Poem of the Week

Poetry Lies, Happiness Will Happen When It Happens

Humanity rides the subway in isolated detachment. Then a man gets onto the car, writes Dara Barnat.

Avoiding eye contact on the subway
Avoiding eye contact on the subway. AP/Bebeto Matthews

A human being can bear almost everything

and no one knows when and where

happiness will overcome him.

– From “Wonder,” by Tuvia Ruebner

 

At Least Forward Now

Dara Barnat

 

I’m on the subway,

and everyone is staring at the gray floor,

as if in mourning

for what’s lost under the tracks.

I’m reading a poem that’s insisting

on happiness, grasping for it,

saying happiness finds you,

 

despite wars, illness,

and the world’s unforgivingness.

 

I don’t believe the poem, because we’ve stopped

at a station that seems to be no one’s.

 

Then the doors are inches from closing,

and a man makes it through,

turns his face upward, moving

 

towards a destination,

below ground, yes, but not beneath

the ground, at least

forward now,

at least in motion.

 

First publication. The epigraph was translated from Hebrew by Rachel Tsvia Back.

In this mini-drama, the “I” reports that “everyone” is staring mournfully down at “the gray floor” with that glazed look of riders on public transportation in large cities, intent on avoiding eye contact with fellow passengers. This practice, incidentally, is not the norm in Israel, where your temporary neighbor on a bus might well initiate a conversation with you.

Then in line 5, the speaker differentiates herself. She is not gazing at grayness but rather is reading poetry, also a common activity in subway systems that post poems among the advertisements as a public service.

Whether in a book or on a subway wall, the object of attention is nevertheless print and not another human being.

The unseen poem within the poem insists that happiness is inevitable and that it will grab you despite (or by implication, like) “wars, illness or the world’s unforgivingness.”Political scientist Raphaella Bilski has observed of the pursuit of happiness in Israel in particular: “There’s nothing that will make the Israeli stop searching for happiness.”

This, she says, is a product of societal desperation here: “What’s been happening over the past decade or more, since the Rabin assassination ... [is that] we’ve gone off the rails.” Today, November 4, exactly 19 years after the murder, is an appropriate date to contemplate “what’s lost under the tracks.”

The speaker doesn’t buy the forced optimism in the poem she reads. Suddenly, though, she experiences a momentary illumination by observing a human being rather than words: At an obscure station, “a man” enters the train at the last minute and looks upward. Human movement, rather than static or inanimate things, can suffice for a minimum of happiness. “At least,” repeated twice, lifts the possibility from the grey floor, but not very high, not beyond the subway ceiling.

Dara Barnat divides her time between New York and Tel Aviv and has published a collection of poetry, “Headwind Migration.” She wrote in an email: “I wonder if you insist on happiness if you feel deprived of it?”

*Musings: Would the answer to Barnat’s question be the same for an individual and for a society?

*Bonus: The obsessive pursuit of happiness in Israel has corrupted the familiar Hebrew song “Hava Nagila. “ Originally it contained a line Uru ahim belev sameah – “Awaken, brothers, with a happy heart.” Nowadays it is sung Mukhrahim lehiyot sameah – “It is compulsory be happy.” Here is an uncorrupted rendition: