Commentary Magazine


A Poet of the Holocaust

May it never befall you,
All you who pass along the road!
Look about and see:
Is there any agony like mine,
Which was dealt out to me,
When the Lord afflicted me
On His day of wrath?

—Lamentations 1:12

The relation of Hebrew poetry to the Holocaust is a peculiar one, largely because many readers and some writers of Hebrew poetry tend to have rather special expectations of it as an instrument of response to national calamity. The old tradition of Hebrew poetry as a vehicle of prophetic burden has not entirely been dissipated, despite the aesthetic preference of most younger Israelis and the practice of most Hebrew poets below the age of fifty. In regard to historical disaster, the paradigm of the biblical Book of Lamentations remains especially potent. Composed, one may still assume, in the immediate aftermath of the conquest of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E., it records the horrors of bloody defeat in a heavily cadenced accumulation of grim, concrete images, setting history in the deepening perspective of divine purpose; and the book has become with the passage of time the focus of a national rite, solemnly chanted in a minor key every year on the Fast of the Ninth of Ab. After the model of Lamentations, each major persecution from the massacres of the First Crusade onward elicited its own kinah, or dirge—usually drawing heavily on the language and symbols of Lamentations, Jeremiah, and the Midrashim about the destruction of the Second Temple—and these in turn often became part of the official liturgy for the day of national mourning.

It is, I think, this long chain of historical precedents which particularly fostered in Hebrew circles a dim sense that poetry should be able to yield some sort of definitive account of the Holocaust, a reverberant evocation of its terrible meaning under the aspect of eternity. Now, this expectation was based on two obviously anachronistic assumptions. To begin with, it presupposed the possibility of meaning in the face of such events, assuming by constraint what the author of Lamentations could assume quite naturally, that a higher plan was unfolding through history, however ghastly some stages of its implementation might be. The second assumption was that it was still possible for a poet to submerge his individuality in a collective identity, as Hebrew poets for three millennia had done, and thus to speak for the whole people in its historical anguish. In point of fact, the overwhelming direction of Hebrew poetry in recent decades has been toward a concentration on private and quotidian experience, toward the cultivation of a nuanced personal voice, and, as in other modern literatures, toward the affirmation of selfhood, not peoplehood, as the proper sphere of literary expression. Given this fundamental tension between classic Hebrew precedent and contemporary poetic practice, it is a serious question whether there can still be any convincing alternative to the prevalent modern stance of the poet as the explorer of his own experience.

Among Hebrew poets in our time, the one great exception that proves—in the proper sense, tests—the rule is Uri Zvi Greenberg. Greenberg, born in a Galician village in 1894 and a resident of Israel since 1924, is such a thorough maverick, such an uncompromising extremist in all his aesthetic and ideological positions, that there is a strange sort of integrity in the very purity of his oppositionalism. His politics are on the far fringe of the messianic Right: he worked as an organizer and publicist for the Revisionist movement in the 30's; during the 40's he was active in the terrorist Irgun; he seems to entertain the notion of a restoration of the Davidic dynasty as something more than a poetic conceit; and he has denounced as backsliders and traitors all who lack his singlehanded dedication to fulfilling the manifest destiny of the Jewish people, which is to triumph by might over its historical enemies, Christianity and Islam. There is hardly any point in debating Greenberg's political views; what concerns me is how these views have determined his posture as a poet, how far they are compatible with what readers not sharing his outlook might perceive as good poetry. Let me say at the outset that I think there is real poetic genius in Uri Zvi Greenberg. It is precisely the presence of genius that makes it worth considering how, given his commitments, he has used or abused his gifts.

