A review of ‘City and fears’

Poet as a canary in a mine, Jonah in the whale, or a self-destructing pencil

© FeldkampEnterprises.

Several metaphors serve Eli Eliahu when he describes poets, their place in the world and their standing in it: a prophet who flees from the mission of prophesy, a canary, a night guard, and a pencil that disappears while writing. None of them is innovative or surprising, but it seems that Eliahu does not seek the new, rather the good. Not cleverness, but directness. This is perhaps the secret of his great strength as an artist . . . Among these four figures, the one that pierces the heart is the canary. Not a pet, but a bird caged in mines to warn against the danger of asphyxiation:

Not her song  
but rather her silence 
is the sign –
her natural talent to die in time,
that is – before them.

Too sensitive to withstand
the toxin for even a moment   
– trans. Vivian Eden

What is poisonous about silenced poetry? In his 1983 essay ‘To please a shadow’, Joseph Brodsky writes that society’s ‘failure to [read poetry] results in its sinking to that level of locution at which society falls easy prey to a demagogue or a tyrant’. I doubt that Eliahu meant precisely this. Nonetheless, his new book makes it hard not to think of Brodsky’s words and mention them here.

[ . . . ]

Tyranny and demagoguery are not limited to external forces. Perhaps the toxin that Eliahu can’t bear, or at least take his eyes from, is a conscious, inner falsity. The canary in the mine prophesies that ‘Only death always speaks / the truth’. In ‘The escape’ (of the prophet Jonah), Eliahu’s speaker says, ‘I / floor the pedal to gain distance from the gospel / of the flesh, from the heralding of heredity’ (trans. Eden).  The night guard, left alone in the building, asks, ‘And what will I report. The one who / passes me by, will certainly / not return’.

A city and its fears, thus: Tel Aviv laughs ‘like a child that doesn’t know it’s mortal’. But Eliahu knows. It seems he understands the host of fears overtaking him. Loneliness, the emptiness above, the difficulty of material existence, the political and ethical situation; awareness of the end arouses a great disquiet in him, and the impulse to write: ‘And I know that I write in silence / and in silence I’m erased. But a person must leave / signs of struggle behind’.

Those who want to extricate some meaning from their fate, from extinction, meet up with silence. The skies are empty. ‘An almighty is required’, Eliahu writes with faint irony. ‘Someone neither flesh nor ash. Someone / whose reach extends over the land of time’.

This [lack of a god] notwithstanding, Eliahu tells of a book he once read about an infant who fell ill and died in its mother’s arms, and makes a lovely observation:

So many years have passed.
Even if they could have saved him
he would be dead by now.
Is this how one who sees us beyond all time
bears the sorrow?

And Eliahu is a father. The section about the birth of his daughter almost seems out of place. For a moment fear is banished outside the bubble of happiness and love that Eliahu not only describes but is devoted to, without fear of becoming trapped or sentimental. This is wondrous, of course:

Like a drop of milk the car
slides down the nipple of the hill,
on my way to you, little one-day-old,
wrapped in diapers of love,

[ . . . ]

And at long last
I know
whither I shall
– trans. Vivian Eden

 [ . . . ]

His reading of the passing nature of innocence is chilling:

You won’t remember anything about tonight.
Not the cradle of my arms
carrying you,
like a voice carries an echo
[ . . . ]

not the whispers
of love I cosseted into your ear
until you calmed down and fell asleep.

You won’t remember anything of all this.
But henceforth and for the rest of your
life, you will seek
one soul in the world who will cling to you,
like I am.

Even just for one night.   
– trans. Vivian Eden

Eliahu seeks at the opening of this book to evade prophecies of inheritance and ends it with stomach churning poems about the death of his father (‘On the ground a bird has slumped. It too / is you’ (trans. Eden)). He writes to his child:

I can’t teach you a thing. What may one
who lives once, and can’t return, know about life
about its traces . . . I can’t teach
you a thing about the world, my daughter. This is my legacy.

Eliahu’s legacy is the courage to look at things straight on, to seek the truth even if it isn’t to be found, to live an honest and painful life.

[ . . . ]

Unless specified, the citations were also translated by Lisa Katz.

© Erez Schweitzer (Translated by Lisa Katz)

Source: Haaretz, 14 December 2011

• Editors & Translators (Israel)

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