Two poems from Before There Is Nowhere to Stand
June 20, 2012
I mentioned a while back that I have two poems in Before There Is Nowhere to Stand, an anthology of poems arising out of Israel / Palestine.
I hope, over time, to make several posts about this anthology. No two poems in this collection tell the same story. Often any two poems tell very different stories. What makes this anthology so powerful (and, I think, so valuable) is this juxtaposition of two narratives which are on the one hand irreconcilable -- and on the other hand, what transformation might be possible in all of us if we were able to truly enter into the story as it is experienced by the "other side"?
Here are two poems which moved me deeply as I began reading the book. One poem is by Rick Black, a book artist and poet, the founding editor of Turtle Light Press. He lived in Israel for six years, studying literature at Hebrew University and then working as a journalist in the Jerusalem bureau of the New York Times. The other is by Reja-e Busailah, who has been blind since infancy, and who (along with his family) was forcibly evicted from his home in Lydda into exile. Educated in Cairo, he earned a PhD in English from NYU and taught for thirty years at Indiana University.
Take a deep breath and enter into the words of these two poets. If you want to talk about the poems or their impact on you, perhaps conversation will unfold in comments.
BOUGAINVILLEA by Rick Black
Candles are not yet
aglow like sapphires,
the braided challah is still uncut,
and the last #18 bus
People are returning from Mahane Yehuda,
the outdoor market of Jerusalem --
inhale the scents of cinnamon, cardamom and curry,
piled high in mounds,
the barrels of pickles, sour and half sour,
the pickled herring, creamed herring, matjes herring
and piles of fresh dates, smooth and sweet,
and chocolate ruggelach and babke, oval sesame rolls
challahs with raisins, and hot pita
and crowds shoving, bustling, hustling, bargaining, shouting, mobbing,
elbowing each other, shuffling along beneath the bare electric bulbs
suspended like the lights of the George Washington Bridge
above the ducans,
"Melafifon -- 40 shekels."
"Tut, tutim -- fresh strawberries. Pilpale -- peppers."
Dressed in streimels, flowing robes, silk skirts, pushing
baby carriages, shlepping plastic shopping bags,
speaking a mélange of tongues -- Hebrew, Arabic, French, English and German --
shoppers ebb and flow like waves rushing and receding
from one merchant to another. They gather like flocks
of seagulls, then disperse past the green-leaved clumps
of garlic, bulbous clumps, dry, hard like the noses of passersby,
bright, shiny eggplants, globular. Go ahead,
imbibe the scent of fresh cut oranges, tongue the bits of halvah,
gently press the avocado skins and squeeze the tomatoes
at dusk on Shabbat,
and taste the loaves of challah woven into the prayer shawl
of our people's history.
Emitting plumes of black diesel smoke
the bus leaves the market, stops at the Central Bus Station
and chugs up Mt. Herzl into the ethereal, blood-soaked air
and there --
in the fading, tarnished light descending
on the city and the Jerusalem pines --
just past Yad Vashem --
the bus, its red and white sides gleaming,
clinging to the hill stubbornly
and climbing it like bougainvillea,
the bus explodes:
skewering flesh, shattering glass, shrieking in the quiescent streets,
overturned like a beetle
helpless, writhing, unsilent
like a crushed violin
its mangled strings
shrieking in the sky
and the ambulances wail
"Holy, holy, holy!"
and the pines
in the golden, Sabbath sunlight,
(for candles will soon be lit),
glow ineffably, more beautiful
and God remains
in his own way, silent.
We are near Ein Kerem,
Ein keloheinu, ein, ein, ein...
There is no
like our God.
There is no
like our king.
There is no
like our redeemer."
And the angels cry
and the ambulances wail
and survivors lie on the pavement, wounded,
having fallen back down
in the Vitebsk street,
a violin's strings
broken. But, if you listen
perhaps you'll hear wind
in the pines,
perhaps you'll see
off shattered glass,
and off bougainvillea petals
that are still climbing,
IN THE SHADOW OF THE HOLY HEIGHTS by Reja-e Busailah
for Haniya Suleiman Zarawneh, killed by the Israelis
at the age of 25, near Jerusalem, January 4, 1988
The sun came out that day from the depth of winter
like the rare orphan of good luck --
what else can the light of heaven be
on a day rising from the dead of winter?
And she had risen before the sun that day
and like her mother and grandmother before her
she washed by hand and wrung by hand
the linen for spouse and child,
and like mother and grandmother
she walked up the wooden ladder
with the pail onto the roof
into the shadow of the Holy Heights --
so clear was the sky
it almost recalled the sight and the scent of the sea down west.
Faithfully she hung her labors on the rope
article by article
that the good sun might dry them for her,
she clasped each with a wooden pin
as safeguard against the prankish wind --
it was no senseless nature that did it when she was done
just about to come down for other chores,
it was no fiendish Nazi,
it was one of the Chosen
selected her heart for his anointed lead
so that limp went the spring in the covenant
which joined soul and limb --
and the good sun shines
and the sheets and the skirts and the nightgowns
and the small socks
and the outfit for the wooden doll
they toss in the wind
and smell like linen hand-washed and sun-dried
they swing lighthearted on the rope
waiting for mother to collect them