Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PN Review 276
PN Review Substack

This poem is taken from PN Review 174, Volume 33 Number 4, March - April 2007.

Six Poems and an Essay (translated by Lilach Lachman and Gabriel Levin) Avoth Yeshurun

Avoth Yeshurun (1904-92), one of the major figures in twentieth-century Hebrew poetry, was born in the western Ukraine and moved as a child to Krasnystaw in Poland. In 1925 he emigrated to Palestine where he roamed the land, working as watchman, swamp-dredger, fruit-picker and building-hand, all the while evolving a radical poetics of disjunction. The poetry's jagged - scarred - surface and compounding of local dialects embody, in effect, the poet's own sense of fracture and displacement. A typical Yeshurun poem might contain bits of Arabic, Polish and Yiddish alongside a biblical locution and the latest Tel Aviv slang. It is, in Yeshurun's own words, a homemade 'half-and-half' Hebrew, of the 'clumsy' variety one might hear spoken by new immigrants, in which a rift of memory and place becomes a fault line in the structure of language. Yeshurun's poetry was slow to gain recognition. One reason for this was the oddness of his Hebrew, with its rough edges, its neologisms and jumbled syntax; the other lies in his iconoclastic vision, which from the very beginning yoked the twin tragedies of Jews and Palestinians. Yeshurun lost his entire family in the Holocaust, but in his eyes this loss was compounded by the exodus and dispossession of Palestinian Arabs in the wake of the Israel's War of Independence. It was only with the publication of The Syrian- African Rift in the mid-1970s that his reputation as Israel's most seriously innovative poet was established. He would go on to produce his greatest work in the 1970s and 1980s, and right up to his death at the age of 88. By then Yeshurun was writing with a dual urgency, of the living and of the dead, while his appetite for life and its particulars - its concrete, emotive details - never diminished. The following selection is from Yeshurun's fourth collection of poems, This Is The Name of The Book (1970).


Your photo, pale as chalk, I peeled from the wall.
So very very long hanging here.
Why stand unclaimed at the door.
Trying to peek in whether to enter?

The opening opens to you and dreads.
In my room no curtain facing the yard.
Neighbours walk by and see. What's in store?
And you've got a room and a fence.

Your way, Pa, to peek in from the opening.
I took down a photo paling.
Don't stand. Why bother. The colour's all washed-out.
Chip of stone from a wall.

And nostamp is a wind crossing all borders.
A wind crossing wireless and deluge,
across no spell, no reward and reprieve,
it is this wind this-one from across.

1 November 1961

The Seller

Besides, after I walked around, loitering with the roses
twelve a lira, thirteen a night,
nothing happened. I startled water
on the flowers, and nobody purchased.
I turned the bucket over, and walked away.

My longings snapped, my Eva. Only your afflictions I recalled.
'Don't betray me,' I recalled.
Pains are nurtured and suffer from their own memory.
They return from yesterday walking with pains,
twelve a lira, thirteen a night.

4 November 1966

A Moment Requiem

I rode in a car.

Nothing in it man to machine
but the poetry in him.

I rode to her first death
first as Eve,
a woman with no elbow and no cure,
wept before her doctors,
as though her father.
A woman with no cure -
and no elbow
on her back.
They ate her eyes
gnawed at her insides her kidneys,

she wept before her father,
they gave her a drug.

She drowsed. She breathed.

Outside, on the branches,
red flesh flowers
of fowl prey.
Twilight on the prey.
Shadows in her mouth agape.

She breathed. She drowsed.

Ah for this reality:
she departed from the world
and peers out from the dream.

They went to bury her to-her-father.

Find rest.

15 May 1967

The White Glass Plate

The white glass plate,
even though glass is glass
yellowed by nature.

Nevertheless it fell on the floor,
like weeping that spread,
because I let it break.

First to life expectancy
and last. First to life expectancy.
Dying one isn't late.

12 March 1968

On the Death of the Mulberry

I didn't say splendour of ruined homes, like my Rabbi, before the war he'd been harsh and
and after the war he turned lax and left.
I didn't speak of trees uprooted on Berditchevski Street. The mulberry tree that stood forty
years and nobody knew or gave a damn who'd planted it. Stood on a sidewalk without a
      street, next
to a grocery. Kids skipped in the sand and shinnied up the tree. Its fruit resembled the hard
pale genitals of boys. After they paved a road and introduced berry-bonbons
in boxes, no one remembered the foliage had vanished from the tree. Of late it was engaged
next to the grocery in supporting an awning of rags above vegetables and fruits.
picking out fruits and vegetables, bend over, their faces not turned to the tree.