Though much of Greenberg's earliest Hebrew poetry (he had written first in Yiddish) was intensely personal and showed conscious affinities with European expressionism, he began to insist as far back as 1924 on the obligation of the poet to serve as the voice of national destiny in the making and to eschew at all costs the arid aestheticism of the Gentiles. By 1928, he was calling for the emergence of a Hebrew Walt Whitman (with himself clearly in mind), Whitman being conceived as someone grander than a mere individual poet, the bardic singer of a nation's soul. Special dispensation could be made for a poet like Whitman as having been “molded from the clay of a Hebrew prophet,” but in the same manifesto Greenberg declared an absolute difference between Jewish and Gentile creativity: “The foreign peoples have nine muses, but ours is the tenth, the hidden muse: Judaism with all its aspects in the light of messianism.” As the political crisis in Palestine and in Europe grew graver through the 30's, Greenberg pursued his own declared program more and more vehemently in his poetry. He was in Poland on a mission for the Revisionists when the war broke out in 1939, and was barely able to escape and make his way back to Palestine. Then, as the tide of mass murder rapidly engulfed what had been for centuries the teeming centers of European Jewry, destroying, among millions of others, Greenberg's parents and sister, he began to produce the enormous poetic outpouring of wrath and anguish that would become Streets of the River: The Book of Dirges and Power (1951).

_____________

Streets of the River is at its best a strong book, indeed, a deeply disturbing book, and one that is strenuously intended to resemble nothing so much as itself, or the earlier poems of its author. Not surprisingly, it was seized on in the years following its initial publication—the Hebrew original has been reissued several times, though an English edition has not yet appeared—by a good many Hebrew critics as the awaited inspired text on the Holocaust, the authoritative utterance for our traumatic times of the prophetic voice in the language of the classical prophets. Now, over twenty years after the appearance of the volume, a more sober appraisal seems warranted. The scale of the book, its originality, and what must be called the grandeur of its conception, clearly still set it apart as the most substantial poetic response in Hebrew, perhaps in any language, to the destruction of European Jewry. In these 385 pages of verse—lyric, dramatic, narrative, balladic, and hortatory—there is poetry that one can guess many generations of Jews will continue to live with, compelled by the mesmeric force of Greenberg's vision of genocide and regeneration. Nevertheless, what is likely to strike a reader at this distance from the events and the composition of the poems is the yawning gap between achievement and failure in the same poetic structure. On the one hand, many of the poems have a delicate, hauntingly poignant lyricism or dazzling moments of hallucinatory power; on the other hand, there is page after repetitious page of doggerel and rant, conveyed through hollow rhetorical flourishes in mechanical rhythms and rhymes, or, alternately, in sprawling free verse. This startling discrepancy seems to me worth exploring because I think it may reveal something about the intrinsic problematic of making poetry respond to an ultimate historical horror.

Greenberg means not only to record the immediate pain of a people's bereavement but to bring to bear on it a transhistorical perspective, which is to say, to fit the historical suffering of the Jews into a large structure of myth. The people of Israel is seen as a great irreversible river-tide flowing out of Abraham—his name, Av Ram, is etymologized as “High Father”—across the centuries, past the green banks of the alien Gentile world. Its fate is to be hated and persecuted, its divinely appointed destiny is to prevail triumphant. Abraham is “the lord of law, vision, and yearning,” qualities which are presumed to be the unique legacy of Israel. Greenberg repeatedly emphasizes blood as the medium for the transmission of this heritage, and his view of history is frankly, defiantly, racist. Humankind is divided into two irreconcilable groups: the seed of Israel, which bears within it the gifts of true belief, compassion, lawfulness, and the Gentiles, who are by the necessity of their inner nature ravening forest beasts, showing at best only the deceptive veneer of civilization in a Beethoven, a Goethe, or a Kant.

