed as well. We ate the children. We will eat their gods. We ate and we will eat. His desire will be ransomed. May my angel eat? He may. He will. He will heave a bone against you. A sodomite & angel. The confusion arising from two kinds — of bones? of angels? When the water rises into waters. As when the water rises into seas.



Gematria Two


Perhaps they do,

millennial & white —

a kingdom talks to me     your bread

is taken for a treasure

— even more the lice —

stars shine in his mouth

beneath his gums

a yellow angel rises, swelling

like a bat

a great star, fair as days

& beautiful as waters,

as her sweet mouth haunts

the man who sees

& knows a window,

if an angel by himself

becomes a cup, also a little owl,

my heart condenses to an emerald,

water that our hearts are,

eyes, a basket from the sea,

the face his mouth took for a king’s

& saved although the face

kept murmuring, the sea

drove globulets onto the land,

his bone against her, wailing,

a star is in your mouth,

your yellow god is sucking

like a dog.



Gematria Five


The darkness

gushes against a second



blesst & scalded,

redder than the lamb the demons

bring, evil shepherds


who surround you,

turtledoves above & lamps

like stars, like lights


all over

the night sky,



as an oven fills with darkness,

the jews inside their cities

lost in sleep.