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War Poet

In new translations of his poems about soldiers, disappearance, and life cycles, Israeli poet Yitzhak Laor uses biblical allusions, humor, and rage to explore the absurdities of modern Israeli life

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A soldier on the Israeli-Egyptian border last week.(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Yitzhak Laor was born the same year as Israel: 1948. He has written stories, novels, plays, essays, and journalism, and 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 literary magazine Mita’am.

Issue 12 of n+1 magazine features six of Laor’s poems, presented both in the original and my translation. Here are three—from radically disparate periods in Laor’s career. What unites them are biblical allusion and a doubting of language’s capacity to effect political change—a crisis marked by flares of rage and humor.

To read more of Laor’s work, you can purchase the current issue of n+1.

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.

שמור על עצמך, חייל


חַילָּ, אָל תָּמוּת, לְמִי יש כֹּחַ לִשְכוֹל
רַדְיוֹפוֹניִ, חֲבֹש קַסְדָּה, לְבַש שַכְפָּ”ץ, הַקֵף אֶת
הַכְּפָר בִּתְעָלָה, מַלֵּא אוֹתָהּ בְּתַנּיִניִם, אִם ישֵׁ, הַרְעֵב
אִם צָרִיך לְהַרְעִיב, אֱכֹל אֶת מַמְתַקֶּיהַ שֶל אִמָּא, אַל
תָּמוּת, צְלֹף, מַלֵּא מַחְסַנּיִּוֹת, נקֵַּה את הָרוֹבֶה הַטֶּלֶסְקוֹפּי
שְׁמֹר עַל הַג’יפּ הַַמְּשֻרְיןָ, עַל הַדַּחְפּוֹר, שְמֹר עַל הָאָרֶץ
יוֹם אֶחד תִּהְיהֶ שֶלְךָ, דָודִ קָטָן, מָתוֹק, אַל תָּמוּת, בְּבַקָּשָׁה מִמּךָ.

הִזּהֵָר מן הדְּלַעַת של גלְָיתַ הַפַלָּאח, הוּא מְנסֶַּה לְמָכְרָהּ
בַּשּׁוּק הַקָּרוב, לֹא מֵרָעָב, לִקְנוֹת לְנכְֶדוֹ מַתָּנה הוּא זוֹמֵם, שְכַח
את הָמָן הָרָשָׁע שֶמָנעַתָ טִפּוּל בַּבְּרוֹנכְִיטִיס שלוֹ, מְחַק את דִמּוּמָהּ
שֶל אֶוהָ בְּרָאוּן, כְּשֶבָּדַקְתָּ אִם זיִפְָּה צִירֵי לֵידָה, דוֹמֵם את צִוחְוֹתֶיהָ
כָּכָה נשְִמָע כָּל חֲדַר לֵידָה, הֱיהֵ חָזקָ, לֹא פָּשוּט לַעֲבוֹר מָה שֶאַתָּה
עוֹבֵר, בֶּטח לֹא פָּשוּט עִם עֲרָכֶיךָ הָהוּמָניים, רָק אַל תִּתְבַּישֵּ
)הַצָּרפָתים בְּאַלְג’ִירְיהָ לא הָיוּ יוֹתֵר טוֹבים(, שְׁמֹר על עַצְמְךָ, שְכַח

אֶת מַעֲשֶׂיךָ, שְכַח אֶת הַשִּׁכְחָה, שְׁכַח אֶת שִׁכְחַת הַשִּׁכְחָה
לְמַעַן יאֲַרִיכוּן ימֶָיךָ, לְמַעַן יאֲַריכוּן ימְֵי בָּניֶךָ, לְמַעַן יוֹם אֶחָד
ישְִמְעוּן עַל מַעֲשֶׂיךָ ויְתְִקְעוּן שְׁתֵי אֶצְבָּעות בָּאֹזנְיַם ויְצְִוחְוּן
מִפַּחַד, צְוחָה אֲרוּכּה אֲרוּכָּה, וזְעֲַקַת בִּנךְָ/בִּתְךָ לא תִדֹּם לָעַד.
הֱיהֶ חָזק, דָּודִ מָתֹק, והְַאֲרֵך ימִָים, רְאֵה את עֵיניֵהֶם של ילְָדֶיךָ
עָרְפֵּיהם יחֵָפֵזוּן לִבְרֹחַ מִמֶּךָ, שְמֹר עַל קֶשר עִם חֲבֵרֶיךָ
לַנּשֶק, אַחֲרֵי שֶבָּניֶךָ יתְִכַּחֲשוּ אֵלֶיךָ, בְּרִית בֵּין
הַמְּנדִֻּים. שְמֹר עַל עַצְמְךָ, חַילִַּיקוֹ

Continue reading: “Shut Door.” Or view as a single page.


