Even a simple poem is sometimes misunderstood, argues Menachem Benn in this analysis of Wieseltier’s ‘Exit to the Sea’. “ ‘Loud’? Where is the loudness?”
Wieseltier’s Exit to the Sea seems to be a simple poem, which it is, and yet simplicity is sometimes misunderstood. We recognize this as a human phenomenon: we say something soft and somehow the listener hears something hard. We speak ironically and someone takes our words literally, or the opposite occurs: we mean what we say, and the listener hears irony. We offer emotional support and someone suspects us of cynicism, etcetera.
Take, for example, this lovely poem by Wieseltier, which poetry critic Nissim Calderon paradoxically finds ‘loud’. Calderon cites the third stanza (“The sea is a billion years old/ and doesn’t care about us./ It can drown old women daily/ without any fuss.”) and asks scoldingly: “Why is Wieseltier so loud?” But this isn’t loudness at all.
The lines about the sea, “a billion years old”, and willing to “drown old women daily”, is a kind of macabre joke, gross and charming at the same time. Wieseltier is enchanted with the sea, of course, and he understands very well the heart of this old woman who “hoped to find/ a way out in the sea.” This is the real sea, willing to drown millions of old women daily. An inhuman sea, unsentimental, the sea as it really is. ‘Loud’? Where is the loudness?
This accusation is completely divorced from the spiritual and emotional continuity of Wieseltier’s poem, which is written as a children’s rhyme. “Once there was a woman./ She was very old” is a rewording of the formula “There once was an old woman . . . ” The rhyme and rhythm are also that of a children’s song, along with the phrase “a billion years old”, which evokes childlike exaggeration (despite its scientific correctness). What is the reason for the childlike tone? Wieseltier is arguing against the way we grown-ups allow ourselves to interfere in the life and death of other grown-ups; he does this by choosing a seemingly unserious and irresponsible stand, whose lack of seriousness and irresponsibility are expressed in childishness – to allow the woman to die in the waves.
The childlike wording also evokes the boy who revealed that the emperor has no clothes, and the fundamental nature of the situation: life, death, the world’s habits. But ‘loud’? Where is the loudness here? Someone or some people have taken the old woman’s autonomous decision-making power away from her; this is what Wieseltier is protesting. They decided for her. To save her and bring her to this life, these institutions (the hospital, the old people’s home) when she has chosen escape from institutions to the uninstitutionalized sea, the limitless of death, identified here with the freedom of the great ocean.
From Menachem Benn’s Poetry Portfolio. Tel Aviv: Yaron Golan Publishers, 1994. First published in Kol Ha-Ir on August 1, 1989.