It hardly needs to be said that this drastic polarization of humanity does considerable violence to historical fact, however much Jews have suffered at the hands of Gentiles, but, again, the question I would like to pursue is not the ten-ability of Greenberg's beliefs but what kind of poetry he makes out of them. In any case, Streets of the River is shot through with contradictions within its own mythic version of the Jews as the unique people of mercy and refined spirituality because the militant poet lays great stress on the most primitive, vengeful layers of the Bible as the basis for renewed Jewish existence. Even rabbinic Judaism tends to be translated back into the fierce ethos of the most archaic passages of the Bible, as in the chilling moment when the poet, in the presence of his murdered father, recites the following benediction, taking off from the rabbinic formula for a blessing said before the performance of a divinely enjoined act: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the World, who sanctified us through Your commandments and commanded us to take blood for blood, life for life.”

To be fair to the quality of Greenberg's achievement, one must say that the visionary strength of his imagination is such that within this skewed framework of myth he is able to create images of the Holocaust as a cosmic event that are utterly compelling. Let me cite just one example from many possible ones, an apocalyptic moment that occurs in the opening poem of Streets of the River:1

It is not the morning star ascending in the east.
Look, brother,
It is a skull, a Jew's skull, whose skin has been
   stripped,
Still in its fresh redness burning brightly
As in the Creator's thought before the creation
    of man.

It is the last line here that provides the special Greenberg twist, wrenching horror into a perspective of theological grandeur, joining death with birth, annihilation with creation. For the most part, however, it is in those poems which emphasize most directly the grand myth of Jewish history that one feels Greenberg's greatest lapses as a poet. Not to belabor the point, I will offer just a half-dozen characteristic lines from a long poem called “Song of the Great March.” Prosodically, the lines have a Whitmanesque rambling quality for which Greenberg shows excessive fondness, and which itself has the effect of encouraging in him a tendency to prosy expository statement:

Here we are now, the Jews in the world, with all
   that land of killing going'round in our hearts.
An army ancient of days, but weaponless, its
   flags torn, wound-dark, pain-heavy,
And without commanders to go before it, experts
   of distance, adept in maneuvers. . . .
We are all an army that persisted in battle
   though battered, our souls like our flesh strick-
      en with stillness,
But our will to live, to come back to reign as we
    reigned, from field to sea, fortress, and wall,
Has not been battered in battle, not subdued by
   the sword, nor yielded to the teeth of despair
      and pain.

Poetry places far greater demands on the imagination than ideology in regard to the perception of complexity and variety, and what one senses here, as in many extended passages of Streets of the River, is that the verse medium has been reduced to a rumbling vehicle for an ideological message. Part of the trouble is that we know too much about Jewish history through its various and ambiguous course for this to carry much conviction, and one suspects that even an extremist like Greenberg, in some corner of his consciousness, knows too much about Jewish history really to be able to imagine it adequately, concretely, in this melodramatic image of an embattled army. There is something at once hackneyed and vague about the handling of the whole military symbolism, and Greenberg, as though finding himself deprived of his better poetic resources, resorts to facile word play (which I have tried to imitate at a couple of points in my translation) and to stringing together political slogans (“our will to live, to come back to reign. . .”).

_____________

The underlying problem of confronting the Holocaust by means of a myth might be stated in another way. The essence of historical experience, as Philip Rahv has persuasively argued, is constant change and innovation, while myth by its nature implies cyclicality, timeless repetition. To render history as myth, then, is to violate the essentially multifarious character of history. This is precisely what Greenberg does. Again and again he insists that Jewish history, from Abraham to Auschwitz, is a single repeated tale of persecution and persistence. In all times and places he sees the same enemy in a thousand different masks, “The same implements of torture, the same cellars of terror.” Amalek, Assyria, Babylonia, Rome, Spain, and Portugal, the medieval Germanic states and modern Germany, are equally “the terror itself without trope or simile: there is nothing else, it's all of them.” It is putting it mildly to say that there is a flattening and simplification of the facts of Jewish history in this vision of them. One of course must grant lines of continuity in this body of history, but the awful uniqueness of the Holocaust itself is diminished by its being set at a dead level with all previous tribulations—as, for example, when the furnaces at Auschwitz are equated with the furnace of Ur of the Chaldees, the latter being strictly an invention of rabbinic legend in which Abraham was tried and found steadfast, and surely belonging to a drastically different world from that of the Final Solution. What it is possible for a poet to imagine credibly about history depends in part on his own location in history. For the Psalmist or for the author of Lamentations, the coordinates of knowledge of a whole culture made it natural to see historical events falling into a neatly traceable pattern of recurrence, or of ebb and flow. In the middle of the 20th century, to insist on such a pattern means willfully to impose a cloudy generality on the commonly perceived multiplicity of historical experience; and, on the level of poetic style, this leads to exhortation instead of evocation, to vagueness, contrived allegorical tableaux, stylistic clichés, and mere ideological catchwords.

