Poem of the Week / On not loving a wall
Israeli poet Shahar Bram invokes Robert Frost's 'Mending Wall,' bringing to mind the fences Israel has built - and colorful autumn leaves.
North of Boston
If you’d like to watch mending of fences
Come here. The leaves are falling and with them the fences
Lose their value. The trees send branches
From yard to yard, the grass is swarming with spies.
Habits of the season: walking along walls, peeking at
The birds cheeping, preparing for the frost. About the fall
Between yard and yard, neighbors hold consultations.
Those lines, which are keeping me here, echo
In my mind: Good fences
Presage a journey.
From "Gederot" (Walls, Nahar Books, 2008). This translation by Vivian Eden was first published in print in the Haaretz English Edition Books Supplement for November 2012.
Shahar Bram was born in Jerusalem and teaches at the Department of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of Haifa. He is the author of three books of poetry, the most recent of which is "Colorful was their Voice" (2013, with artist Neta Goren) and has recently published his second novel "Hazmanim Hametim" (The Dead Times, Carmel, 2012). His scholarly works include "The Ambassadors of Death: The Sister Arts, Western Canon, and the Silent Lines of a Hebrew Survivor," "The Backward Look: The Long Poem in the Writings of Israel Pincas, Harold Schimmel and Aharon Shabtay," and "Charles Olson and Alfred North Whitehead: an Essay on Poetry." You can read excerpts from Bram's works on his website.
Bram's poem is an unabashed reference to American poet Robert Frost; as such, it (along with other 21st-century works) illustrates a turning point in Hebrew literature. In the 20th century, Israeli writers spearheaded a conscious cultural project to prove that Hebrew literature was at least as good and rich as any other. It was unusual for a Hebrew poet to refer so explicitly (outside of translations) to modern non-Hebrew sources. That changed in the 21st century, as evidenced in part by Bram's poem.
Many people remember (and misunderstand) the final lines of Frost’s “Mending Wall” -- “Good fences make good neighbors” -- and might expect to see this sentiment (of which Frost is critical) repeated at the end of "North of Boston." Instead, Bram seconds the opening statement of Frost’s poem: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” which Frost repeats with the addition of “That wants it down.”
Bram’s poem was written in Hebrew, and it inevitably brings to mind the fences – or walls – Israel has built between itself, the West Bank, Egypt and Syria -- and, perhaps, metaphorically the rest of the world “swarming with spies.” Bram transposes the season from Frost’s spring, when walls are broken by frozen ground, to the autumn, the colorful season of foliage missed by almost anyone who has lived in more temperate climes than Israel’s. For a trip down memory lane, listen to Nat King Cole sing “The Autumn Leaves."
*In his poem, Frost ponders: “Before I build a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I might give offence.”
What could one advise the Israeli government along these lines? Bram suggests the fences lose their value. Do they?