They called city hall to come uproot it. City hall said: we didn't plant it. They said: as far as
     planting goes, neither had they.

A cart came with rubber wheels, they unloaded a rope, lashed the tree, sawed it in two, Mr
flung its bark after it.

A few people milled around: a nearby photographer, an across the street cab driver and a
      man from an office
who'd previously stepped into the grocery.

Mrs Crystal recounts: 'One day standing and was beginning to shake. And the tree shakes.'
Mr Crystal says: 'Gave it a heave-ho, and it fell.'

The Talmey Mikveh newsletter writes: 'The trees serve as a nesting-place and refuge for
     thousands of birds, to the delight of poetry-lovers, but not of farmers and grocers.'

Fine. We cut you off from all society, we beg your forgiveness. They shall bear Thee up in
      their hands.
Rubber wheels. Can't hear.

10 October 1968

Poem to the Coming of a Face
Earth on my Floor

        Our father's face was here
        Then we were still sons
        Now our father's con/sealed
        How shall we acquire a face?
                                   from 'Passing over Pits'

Poem to the coming of a face.
Poems stick their faces where -
ever they feel like it.

They say of her of the Giaconda in the Louvre,
that however much you wander among the displays
the eyes of the Mona Lisa follow you.

Now in the downpour,
I uprooted the earth from the large pot,
it and its earth jointly.

Cold and summer passed over it. Heat and winter passed over it.
You could have gone and spoken to it.
Earth on the third floor.

Years ago a bug came out to the topsoil to the open range.
This creepy-crawly, on the soil of the large pot, where will it be found?
Slumber of a tiny grain. Open the book, it comes out.

A site (an attraction!) a small universe. A scrap of the world of Tel Aviv, a nature reserve.
Earth on my floor.
I got up to uproot it.

A thousand cats is the first rain. With a thousand claws the earth opens its mouth. The soil of the large pot,
now in the awful first rain, I poured downstairs like the Dead of the Desert. Lest the first rain
rise and lest it come to the graves.

The first rain however came, and the earth is no longer.
With a projector on a wretched-and-an-ass standing in the rain. With faucets spitting javelins and
         whiplashes of rain,
and the pit is empty.

Came the night of the first rain. An oceanic pot without a lid. A headless knight. A barrel and moon in Chelm.
In Yaffa. A vase wide on top. Reddish and narrow
bellow. At my height. The night of first rain.

How pleasant the impression the rain makes outside.
And this is without any connection to what it does to the graves.
A person doesn't go far.

Most of the soil contains the earth of Magdiel, and in it
are roots of a lemon and roots of a cypress and roots of a citrus and roots of a Shamuti.
But anyway.

Years ago I was shocked by Albrecht Dürer's Paulus.
I hung and removed a reproduction of Paulus and a reproduction of Giaconda.
It was the end of the large pot.

The small pot multiplied its height.
And day after day you come and look at the displays.
And the eyes of the Mona Lisa follow you.

20 December 1968

Hebrew Literature Will Set the Prayer

A man got up one morning, left his home, his family, his country, his language, his name - yes, his name too he cast aside - and went and made himself another country, another home, another family, another language, another name.

All the letters, the entreaties, the longings, the pleas, all the demands they dispatched in his wake to turn him away from his actions, and whose only aim was - to turn the wheel back - fell on deaf ears and shattered on a stone heart.

All of this weighed on the shoulders of one man.

It's very hard to know what had been placed on the hearts of the family. It didn't make them any healthier. What had they to stand against the wicked? For after all we left them because they were inferior to us - they, the home, the family, the country, the language, seemed inferior in our eyes...

For I believe every promise works two ways. The divine promise as well. A promise was made to the people, and the people made a promise to the one who gave. And what is the promise? To be honest with ourselves.

When I came to the Land of Israel, I looked around me with a generous and free spirit. Everything that was created in this land - the earth and its dwellers and everything on it - was created for love.

Notwithstanding the new conditions, there slowly rose within me a feeling of exaltation. Like a man who knows what he lives on. Like a man who loves a woman. Like a man who won and he has a friend who is his better and he doesn't shut his mouth from talking thereof openly - that's me.

But this bread I'd eat daily, day and night, this bread that presses on you, as if weighing on the heart - them, that home, that family, that country, that tongue, that Yiddish, that is inferior, that Yiddish out of the mouth of the people, the Jews, filled with lustre and sweetness, hiding from themselves, from their own reason; that Yiddish that started to come to you when you are awake or dreaming, because it realised that you were determined not to speak Yiddish, not to think in Yiddish, not to dream in Yiddish - whether asleep or awake. And if you dreamt or spoke in your sleep, the dream, in Yiddish - to hurry and translate immediately everything you uttered into Hebrew, and only then can you fall asleep again.