A final problematic aspect of this attempt by a modern poet to create a national myth in his work is the kind of persona that addresses us through the poems. In fact, as we shall see, there are two very different personae in Streets of the River, roughly correlated with its successes and failures, but the one Greenberg consciously wants to be prominent is precisely the sort of speaker that a national myth would seem to require—an authoritative voice of the genius of the people through the ages, thundering dire warnings, trumpeting affirmations. The poet of Streets of the River presents himself as a prophet and castigator, as a consuming fire of truth, a lonely, sharp-toothed panther among the complacent fools of his generation. At moments, he has flashes of real poetic megalomania, as when, at the climax of one vision, he announces, “And the wall/Of mighty existence collapsed before the sun of song.”

To point to the extravagance of all this is not to question its sincerity; nothing is sincerer than fanaticism, and Greenberg often seems close to that condition. The more crucial consideration is not sincerity but authenticity, which is a matter not only of the speaker's expressive intention but also of how that intention can be received and construed by others in the specific cultural and historical context for which the poem was created. When the prophet Amos walked into the central square of Bethel and began denouncing the ruling elite of the Israelite kingdom, he was acting in a concrete context in which it was thoroughly credible, though also rather dangerous, for a man to speak poetry as the direct message of God. When a modern poet like Greenberg assumes an analogous posture, most of his contemporaries, not sharing the assumptions of his poetical faith, are likely to perceive such writing as an extreme act of grandiosity. The subtle, profound operation of rhetorical credibility upon which all literary authenticity depends then breaks down, the prophet in his own eyes having become a pompous preacher in the eyes of others. Though we may read in general by a willing suspension of disbelief, the writer has to make it at least feasible for us to effect the suspension.

_____________

I would suggest that in most cases the only workable way to use biblical materials for the expression of contemporary experience is somehow to stand the sources on their heads, borrowing images, symbols, and situations for the expressive needs of a very different kind of poetic voice. Let me propose for a moment a contrasting example to everything I have been considering so far in Greenberg, both because it is instructive in its own right and because it may provide a useful perspective on the other persona of Streets of the River. Amir Gilboa, a generation younger than Greenberg, is also European-born; his whole immediate family in the Ukraine was murdered by the Nazis; and, understandably, his Hebrew poems through the late 40's and 50's reflect considerable preoccupation with the Holocaust, though they remain distinctly personal poems, and he has never attempted a sustained poetic work on the subject. I might add that stylistically Gilboa moved from a tendency to excessive ornateness in his earliest verse of the 40's to a distinctive kind of cultivated simplicity. The poem I would like to cite, “By the Waters of Babylon,” is a radical reworking of Psalm 137, which begins with those words. It reassembles principal elements of the psalm—the sitting and weeping by the waters, the hanging up of harps on the willows, the mockery of the captors—in a new order of meaning which is, from one point of view, a vivid image of the predicament of the bereaved poet in a world of holocausts.

On the willows we hung our harps. I mean the
    grown-ups.
As for me, I had a little harp and I hid it under
    my cloak.
On the far side of the river the victors lit fires
    and wild with joy they reveled.
Evening fell and fell. The grown-ups sat crying.
    A big fire over there.
And the guards assigned to us, not taking part
    in the dancing,
Reviling us out of impatience, raucously,
Aping our language in grotesque ways.

