Friday, April 30, 2010

One War Ended

The Vietnam War ended on this day thirty-five years ago, the date marked by the fall of Saigon. Below, the first stanza of “April 30, 1975,” by the American poet and English professor John Balaban, who served in Vietnam as a conscientious objector doing alternative duties:

The evening Nixon called his last troops off,
the church bells tolled across our states.
We leaned on farmhouse porch pilings, our eyes
wandering the lightning bug meadow thick with mist,
and counted tinny peals clanking out
through oaks around the church belltower.
You asked, “Is it peace, or only a bell ringing?”

Perhaps only a bell ringing, the signal for a temporary hiatus in war’s blind march through history. Below a lush poem called "Curfew" written by Brian Turner, which also speaks to that small space of quiet. Brian served seven years in the US Army, most recently in Iraq. He has two books of poems—Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise. Both are must-reads.

                                   The wrong is not in the religion;
                                   The wrong is in us.
                                              --Saier T.

At dusk, bats fly out by the hundreds.
Water snakes glide in the ponding basins
behind the rubbled palaces. The mosques
call their faithful in, welcoming
the moonlight as prayer.

Today, policemen sunbathed on traffic islands
and children helped their mothers
string clothes to the line, a slight breeze
filling them with heat.

There were no bombs, no panic in the streets.
Sgt. Gutierrez didn't comfort an injured man
who cupped pieces of his friend's brain
in his hands; instead, today,
white birds rose from the Tigris.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Another Independence Day

Today marks Israel's 62nd year as an independent country. There has never been peace. There will likely never be peace. At least not in any timeframe that feels worth talking about.

Of course, last night Israel celebrated the anniversary with ceremony, speeches, fireworks. In Israel, there are more festivities the night between Memorial Day and Independence Day than on both New Year's Eves combined (the Jewish and the calendar). Our neighborhood erected a stage in its center surrounded by rides for the children, acrobats, booths selling every kind of cake, cookie, drink, candy imaginable. For two hours, officials including Tel Aviv's mayor (who lives in our neighborhood) delivered speeches extolling their as much as Israel's accomplishments, followed by dance and singing performances put on by local children's groups includng the Scouts (Tsofeem), dance groups, school groups. Behind them all, video and pictures of army personnel, local heroes, interspersed with images from the dancing and crowds played on two giant screens. Fifteen minutes of fireworks followed. And all this just for our neighborhood! Afterward, my husband and I went to a nearby party for drinks, more food, dancing that went on well into the early hours of morning.

I love the entire two days for its earnestness. There is no irony in all this exhibition. I also am sad, because nothing changes. After sixty two years, nothing has changed, it seems to me. Israel exists but always on a precipice.

I included a brief poem written by poet Aryeh Sivan. Sivan has written 14 (14!) books of poetry and a novel. Today he was awarded Israel's highest literary honor, The Israel Prize. Very few of his poems have been translated into English. Sivan wrote the poem below more than 25 years ago. It could have been written today.

                To the memory of Zvi Hurvitz:
                 Pioneer, commander, and bereaved father.

To be cocked like a rifle, the hand
clutching a pistol, to walk
in a closed, harsh line, even after
the cheeks are filled with dust,
and the seared flesh is fallen away, and the eyes can no longer
focus on a target.

There is a saying: a loaded gun is bound to fire.
Not true.
In the Land of Israel, anything can happen:
a broken pin, a spring rusted through,

or, the sudden cancellation of your orders, without explanation,
as it once happened to Abraham on Mount Moriah.

Translation by M. Salomon

Friday, April 16, 2010

Slouching Toward Bedlam

This week, Israel passed out new gas masks to all citizens, urged them to restock their bomb shelters, albeit through humorous commercials and flyers printed on ice cream shades of paper (wouldn't want to scare the kids!) Yesterday, at the height of rush hour, their was a nationwide terror alert that simulated emergency scenarios, including simultaneous terror attacks at multiple locations. All arms of the security establishment took part including the Israel Police, the Israel Defense Forces, firefighters and Magen David Adom emergency service. I was stuck in traffic at 5PM and, given the road rage I encountered, I'm sure Magen David had to evacuate a few irate car drivers to local emergency rooms.

The rumors are rife of course, especially after Israel told all its citizens to evacuate Egypt's Sinai peninsula because of information that suggested terrorists would (or might already have) kidnapped Israeli citizens. Today the rumor is that Israel will bomb Iran's nuclear sites and expects retaliation, or was it that Hezbollah plans to test its newly received Scud missiles (probably also a gift from Iran) in Israeli territory?