This Yiddish that spoke to me, to the son of the Aliyah, in the voice of Shechinata b 'galuta: 'Why did you abandon me' and in all the language of 'On the sin that you sinned': compelled or voluntarily. With the throat arched. With the eyes raised. Casting off the yoke. Lightheaded. Stiff-necked. With unfounded hatred.

This Yiddish, she sold at midnight, on the streets of Warsaw, warm doughnuts, to support one respectful, half-paralysed relative; this Yiddish, which began flinging before me, as childhood bait, rubles Jews money stamped with white Caesars.

Close up radiated over me Yiddish a clinical radiation, without knowing, that in the process of radiating, she sentences her soul.

Darkness swept over her. One can still see the colour of the walls. The Queenly, Hebrew language will go now to sell warm falafel in Dizengoff city, in her memory.

When a person plants a seedling straight into a pot, for a long time it suffers no change; one day there is a change in the seedling: it grows a bit crooked, feels ensnared and is accepted by the soil in the pot. That's what happened to me, when the Hebrew language suddenly came into my hands, and you do to it whatever you want and can do to it. And it, the language, falls upon an alien and strange matter, absorbs its iron, and begins to breathe in it.

When the Hebrew language ersatzes with forbidden metal, and you suddenly feel: the hour of the language has come to you, this bliss, that one is allowed to peek everywhere, to touch with the eyes everything, as the bee touches with its music each and every flower; this freedom to write for the first time poems in Hebrew on the Arabs and the Bedouin in the Land of Israel, not in a Hebrew of the six orders of the Vilna Gemara over a glass of sweet tea, but rather in a Hebrew of a full moon, in a Hebrew of large print sanctifying the new moon, Young Worker print, in a Hebrew of the Storm and Stress of an exile to a place of redemption.

The first poem l wrote after arriving, and the first poem that saw the light of day, is a poem of young love between Arabs in the Land of Israel. Its name is: 'Fasting and Thirst'.

This poem, in which the poetry in things is preferred over the things in poetry, I held onto until 1948 - Tel Aviv, at which point the state of Israel was declared. At that hour I was in the north, and I asked in a postcard, 'How fares the state? For here all one sees are Arab villages empty of people' ... Then I began to hold onto poem after poem in which the things in poetry must come before and are more important than the poetry in things. When the skin of our flesh fell as if in a slaughterhouse, we stood confronted. Stood and said: 'It doesn't matter what I did with the Arabs. What's important is what the Jews will do to the Arabs.'

A hundred million Jews were cut out of the magical carpet, together with the carpet. The flat openhanded flow of generations of Yiddish.

Arabs of the Land of Israel stepped down from the roads - the refugees.

The column 'Human Relations' - the relation toward ourselves is drawn from it.

It is clear to us, that our relation toward the three afore-mentioned bitter-signposts will determine our image for generations. It is clear to us, that we stand accordingly on our feet and our hands.

From among the three aforementioned bitter-signposts who will show us the way?

Hebrew literature will not show us the way. If at the time there had been a preparatory literature in the Land of Israel, it might have been possible to hope that the Arabs would have greeted us with the words: 'In the name of saidna Ahad Haam' - 'in the name of our master Ahad Haam'.

But, the only Arab mentioned in Hebrew poetry, is the Arab of 'The Dead of the Desert', by Bialik.

Wait a minute, when could it have done this, when could Hebrew literature ever set its mind at rest to write about the Arabs? If there are gunshots, someone shouts: 'The Philistines are upon you!' How can you write with sympathy about the Arabs; and if there aren't any shots - when aren't there any shots - why write at all!

They who watched over our graves and the names of our ancient villages, they who 'left our country to a remnant, / and barred themselves from absorption', they don't deserve to be refugees.

The aim of Hebrew Literature was to bring us to Zion. But the bitter-signposts I mentioned were already keyed up when we were in Zion and in the state of Zion. But the blood of literature froze in its arteries, from sorrow and breakage, and it has no idiom.

Yet the Jewish people have idiom. The Jewish people didn't hurt a fly on the wall! A fly on a wall the Jews haven't touched, as far as one knows. The Jewish people are bitter and sore over what happened to them and over what happened to the other nation. The Song of Debora of our day will mirror the Arab mother of the Sisera-nation. The Jewish people are bitter and sore over the fact that the return to Zion was and still is bound up with so many moral obligations. A prayer must be set. Hebrew literature will set the prayer.

14 December 1967

This poem is taken from PN Review 174, Volume 33 Number 4, March - April 2007.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this poem to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image