The grown-ups listened, and looked at their
    harps. The waters filled with tears.
And I out of sorrow dared to cry out: Who is
    grotesque here,
You wild beasts, and how can you mock us with
    gibberish?
For there is no language like ours for color and
    sound, for depth and distance.

And they laughed louder, their mouths gaped
    at me.
They began chasing me, getting entangled in
    darkness.
I would stop to rest a brief moment briefly to
    pluck my harp,
They would swell like sacks, glow like copper.

This is, of course, rather strange, but the strangeness seems to me arresting and suggestive. By casting himself in the role of a helpless child menaced by cruel captors, the poet closes the distance between himself and the biblical scene, making it pulse with the immediacy of a contemporary event, despite the archaic harps. The wavering of the language between a child's speech and formal poetic diction helps create this bridge, as do the rapid shifts in verb tenses, which move from past to present to an imperfect that is a virtual present. What finally drives the child, as the poet's surrogate, to distraction, is the enemy's vilification of his language, which seems to him a very precious thing, a unique reservoir of expressiveness. In the face of brutal historical disaster, the poet has only the resources of his art to cling to, but in the end these may amount to no more than the pathetic plucking of harpstrings by a frail figure resting for a moment in desperate flight. Gilboa, like Greenberg, feels the distinctive beauty and crystallized cultural experience of the Hebrew that is his instrument, but “By the Waters of Babylon” precisely reverses the idea of poetry's overwhelming power which is celebrated in Streets of the River.

The child seems a particularly plausible persona for the poet confronted with the Holocaust because helplessness, fear, impotent rage, incomprehension are such likely responses to that un-assimilable historical reality, at least when a writer tries to imagine it personally and concretely, not ideologically. Gilboa in fact uses the child as persona in a number of remarkable poems in which biblical figures are appropriated for contemporary purposes. I would like to quote just one of these, before we try to see how all this bears on Greenberg, because it is such a striking illustration of just that quality of poetic authenticity to which I have alluded. The poem, “Isaac,” represents Abraham and Isaac on the way to the sacrifice, with one crucial alteration of the original story; but its first-person narration by a child Isaac breaks down partitions between present and past, waking and nightmare, and projects through the prism of the biblical scene one of the most concentrated images of the Holocaust's sheer senseless horror that any Hebrew poet has fashioned.

At daybreak the sun took a walk in the forest
Together with me and with Father,
My right hand in his left.

Like lightning a knife flamed among the trees.
And I so dread the fear of my eyes facing the
    blood on the leaves.

Father, Father, quick save Isaac,
Then no one will be missing at lunch.

It is I who am slaughtered, my son,
My blood even now on the leaves.
And Father, his voice was stopped up.
And his face was pale.

And I wanted to scream, writhing not to believe,
Tearing open my eyes.
I awoke.

And the right hand was drained of blood.

Now, if one turns back to Streets of the River with the example of Gilboa in mind, one sees the strategic importance of the fact that over against the patriarchal-prophetic stance of the poet who calls himself Avleshonram, Father of the High One's Tongue, there is another speaker, an orphaned child lost in the world and aching for his parents. Though there are some significant exceptions to this general rule, it is by and large those poems of Greenberg's in which the child is speaker that most fully persuade us of their authenticity as responses to the Holocaust. Even the language in these poems is for the most part noticeably different—not high and hortatory but generally simple, dramatically direct, finely modulated, rich in concrete imagery. Despite Greenberg's dedication to the Tenth Muse of messianic purpose, he has included poems in this volume which are not only highly personal but which are no more than obliquely related to the destruction of European Jewry. Intertwined with the subject of the Holocaust is a mourning over a lost childhood, which occasionally is even cast in “Wordsworthian” terms as a universal experience of deprivation that has no necessary connection with the murder of the parents and the devastation of their world. In “Man Dies in the Valley,” a poem that provides one of the conceptual keys to Streets of the River, Greenberg imagines every human being descending by stages from infancy's mount of beatitude, where a Jacob's ladder stands by the crib, to a dark valley at the bottom of time, where the exposed child needs his mother terribly but will never find her: “As the cradle days of childhood pass/ The little ladder vanishes,/ The angels of childhood vanish/ Unnoticed. . . . A stillness,/ Like after the playing on strings.”

