I’ve written my first piece for Tikkun Magazine. I figured so many right-wingers and others mistake this blog for the Magazine I might as well really confuse them. But seriously, the current issue contains my review (God, They’re Burning Us) of the extraordinary, With an Iron Pen: 20 Years of Hebrew Protest Poetry. Since the review isn’t available online, I’m publishing it here. I urge you to pick up the entire issue and to consider subscribing:
With an Iron Pen: Twenty Years of Hebrew Protest Poetry
Tal Nitzan and Rachel Tzvia Back, editors
Excelsior Editions, 2009, 169 pgs.
With an Iron Pen collects eighty-eight Hebrew poems written over the past twenty years, offering a powerful chronicle of the evils of the Israeli Occupation. What I especially like about the collection is that it offers the lions of Israeli poetry like Yehudah Amichai, Natan Zach, Tuvia Ruebner, and Dahlia Rabikovitch, along with young rebels and lesser-known–especially outside Israel–poets.
This book confronts a profound literary question for political poetry. How can one of the most sublime forms of human expression apprehend pure evil—human behavior that is devoid of humanity? What feeble words from a poet’s pen do justice to the subject or provide a suitable rejoinder? How can the suffering, banality and insanity of something like the Occupation be conveyed? Can anyone responding on a pure literary plane to the Occupation really do the suffering it imposes on Palestinians (and Israelis) justice? Is the job of the poet merely to record the evil for posterity or to encourage a more activist form of resistance? What can poetry really do to combat such evil? Aren’t mere words too little and too late?
To their great credit, these poets have made courageous attempts to accomplish the near-impossible. Some fall short, some succeed intermittently with a powerful image, phrase or stanza, and others succeed sublimely.
Among the most timely, is Yitzchak Laor’s Order of the Day, which explores the abuse of the Amalek myth in contemporary Israeli political culture. Recently, Bibi Netanyahu likened Iran to Amalek and justified an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. He claimed that like that Biblical tribe, the mullahs sought not only Israel’s, but the entire Jewish people’s annihilation. Laor’s poem, dripping in sarcasm and irony, is like an inoculation of truth in the face of political-historical mendacity:
That which Amalek did to you
Do unto Amalek
what Amalek did to you
If you can’t
find yourself an Amalek,
call Amalek whomever you want
to do to him what Amalek did to you
Don’t compare anything to what Amalek did to you
Not when you want to do that which Amalek did to you
Over and out,
The book takes its title from this stunningly evocative passage in Jeremiah 17:1:
The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen
And with the point of a diamond it is engraved
On the tablet of the heart.
One of the first things that came to mind after reading this is that the iron pen that writes the sin of Judah is also the poet’s pen as he portrays the crime of Occupation. In this sense, the poet plays a role similar to Jeremiah, the prophet who records the sins for his contemporaries and subsequent Jewish history. Both are doing the Lord’s work. What is especially powerful about this notion is that it removes the issue of the utility of the protest poetry. Of course, it would be useful for the poem to have a concrete impact on the political situation. But given the hardened hearts within both Israel and Palestine, this seems expecting too much. The invocation of Jeremiah transforms the act of poetic protest from a time- and earthbound, to a spiritual-moral act for the ages.
The above verse from Jeremiah also calls to mind one of the most powerfully dark stories of 20th century literature, Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. In it, a nation imprisons criminals in a colony where it etches their crimes into their bodies with an infernal torture apparatus that eventually kills the victim, but not before literally writing the crime and sentence into the skin of the victim.
As a blogger who has attempted since 2003 to analyze the moral and political bankruptcy of the Occupation, I am often troubled by the question of efficacy: who reads you and what impact, if any do you have? What can you actually do to make the situation better in any material way? Are you just writing for an audience of one and a few hangers-on? The invocation here of Jeremiah reminds us that we have a duty to write the sins of Judah regardless of the impact we may have on mitigating them.
With an Iron Pen is replete with powerful poems by Israel’s finest poets. One of these is Dahlia Rabikovitch’s Story of the Arab Who Died in the Fire. It describes the immolation of a Palestinian day laborer, who slept in an abandoned Israeli warehouse (because it was illegal to live or sleep within Israel). Jewish hooligans nailed shut the door before setting it on fire. Rabikovitch describes in clinical details the process by which the fire consumed the victim’s body:
…The fire took him all at once,
Such a thing hath not its likeness,
It peeled away his clothing
Seized upon his flesh,
…God, they’re burning us, he screamed,
That’s all he could manage in self-defense.
The flesh was blazing…
By that point his mental faculties were gone,
The firebrand of the flesh
Paralyzed any sense of a future,
The memories of his family
The links to his childhood.
He was shrieking, no longer constrained by reason,
By now all the bonds of family were broken,
He did not seek vengeance, redemption, the dawn of a new day.
…From his throat issued inhuman voices
Since many human functions had already ceased
Except for the pain transmitted in electrical pulses
Along neural pathways to pain receptors in the brain.
In a subsequent interview with Yediot Achronot, Rabikovitch says strikingly that she wrote the poem because she “understood the fear he felt before he was saved by death.” The notion that death is a respite from human suffering inverts the typical view of the civilized world that preserving life is an intrinsic good. In this interview, the poet acknowledges that there are some human conditions which destroy the very fabric of civilization and make life no longer worth living. In doing so, she forces the reader to confront the crime in all its goriness. It is as if she is telling us: “This is what this Occupation is doing to us. You must confront it. I will not let you look away.”