Guest poem sent in by Vidur Bhandari
(Poem #1108) Seven Laments for the War-Dead
1 Mr. Beringer, whose son fell at the Canal that strangers dug so ships could cross the desert, crosses my path at Jaffa Gate. He has grown very thin, has lost the weight of his son. That's why he floats so lightly in the alleys and gets caught in my heart like little twigs that drift away. 2 As a child he would mash his potatoes to a golden mush. And then you die. A living child must be cleaned when he comes home from playing. But for a dead man earth and sand are clear water, in which his body goes on being bathed and purified forever. 3 The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier across there. On the enemy's side. A good landmark for gunners of the future. Or the war monument in London at Hyde Park Corner, decorated like a magnificent cake: yet another soldier lifting head and rifle, another cannon, another eagle, another stone angel. And the whipped cream of a huge marble flag poured over it all with an expert hand. But the candied, much-too-red cherries were already gobbled up by the glutton of hearts. Amen. 4 I came upon an old zoology textbook, Brehm, Volume II, Birds: in sweet phrases, an account of the life of the starling, swallow, and thrush. Full of mistakes in antiquated Gothic typeface, but full of love, too. "Our feathered friends." "Migrate from us to warmer climes." Nest, speckled egg, soft plumage, nightingale, stork. "The harbirngers of spring." The robin, red-breasted. Year of publication: 1913, Germany, on the eve of the war that was to be the eve of all my wars. My good friend who died in my arms, in his blood, on the sands of Ashdod. 1948, June. Oh my-friend, red-breasted. 5 Dicky was hit. Like the water tower at Yad Mordekhai. Hit. A hole in the belly. Everything came flooding out. But he has remained standing like that in the landscape of my memory like the water tower at Yad Mordekhai. He fell not far from there, a little to the north, near Houlayqat. 6 Is all of this sorrow? I don't know. I stood in the cemetery dressed in the camouflage clothes of a living man: brown pants and a shirt yellow as the sun. Cemeteries are cheap; they don't ask for much. Even the wastebaskets are small, made for holding tissue paper that wrapped flowers from the store. Cemeteries are a polite and disciplined thing. "I Shall never forget you," in French on a little ceramic plaque. I don't know who it is that won't ever forget: he's more anonymous than the one who died. Is all of this sorrow? I guess so. "May ye find consolation in the building of the homeland." But how long can you go on building the homeland and not fall behind in the terrible three-sided race between consolation and building and death? Yes, all of this is sorrow. But leave a little love burining always like the small bulb in the room of a sleeping baby that gives him a bit of security and quiet love though he doesn't know what the light is or where it comes from. 7 Memorial Day for the war-dead: go tack on the grief of all your losses-- including a woman who left you-- to the grief of losing them; go mix one sorrow with another, like history, that in its economical way heaps pain and feast and sacrifice onto a single day for easy reference. Oh sweet world, soaked like bread in sweet milk for the terrible toothless God. "Behind all this, some great happiness is hiding." No use crying inside and screaming outside. Behind all this, some great happiness may be hiding. Memorial day. Bitter salt, dressed up as a little girl with flowers. Ropes are strung out the whole length of the route for a joing parade: the living and the dead together. Children move with the footsteps of someone else's grief as if picking their way through broken glass. The flautist's mouth will stay pursed for many days. A dead soldier swims among the small heads with the swimming motions of the dead, with the ancient error the dead have about the place of the living water. A flag loses contact with reality and flies away A store window decked out with beautiful dresses for women in blue and white. And everything in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and Death. A great royal beast has been dying all night long under the jasmine, with a fixed stare at the world. A man whose son died in the war walks up the street like a woman with a dead fetus inside her womb. "Behind all this, some great happiness is hiding."
(trans. Stephen Mitchell, Chana Bloch) Note: Amichai is probably the most widely translated Hebrew poet. This September marked his second death anniversary. "Seven Laments..." carries Amichai's trademark simplicty, his ability to bring out the poignancy in the ordinary. Any comment I offer would be ineffectual. Although the individual sections stand by themselves, the poem works best as a whole. People I've shared the poem with ask me which lament I like best, but I refuse to ponder that. I transcribed the poem from the book "Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai" and have tried to faithfully reproduce the published format, but it is rather lengthy, so it's possible it isn't perfect. It is said Amichai is a difficult poet to translate because he used a lot of clever word play -- he would use similar sounding Hebrew words to bring subtle (and not so subtle) twists in meaning. Obviously much of this was lost in translation. "Seven Laments..." was translated by Stephen Mitchell (who remains my favourite translator of Rilke) and Chana Bloch (who lives and works in Berkeley, California). Chana Bloch and I exchanged email some time ago about the work and life of this extraordinary person. She was fortunate enough to spend extended periods of time with Amichai in Israel, working on translations. Vidur Biography and appreciation of Amichai: http://www.ithl.org.il/amichai/on.html