_____________

On close consideration, a peculiar paradox emerges from Streets of the River. The emotion consciously intended by the poet to inform this large imaginative structure is fiery wrath, but the most convincingly realized emotion in the book—perhaps its deepest feeling—is nostalgia. In this regard, the role of the mother, and the anguish of separation from the mother, are crucially important, as, indeed, they are in much of Greenberg's poetry both before and after Streets of the River. It is only a little overstated to say that the sense of reality in Greenberg's poetry radiates out from the remembered image of the mother. Idealized but also often delicately eroticized, she is the poet's one abiding model of a meaningful, happy connection with things outside himself. (The father, though also portrayed lovingly in many of the poems, is less central and more ambiguous, sometimes appearing as an Abraham sacrificing his son or as a proponent of the ways of exile/emasculation symbolically taking away his son's sword.) No other woman, the poet tells us several times, can give him the joy and beauty he knew at his mother's breast. In one poem the adult poet, sitting in a bar in Tel Aviv, sadly contemplates his body and wonders how it was once caressed by a mother, gently lifted up by her to the mezuzah each night and then laid to sleep in that long-vanished home. Indeed, some of the finest moments in Streets of the River are imagined returns to the home in the Galician village, filled with vividly recollected details. Everything in these scenes becomes intensely real because the poet's imagination can focus around the felt reality of loving closeness to the mother. The sham reality of adult experience, scarcely to be credited or honored, falls away, and the palpable substance of living existence is, at least for a fleeting moment, recovered.

I do not want to suggest that the subject of Streets of the River is only ostensibly the Holocaust and that the book should really be read as a kind of Hebrew Prelude, a study of the tragic growth of the poet's mind. On the contrary, it seems to me that the recurrent stress on the universal human loss of primal harmony is precisely Greenberg's most effective means of making the loss of European Jewry accessible to the imagination. This does not of course imply that the prolonged trauma of “descent” from childhood is in any way commensurable with the horror of a political force that with carefully coordinated administrative and technical machinery could gas and incinerate several million innocent human beings. That horror, however, remains ultimately impenetrable, for all our elaborate attempts to analyze it as being everything from banal to diabolic, because the very idea of its possibility reduces all we would build in our lives individually and collectively to rubble. To impose upon the Holocaust in a long series of poems some large symbolic scheme must to some extent falsify our perception of it by trying to elicit an eschatological clash between evil and good from facts too abysmal for any notions so traditional, so implicitly hopeful. What the poet is likely to find more within the reach of thought and feeling artfully ordered through language is not the horror itself, not the broad workings of history by which it came to be, but his own sense of loss and consternation after the awful fact.

To the Jews as a people, the element of irrevocable loss is bound to be particularly salient for the obvious reason that the whole variegated cultural world, from the Volga to the Garonne, from which a large part of living Jewry derives its values, its distinctive identity, and its physical parentage, was in less than six years destroyed for all time. In Streets of the River the loss of the parents flows directly into the loss of the world whose exemplars they are for the poet. The inevitable estrangement from the realm of childhood is of course made overwhelmingly sharper, more anguished, by the cataclysmic destruction of everyone who belonged to that realm, and the poet's personal bereavement becomes a concrete, imaginable instance of the bereavement of the entire people.

