The Poet Goes to War

The Israeli poet Eliaz Cohen is a Religious Zionist who lives with his family on a kibbutz in the southern West Bank. And thereby hangs a tale. In a 2005 interview with the Hebrew daily Ha’aretz, Cohen sardonically addressed the issue presented by settler-artists like him:

Over the years, playwrights, poets, and cultural people have scolded us: “You’re settlers! How dare you write poetry after you’ve devoured two Palestinians for dinner?” As they see it, there couldn’t possibly be any art coming from the Right.

In point of fact, although Cohen’s poems do aim for political resonance (loosely defined), they are far from an example, let alone a vindication, of “art coming from the Right.”

Born in Petach Tikva in 1972, Cohen makes his living as a social worker and as an editor of the Israeli poetry journal Mashiv Haruach. He is primus inter pares of a group of second-generation Religious Zionist poets whose names include Hava Pinhas-Cohen, Shmuel Klein, Yoram Nissinovitch, Nahum Petchnik, Mira Kedar, Yonadav Kaploun, Shmuel Lehrman, and Bambi Sheleg. (A study of the group by David C. Jacobson, who wrote the introduction to the present volume, is now out from Academic Studies Press.)

The “disturbances” of this book’s subtitle (meoraot, events) refer to the 1929 anti-Jewish riots by Arabs in Mandate Palestine—a dark week of violence echoed, in Cohen’s rendering, in the second Intifada instigated by Yasser Arafat. The poems collected here, indifferently translated from the Hebrew by Larry Barak, progress from the start of that murderous operation in 2001 through the terrorist attack at a communal seder in 2002, Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005, and subsequent bloody episodes.

Cohen describes the book as “a kind of diary.” That is both its strength and its literary undoing. For Cohen writes best when he writes plainest. In a poem of war, both the use of personal details (like the names of his family members) and the familiar formulations of Hebrew prayer serve him well:

          He should know that he is fighting for the oneness of God, and shall put
          his life in his hands (and guard it well)
          and neither fear nor be affrighted.
          And he shall think of his wife and his sons and his daughter
          (may the merciful One bless me and Efrat and Achia
          and Oria and Shaked and Miriam) 
          for his heroism is for them too
          and when he returns in peace, to the heart of the great embrace
          shall he return.

More often, however, the poems are not so nakedly plaintive as this, and nowhere near so successful. Although Cohen, to his credit, avoids special pleading of the hath-not-a-settler-eyes? variety, the politics in his work is opportune if not opportunistic. The dominant posture is one of cautious evenhandedness (“To all the dispossessed and the dispossessors”) and nervous moralism, sweating up concessions on all sides to the vicissitudes of human nature, fallibility, and the necessary commemoration of universal suffering. Not so much shaping as enlisting his material in the service of a number of bromidic ends, Cohen gives us pleas for de-escalation (“words harder than stones, and where were you . . . Arab boys do it to me / they throw me three thousand seven hundred years / back . . . ); personified land (“This land trembling under our feet is / a wild lioness”; “the mouth / of this screaming land”; “shall all these hopes drain from your frail body / to your ground, Sinai?”); updated biblical episodes (“Among the fragments of the bus and your burnt / Jews I make a covenant with you saying . . . do not slaughter the bird”); atavistic folktales (“Ishmael [i.e., the Arabs] and I are sowing the winds of heaven”); and deadpan religious rodomontade (“at night / I wander from mountain to mountain / freeing all the bound ones . . . searching for rams to replace them”).

He has done better than this. Cohen’s most well-known lyric, “Hear O Lord,” is a rejoinder to the Jewish credo Hear O Israel:

          And you shall love Israel your people
          With all your heart
          And with all your soul
          And with all your might
          And these sons who are being killed for you
               daily shall be
          upon your heart
          And you shall teach them diligently in your heavens
          And you shall talk of them:
          When you sit in your house
          And when you walk by the way
          And when you lie down and when you rise
          And you shall bind them as a sign upon
          your hand (phosphorescent blue numbers) and they shall be as frontlets
          between your eyes (like the sniper’s shot)
          And you shall write them (in blood) on the doorposts of your house
          And on your gates

This is Cohen at his rhetorical best. Clever, analyzable, and startling enough for its inversions to be reckoned true, the poem has, not surprisingly, found its way into prayer services. Even so, what it displays is Cohen’s skill as a sermonizer, not an imagist.