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

דלת סגורה

דלת סגור
תָּמִיד הַדֶּלֶת נפְִתַּחַת
הַחֹשֶׁךְ מְלַקֵּק כְּמוֹ כַּלְבָּה
חַנפְָניִת, ואְוֹר מִן הַפֶּתַח
מַחְזיִר נשְִׁיכָה, אַחַר
כָּךְ הַחֹשֶׁךְ נסָוֹג וּבִפְניִם
בַּצְּפִיפוּת, בָּרַעַשׁ, גּזְיִרֵי
אֲנשִָׁים מִשְּׁבוּעוֹניֵ אָפְנהָ


אִלְּמִים. קְצָת אַחֲרֵי חֲצוֹת
כְּמוֹ בְּרוֹמָן צָרְפָתִי, הַדֶּלֶת
(שׁוּב) נפְִתַּחַת, וּבָחוּר/ה
יוֹצֵא/ת, מַבִּיט/ה בַּשָּׁעוֹן
הוֹלֵךְ/ת מִשָּׁם לְבַד/ה.
כָּכָה מַתְחִיל הַשִּׁיר.
כָּכָה הִתְחִיל הַשִּׁיר


וּתְחִלָּתוֹ כְּבָר מֵאָחוֹר
כְּמוֹ דֶּלֶת. שׁוּם הִיסְטוֹרְיהָ
לֹא רָגשְָׁה, לֹא מִשּׁוּם
שֶׁאֵיננֶּוּ מַאֲמִיניִם בָּהּ
(בְּעֶצֶם הַלַּילְָה הַזּהֶ
הֶחְלִיט שַׂר הַהַשְׁמָדָה


לִמְחֹק כְּפָר שָׁלֵם
בְּמֶרְחַק זעֲַקַת תְּחִנּהָ
מִן הַבָּר הָרוֹעֵשׁ, ואֲַנחְַנוּ
לֹא נאֲַמִין בַּהִיסְטוֹרְיהָ?)
הַדֶּלֶת נסְִגּרֶת ועְִמָּהּ נאֱֶטָם
גּםַ הָרַעַשׁ, אַחַר כָּךְ טוֹבֵעַ
הָרְחוֹב שׁוּב בְּשֶׁקֶט
וּמִתְרַגּלְוֹת הָעֵיניַםִ
לִרְאוֹת בִּבְהִירוּת, כְּמוֹ
בִּצְלִילָה אַחֲרוֹנהָ, כְּמוֹ
בִּצְלִילָה אַחֲרוֹנהָ
כְּמוֹ בִּצְלִילָה אַחֲרוֹנהָ
אַחֲרוֹנהָ, בַּקֹּר הַחוֹפֵן


בֵּין צְלָלִיּוֹת, סְלָעִים
רַכִּים, אַצּוֹת, דְּגיִגיִם
רוּחוֹת רָעִים וּמְחַבְּקִים.
וּמְחַבְּקִים. שׁוּב נפְִתַּחַת
הַדֶּלֶת (אוֹר שׂוֹרֵט, רַעַשׁ
מְנסֵַּר) ונְטְִרֶקֶת. הָעוֹלָם
מֻסְגּרָ לַלַּילְָה, מִן הַבָּר


יוֹצֵא גּבֶר (אִם כָּךְ קֹדֶם
יצְָאָה מִשָּׁם אִשָּׁה), מַבִּיט
לְאָחוֹר, לְרֶגעַ, מְמַהֵר
בְּעִקְבוֹתֶיהָ, הַכֹּל יכָֹל
לְהַתְחִיל בַּצַּעַד הַנּרְִגּשָׁ
הַזּהֶ. בִּרְכָּיו רוֹעֲדוֹת
קוֹלוֹ יצְִטָרֵד אִם יפְִתַּח


אֶת הַפֶּה, עוֹד רֶגעַ
תַּתְחִיל אַהֲבָה, אוּלַי
בְּסוֹפָהּ תִּולֵָּד לָהֶם
תִּינֹקֶת, וּכְשֶׁתִּהְיהֶ
בַּת שְׁלֹשָׁה חֲדָשִׁים
ימִָּלֵא בֵּיתָם רִנּהָ, אָדָם
חָדָשׁ בַּבַּיתִ, תִּקְוהָ לִחְיוֹת
בְּמָקוֹם אֶחָד, בְּלִי רָצוֹן


לִנדְֹּד, בְּלִי זעֲַקוֹת
תְּחִנּהָ מִחוּץ לַחַלּוֹן.
עַכְשָׁו עוֹד חֹשֶׁךְ. הַחַייִּם
לֹא פָּרִיז (אֲניִ יוֹדֵעַ
זוֹ לֹא הַנּקְֻדָּה
אִי אֶפְשָׁר לִסְגֹּר) ישֵׁ
לְהַמְשִׁיךְ, בֵּין הַחֹשֶׁךְ
מִן הָהָר לַחֹשֶׁךְ


מִן הַמִּדְבָּר. עַל הַיםָּ לֹא
נדְַבֵּר מֵרֹב כְּאֵב, ולְֹא
עַל הַמָּותֶ סְבִיבֵנוּ
הַמָּותֶ שֶׁלְּטוֹבָתֵנוּ
ולְֹא עַל מוֹת חֲלוֹמוֹתֵינוּ
ולְֹא עַל חֲלוֹמוֹת הוֹרֵינוּ
עַל חֲלוֹמוֹת הוֹרֵי־הוֹרֵינוּ


אֵיננֶּוּ יוֹדְעִים דָּבָר, גּםַ
לֹא אֶת שְׂפוֹתֵיהֶם, בְּניִ
ואְֵין לִי בְּרָכָה בִּשְׁבִילְךָ
זוּלַת שֶׁתִּזכְֶּה לִשְׁכֹּחַ
אֶת הַשָּׂפָה בָּהּ כָּתַב
אָבִיךְ אֶת סְפָרָיו

Continue reading: “A Note.” Or view as a single page.