The laments over the precious world of childhood lost are more than exemplary, for in them the poet succeeds in achieving on a small scale what elsewhere he does rather less convincingly on a more grandiose scale—the creation of a myth to give emotional coherence and dramatic definition to the experience of loss. This myth works, I suspect, because its dramatis personae are figures intimately known and felt by the poet, now enlarged and made luminous as they are interwoven with strands of legendary lore and set in a timeless perspective. The murdered mother, father, and sister become a kind of Holy Family, undergoing through martyrdom a celestial Ascension, concentrating in their transfigured presence all the beauty that was cut off, all the felt pain of their separation from the surviving son. In one of these personal visionary poems, Greenberg imagines the celebration of a ghostly Sabbath in heaven, his mother standing protectively over the naked, bloodied figure of his sister, who seems to be purposely confused with the Sabbath itself: “The heavens are hushed . . . and so one can hear the sound of stars whispering/ Like coals of fire murmuring Aramaic:/ Betulta Kadishta Shabbat Malketa. Holy Virgin Sabbath Queen.” The ingenious device of the Aramaic line makes the image sound like something straight out of the Zohar, but in fact there is no Betulta Kadishta, no Holy Virgin, in classical Jewish sources, and the seemingly Kabbalistic mythic figure is a direct borrowing from Christianity. This minor detail is worth noting because it points to the fact that the indigenously Jewish character of Greenberg's poetry is not quite so “pure” as he would lead us to think, and in a similar way, the personal impulse in this book is stronger than we might initially conclude from its insistent national emphases.

_____________

One of the lyric peaks of Streets of the River is a group of four poems entitled “Songs at the Borders of the Heavens” which finely etches the family myth. In the first poem of the group, the speaker sees his martyred parents sinking into the watery depths, then ascending, on both sides of the setting sun, with the burning sea beneath their feet. The second poem moves from sea-changes to mysterious sea-crossings, and here the particular details of the poet's recollected image of his parents are especially prominent. The poem, called “Silence's Martyrs,” is a beautiful example of how the artful rendering of personal anguish can reach beyond itself. The extraordinary delicacy of the language and the plangent musicality of the verse regrettably resist translation, but even in my awkward English version one may get some sense of the poem's quiet strength. If at first glance there seems to be a climactic note of self-pity at the end, the pathos of abandonment has a special resonance, a special justification, precisely because profoundly implicated in the first-person singular of the poem is a first-person plural, the orphaned poet intimating through the dramatization of his own plight that of the orphaned people.

In a poet so imaginatively involved as Greenberg with the historical destiny of his people, at some point the distinction between personal and national obviously breaks down. Nevertheless, one may learn something about the possible relation of modern poetry to national experience from the fact that the most convincing expressions of the fate of the people even in this supremely nationalist poet seem for the most part to come in his most intimately personal poems, like “Silence's Martyrs.” One must imagine the poet as lost child, after the Holocaust, standing on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean looking to the west and north into the great empty kingdom of death:

On the moonlit nights my martyred mother says
To my martyred father:
When I gave birth to the boy the moon dropped
    by in the window.
At once he opened his eyes and beheld her; since
    then
Her brightness has sung in his blood till this day
And the moon has been walking since then in
    his poems.

Much never-stilled longing there was in my
    father,
But the magic coach never stood by his house
When he longed.
And so he knew silence and melody
And loved-with-his-eyes the wings of birds.
—“When they want to fly, off they fly, just like
    that.”—

But my mother . . . her longing was hitched to
    the magical coach.
By the beat of the heart every cell of her knew
    how to walk
With both feet on the sea:
By the path-of-the-moon-on-the-waves
To me, to her son, in Zion—
But she would not find me in wait at the shore,
She'd go back with the path-of-the-moon-on-the-waves:
Weary of wandering, feverish, seastruck.

Now, both my mother and father are silence's
    martyrs.
There's a path-of-the-moon on glittering waves
And an only son
The remaining one
In the world.


Footnotes

1 The translations throughout are my own.—R.A.

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