Six Poems

Yitzhak Laor was born the same year as Israel, 1948. He has written stories, novels, plays, essays, and journalism, while his poetry has been recognized as among the best if most controversial of his generation. In 1972, Laor became one of the first Israeli Defense Forces soldiers to refuse to complete his compulsory military service in the territories captured during the Six-Day War, a decision that earned him a brief prison sentence. Today Laor lives in Tel Aviv, where he edits the magazine Mitaam. Like most poets in Hebrew, Laor frequently resorts to the language of Scripture, although he uses it to address a political situation—Jews as conquerors—that hasn’t existed since Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel wrote their last lines.

Take Care, Soldier

Don’t die, soldier, hold the radiophone,
don your helmet, your flak jacket, surround
the village with a trench of crocodiles, starve
it out if need be, eat Mama’s treats, shoot
sharp, keep your rifle clean, take care of the armored
Jeep, the bulldozer, the land, one day it will be
yours, little David, sweetling, don’t die, please.

Keep watch for Goliath the peasant, he’s trying to sell his
pumpkin at the local market, he’s plotting to buy a gift for his grandkid,
erase
the evil Haman whose bronchitis you denied treatment, eradicate
the blood of Eva Braun by checking on the veracity of her labor pains,
silence her
shriek, that’s how every maternity ward sounds, it’s not easy
having such humane values, be strong, take care, forget
your deeds, forget the forgetting.

That thy days may be long, that the days of thy children may be long,
that one day
they shall hear of thy deeds and shall stick fingers in their ears and
scream
with fear and thy sons’ and thy daughters’ screams shall never fade.
Be strong, sweet David, live long unto seeing thy children’s eyes,
though their backs hasten to flee from thee, stay in touch with thy
comrades-in-arms,
after thy sons deny thee, a covenant of the shunned.
Take care, soldier-boy.

Balance

The gunner who wiped out a hospital the pilot
who torched a refugee camp the journalist
who courted hearts & minds for murder the actor
who played it as just another war the teacher
who sanctioned the bloodshed in class the rabbi
who sanctified the killing the government minister
who sweatily voted the paratrooper
who shot the three-time refugee the poet
who lauded the finest hour of the nation
who scented blood and blessed the MiG. The moderates
who said let’s wait & see the party hack
who fell over himself in praising the army the sales clerk
who sniffed out traitors the policeman
who beat an Arab in the anxious street the lecturer
who tapped on the officer’s back with envy of the officer
who was afraid of refusing the prime minister
who eagerly drank down the blood. They
shall not be cleansed.

Shut Door

The door’s always opening,
the darkness licks like a fawning
dog, the light from the draft
bites back, after which the
dark retreats and within,
packed, noisy, clippings
from the fashion mags play

dumb. Just after midnight,
as in a French novel, the door
opens (again), and a boy/girl
glances at his/her watch,
exits alone.
This is how the poem begins.
This is how the poem began

and its beginning is behind us already
like a door. History stood
unblinking, but not in response
to our disbelief
(this very night
the Minister of Killing

decided to raze a village
located only a cry for mercy
from the din of this bar—and we
don’t believe in history?)
the door shuts to seal the
clamor, the street
drowns in silence
as eyes adjust
to see clearly, like
diving underwater, like
diving underwater for the
last, diving last and
last, a cold grasp

among shadows, soft
stones, seaweed, minnows,
evil winds embracing,
embracing. Again the door
opens (the light scratches, noise
grates), slams shut. The world is
welded to the night, a man leaves

the bar (if so, a woman
left earlier), glances
back a moment, hurries
in her wake, everything emerges
from the thrill of that initial
step. His knees shake, his
voice hoarsens when he opens
his mouth, in a moment
love ensues, maybe
they’ll end up having
a girl and when
she’s three months old their home
will rejoice at the sight
of the newborn, the hope of living
in one place, without the urge

to wander, without cries for
mercy outside the window.
Now it’s still dark. Life
isn’t Paris (I know
that’s not the point,
it’s just impossible, all this shutting) one must
continue, from the darkness of the mountain
to the dark

of the desert. It’s just too painful
to speak of the sea or
of the death that surrounds
the death that betters us
or of the death of our dreams
or the dreams of our parents
of their parents’ dreams

we know nothing, not even
their native tongues, son
I have no blessing for you either
save that may you forget
the language in which your father
wrote his books

World-Citizen

We didn’t grow up where our fathers
grew. They didn’t grow up where
their fathers grew. We learned never to
yearn (we’ll yearn for any tombstone
decided upon) we don’t belong
anywhere (we’ll belong easily to anything
when demanded) we move across
borders, we sleep in luxury
hotels, we sleep in cold
barns, we love only to be
loved, we rape only
to be remembered, we enjoy
only to register ownership, destroying
mostly villages, declaring ownership
then leaving, hating peasants, mostly
peasants (if we must, we’ll also cultivate
the land).

No Political Poetry, Retreat

One day retreating into quiescence I’ll describe very precisely
what I’ve managed to save and this silence inside
will dictate anew the pace of a world that still gets me up
to go sit myself down, to rise, to sit again, to rush

I emigrated silently—I’ll write with one slow simple movement
as noble as any scrap of song—
from There: and did so without any irony, without bitterness or
submission (those
still comprise Here and
There)

Here silence is the only meter, the meter of words written
with an inner vow’s attention. Suddenly I vanished by morning,
I’ll wake to vacate the world for myself,
my childhood fort, untenanted, torn, already lost.

A Note

I’ll leave you in writing this version in Hebrew, our common ground
for love and feud, separate bank accounts and constant vigilance
against the State that lies in Hebrew (I’ll be faithful to the truth,
even to its punctuation): “I stepped out,” I’ll write, “I left the
hotel,” “I took the road,” let’s say “heading north,” “in,” say, “a Volvo
truck,” “its color, gray,” and let’s say “I traveled,” but did I drive?
or didn’t I? “I disappeared, forgive me” (I’ll add for sympathy’s sake),
into this darkness like a fevered daze. If to begin,
begin from the beginning, nothing’s too obvious, In the beginning
was without form and void, the rest must be disputed (without yearning,
without regret), shorn, turned, shook, burned, “I may come back,”
“I may not come back,” “I may give up” or “return to stay.”

—Translated by Joshua Cohen

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