What came to mind? Besides disbelief mixed with a bit of fear, and after I'd checked all the expiration dates on the food and water in our shelter, I couldn't help thinking of W.B. Yeats poem "The Second Coming:"

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

That it was also Poetry Daily's Poet's Pick today seemed a strange omen.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Another Reason for Translation

A interesting review of Edith Grossman's new book "Why Translation Matters" in The New York Times.

Here's the summation: In the end, Grossman warmly (after all) and gratefully rehearses the twofold answer to the question of her title: translation matters because it is an expression and an extension of our humanity, the secret metaphor of all literary communication; and because the creation of any literary translation is (or at least must be) an original writing, not a pathetic shadow or tracing of the inaccessible “original” but the creation, indeed, of a second — and as we have seen, a third and a ninth — but always a new work, in another language.

Grossman is a fabulous translator and I'm looking forward to reading her take on why her work matters.

Friday, April 9, 2010

I Want to Talk About the Sea

Just Today....
I want to talk to you about the sea.
No one here mentions her
except as a destination
during Sukout and Shavuot
when the Israeli children released
from school run her edges wild.
I want to talk about HaBoneem Beach
just an hour drive from Tel Aviv
where the city Jews sunbathe
and barbeque, setting up haphazard huddles
of two- and three-person tents
along its undeveloped stretch
about how the tents aren’t long enough
so the pale soles
of their children’s feet splay
from the zippered mouths.
We should tell their mothers
that their soles, city soft,
will burn but I can’t recall the words
in Hebrew (kafregel, kveeyat
shemish). Anyway, it’s nice watching
their small heels burrow
skinny trenches in the wet sand
so that when they fall asleep
their feet remain standing.
I want to talk to you about the sea.
From shore
the place where the shallow surf
drops to dangerous depths
is a shade of blue you’ve never seen.
That blue spot doesn’t shift
even as the tide turns
and despite the signs that warn
of undertow
the parents and their children
won’t stop wading out.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Where Dadaism Settled in Israel

Yesterday, I spent the day in Ein Hod, a small Israeli village about an hour north of Tel Aviv. What makes Ein Hod so interesting is that supposedly all of its inhabitants are artists. Granted there are less than 600 of them, but it still makes for dense creativity. Ein Hod became an artists' colony in 1953. The driving spirit behind the project was Marcel Janco, who convinced the Israeli government to let him build the colony rather than destroy the village. Until few years before his arrival, the village had been home to 500-700 Arabs, who fled or escaped or were pushed out (depending on who you ask) after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Janco and its later residents renovated many of the pre-War buildings including the local mosque, which became of all things a bar.

Anyway, the place is rife with artist studios, many of them open and selling to the public. There is also a museum, which features the work of Janco and tells his and Ein Hod’s story. Janco was actually a fascinating character. He was a Romanian Jew, who spent much time in Zurich and Paris, and was one of the key characters in the Dadaist movement of the early 1900s. Janco’s paintings and illustrations from that period often depict the café and city life enjoyed by him and his compatriots. In addition, Janco illustrated poetic works by the likes of Tristan Tzava and Andre Breton, two leading Dada lights.

When Janco immigrated to Palestine in 1941, Dada didn’t come with him. Janco’s work took on a more figurative and narrative feel though later work tended toward the abstract. His subjects also tended to be of the local—immigrant camps, Arab and Jewish scenes, abstract Israeli landscapes.

As a historical note, most of the 700-900 Arab villagers of Ein Hod resettled in the West Bank. A group of 35 original inhabitants took shelter in a nearby wadi forming a new village called Ein Houd. It wasn’t until 2005 that Israel recognized the village and connected it to its electric grid. As in so many places in Israel, the conflict between the possibility of what is versus the loss of what was remains a constant presence.

If you do visit Ein Hod, there is a fabulous bookstore hidden down one of its small streets. The store is assembled of what looks like sheet metal, stone and wood remnants from demolished buildings, and a few nails. The floor is nothing but dirt and rock. The proprietor, who surrounds himself with at least four dogs and makes and sells some really terrible pottery, plays old Israeli and American LPs and might, if you look longingly enough at his coffee pot, offer you a cup. I found an out of print collection of essays by Isaiah Berlin as well as an ancient (and a bit water marked) edition of Octavio Paz.