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.”

פתק

אַשְׁאִיר לָךְ בִּכְתָב אֶת הַגּרְִסָא הַזֹּאת בְּעִבְרִית, בְּסִיסֵנוּ הַמְּשֻׁתָּף
לָאַהֲבָה וּלְמָדוֹן וּלְחֶשְׁבּוֹנוֹת בַּנקְ נפְִרָדִים וּלְהִתְגּוֹננְוּת מַתְמֶדֶת
מִפְּניֵ זדְוֹן הַשִּׁלְטוֹן וּשְׁקָרָיו בְּעִבְרִית (אַקְפִּיד עַל
הָאֱמֶת, עַל סִימָניֵ הַפִּסּוּק והְַדְּפוּס): “יצָאתִי” אֶכְתֹּב לָךְ, “מֵהַמָּלוֹן
הָלַכְתִּי”, “בַּכְּבִישׁ”, נגַּיִד, “צָפוֹנהָ”, “עָלִיתִי עַל”, נגַּיִד, “מַשָּׂאִית
מִסּוּג ווֹלְבוֹ”, נגַּיִד, “בְּצֶבַע אָפֹר”, נגַּיִד, “נסַָעְתִּי”, נהַָגתְִּי?
לֹא נהַָגתְִּי? “נעֱֶלַמְתִּי, סִלְחִי לִי” (אוֹסִיף מֵמַד רָאוּי לְאַהֲדָה)
בַּחֲשֵׁכָה הַזֹּאת, כְּמוֹ סְחַרְחֹרֶת מִבְּחִילָה, אִם לְהַתְחִיל
לְהַתְחִיל מֵהַתְחָלָה, שׁוּם דָּבָר אֵינוֹ מוּבָן מֵאֵלָיו, בְּרֵאשִׁית
הָיהָ תֹּהוּ וּבֹהוּ ואְֶת כָּל הַשְּׁאָר ישֵׁ לְעַרְעֵר (בְּלִי לְהִתְגּעְַגּעֵַ
בְּלִי לְהִצְטַעֵר) לְבַקֵּר, לְנעֵַר, לְנקֵַּר, לְכַעֵר, לְבַעֵר, “אוּלַי אָשׁוּב”
“אוּלַי לֹא אָשׁוּב”, “אוּלַי אֲותֵַּר” אוּלַי “אֶחְזֹר כְּדֵי לְהִשָּׁאֵר”

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Moshe says:

Someone should learn idiomatic Hebrew before attempting a translation:

לְמִי יש כֹּחַ לִשְכוֹל
רַדְיוֹפוֹניִ

means; “who has (or no one has) strength for ‘radiophonic’ mourning? It has nothing to do with “hold the radiophone”.

Pilar says:

Someone should learn that translating poetry literally is often a terrible idea.

this is an embarrassing translation.

Pilar says:

What’s embarrassing? It seems to me that it puts the poem into actual English…. You do better.

Michael says:

Laor is an execrable poet and egomaniacal blowhard, but is a pet of the Israeli far left and so it was only a matter of time before he was imported into the U.S. Presumably his new friends at n+1 and elsewhere don’t know (or don’t care) about the rape accusations either.

Take care soldier is one of the worst, arrogant poems that I have ever read

Shalom Freedman says:

Yitzhak Laor is one of the most vicious anti- Israel figures in Israel. He is so far off the wall in his hatred of Israel that he openly identifies with Israel’s enemies.

Of all the tens nay hundreds of Israeli poets he is the last one I would think ‘Tablet’ should feature.

I saw with my own eyes in ’88 the wreckage of what Israel did to the Sinai peninsula in ’73. I can only describe what I saw of the scorched and battle scarred earth there that I saw as looking like that of the aftermath of a rape.

Michael says:

Um, Jules, Egypt attacked the Sinai in ’73. And you were there 15 years later, so whatever it was that you say you saw, doesn’t really reflect “what Israel did to the Sinai peninsula in ’73.” A little logic would be nice.

…and Israel in ’67 in which war the peninsula was seized…and so the senseless cycle goes on without cease.

2000

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War Poet

In new translations of his poems about soldiers, disappearance, and life cycles, Israeli poet Yitzhak Laor uses biblical allusions, humor, and rage to explore the absurdities of modern Israeli life