In general, as he borrows richly from Jewish sacred texts, Cohen lets his forebears elbow too aggressively into his own work, making for absurd conjunctions between the heroic (or the prophetic, or the sublime) and the merely pat. A religious man, Cohen has been praised for venturing into the realm of the erotic. But in contrast to, for example, the novelist S.Y. Agnon’s genuinely subversive way with biblical and rabbinic texts, Cohen’s combination of cut-and-paste Song of Songs verses and demure sexual sentimentality wouldn’t raise the eyebrow—let alone the libido—of anyone’s maiden aunt:

          And at night
          I hide poems in the secret parts of your body (like notes in the Wall)
          a breeze caresses us healing limbs weary from labor and pregnancy.
          Soon it will be morning the children will come in under the covers and find the poems

By contrast, “Hear O Lord” succeeds (to the extent it does succeed) because the prayer’s cadences—however torqued—remain intact, with Cohen’s own words forming a running exegetical counterpoint to the undoctored text. Still, what about those “phosphorescent blue numbers”? The reference is to concentration-camp tattoos, but why “phosphorescent”? One suspects an allusion to the chemical weapons in which Israel has been accused of illegally trafficking, but the image is too imprecise and too outlandish to reconcile or respond to, functioning more as stage gesture than as realized effect.

Like others of his peers, Cohen is fighting the stoicism of the pioneer generation of Hebrew poets (Natan Alterman, Avraham Shlonsky) who, in the shadow of Israel’s fierce battle for independence in the late 1940s, felt called upon to prove their mettle. Today’s settler poets, accused not of artistic cowardice but of brutality, go in the opposite direction, appealing openly to emotionalism and pathos. As in the war poem quoted above, Cohen can mine this vein well when he is working with narrative, mobilizing authentic detail to document the ravages of soldiering and battle.

Another of his poems in that mode is included here. Its title, “An Invitation to Cry,” echoes that of a widely discussed article written by an Israeli reservist traumatized by the carnage of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Here, the poet addresses a soldier who has been given orders to evacuate a house in Gaza:

          here I prepared a little corner to write the unfinished novel
          now from the fig tree in the yard the last leaf falls
          everything is filled with symbols you say
          you fall on my neck, weeping bitterly
          my good, loyal soldier, now at long last it is permitted to cry.

This is clear writing with the authority of firsthand experience. (A subscript informs us that the poem was composed at a moment of high anxiety, after the 2005 evacuation proposal was adopted by the Sharon government but before it was enacted.) The fig tree alludes to the expulsion from Eden while deftly undercutting such pert poeticizing (“everything is filled with symbols”).

When working, however, not in the narrative but in the lyric mode, Cohen can be disastrous. Everything, even a poem about tranquil snow, is rendered in clanging fortissimo:

          Snow on bleeding Jerusalem
          as though bandaging her wounds
          all rests in tranquility now
          filling the cracks of yearning in the Wall
          children in your streets, Jerusalem
          the sons of Isaac and Ishmael
          are staging white wars
          (and their blows are soft)
          even the pigeons are hurrying today
          cooing because they have found new footprints
          on the way leading up to the Gate of Mercy         

The harried “tranquility” in this poem, an obvious channeling of Yehuda Amichai, is not dispassion or quietude but what James Agee memorably labeled rigor artis, the strain of art trying to be bigger, more resonant than it is. The poem’s attempted simplicity is subverted by clever linguistic tricks, consonances, and double meanings: the Hebrew spelling of “Jerusalem” is an archaic one, and Ishmael’s name is spelled so as to emphasize its meaning of “God will hear.” Unlike God, Cohen, conspicuously lacking an ear for the music of poetry, does not hear.

It’s hard for a writer to be so in competition with his subject, particularly when his influences (Agnon, Amichai) are so identifiable, and when ambition rather than erudition turns his verse into an echo chamber of gratuitous religious allusion. Even worse is Cohen’s resort to overheated analogies, as when he anticipates Israel’s planned withdrawal from Gaza as “the coming Holocaust.” Hayyim Nahman Bialik’s “In the City of Slaughter,” written in the immediate aftermath of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, commands similar effects, but Bialik’s portrait of devastation and havoc is at once so large and so acutely observed that the horror dominates the verse without destroying it, without turning suffering into sensationalism.

Poets, no less than politicians, shame themselves by invoking the Holocaust for loose rhetorical purposes. Articulate, earnest, and determined, Cohen would be well served by using his limited poetic gifts to stricter ends.

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