Testament of Old Age

Nir Baram
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Nir Baram

"This happened many years ago, on the Memorial Day for Israel Defense Forces soldiers. I'm listening to Army Radio and also hearing some of my own songs, predictably, 'Here Lie Our Bodies' and others. Suddenly another poem that I'd written slipped in and I'm thinking, 'That's odd - I don't understand its connection to Memorial Day.' The first line of the poem was, 'If you pass through those narrowing straits,' and the last was, 'You will be measured by the beats of the other pulse.' They'd probably said to themselves: Haim Gouri, stocking cap, khaki, Palmach, no doubt he meant the Straits of Tiran. But the truth is that I had written a love poem."

The misunderstanding that Haim Gouri describes is not surprising. Gouri (born in Tel Aviv in 1923), is one of Israel's veteran poets today and is among the outstanding poets of what has become known as "the 1948 generation." He began to publish his poems in the 1940s. Some of his poems have become essential building blocks of Israeli culture, and perhaps more than any other poet, he is identified with the "national poetry" that was written during the first years after the founding of the state. In this conversation he returned to that period and those poems, but also spoke about his most recent, more personal and less familiar poems and the fine seam between the personal and the national, in life and in poetry.

It is easy to understand why they didn't understand your straits correctly, if they read your first collection of poetry, "Flowers of Fire" (1949), or your second collection, "Till Dawn" (1950), in which you describe your experiences in Hungary with the Jews who had remained alive after the world war, or your poems that symbolize the 1948 generation's great war.

Gouri: "In the 1960s one critic wrote: 'The 1948 generation is the we and the state generation is the I.' This is a sweeping generalization. Even my first book, 'Flowers of Fire,' was definitely personal poetry. They just didn't read it right. There were poems of the individual and poems of the 'together,' but the poems of battle and sacrifice took center stage, because wars aren't made by an individual.

"But there was a kind of cataloging, and you always got to the 'Palmach generation,' even though there were poets in it who were entirely different from one another. There is a wonderful expression that I heard from a young poet: 'sober intoxication.' In writing there is a combination of an ecstatic, passionate side that impels you to write and another side that accompanies it and says: Stop, don't go too far, erase what is superfluous. This is that sober element that intervenes in the act of writing. I have no doubt that in that period I was less aware of this side. Sometimes in the blindness of youth you write things that later make you smile. But let there be no mistake - even today I'm proud to belong to the 1948 generation."

Do you feel that literary research, in which there is sometimes criticism of the exaltation of the fighters or about how the dead are addressed as though they were alive in "Here Lie Our Bodies," has done you justice, or perhaps this cataloging of your poems in "the 1948 generation" has missed out on many of the things in them?

"This poem deals with fighters who were killed. They aren't here as 'the living dead' and there is no non-recognition here of 'the finality of death.' The line 'We will come back as red flowers' is reference to the flower 'Maccabis' blood' [Helychrysum sanguinem - common name in English: red everlasting] that blooms in the spring on the battlefields of our country. This is a common motif in world poetry. This elegy for the Lamed Heh [a convoy of 35 Palmach reinforcements murdered in January, 1949] will continue to live. But it has been a long time since and great changes have taken place in me and my poetry.

"I've written poetry connected to messianic and liturgical levels and I've written in spoken, slangy language, but still, now and then, I'm cataloged in the 'serious' section. I'll give you an example. There's a poem that I wrote in the volume 'Late Poems' called 'The Father of All Living Things,' which uses the highest language - but paradoxically, as the poem in fact deals with the erection of the male member. And then they say, Gouri, the knight of the image of grief, has written a poem about Ben-Gurion or Moses again: 'And upon his emergence and rising / Welcome cried I in greeting / until his majesty suffused me / ... Blessed be he and blessed be his name the father of all living things / who has known no rest in my rejoicing two together,' and so on."

'Marvelous Hebrew'

You are a poet whose Hebrew combines many levels, including a close connection to the Bible. How do you deal with the many changes that have occurred in the Hebrew language?

"The formal, elevated Hebrew of [Zalman] Shazar, the third president, used to seem ridiculous to us, the youngsters, but this was marvelous Hebrew that had accumulated from all the generations of Israel: the Bible and the Midrash and the Psalmody and the Liturgy. The transition to spoken, sabra Hebrew added to it new beauty and realms of expression, but also caused it to dwindle over the years and led to associative alienation among generations of young readers. And this is something very dangerous in a culture. Once when I finished a lecture I said to the high-school students: "Well, it's been nice knowing you. With you, Hebrew poetry has died.'"

Perhaps this sense of alienation from the students is also alienation from the Israel of today. You write about a walk around Tel Aviv: "So many of those in whose company I drank have vanished and are no longer here. Sometimes out of habit I look for them in [the cafes] Cassit and Kankan ... I go around the city of my birth like a peripatetic ambassador of times past."

"Here you're touching on a sore point. After all, a person doesn't control his memories. It's impossible to decide that today between seven o'clock and eight o'clock I'm going to remember. This piece describes a person's strangeness in the city of his birth. A whole world of belonging that doesn't exist any more. In the poem 'Odysseus,' which appears in my book 'Compass Rose' [1960], I write about Odysseus, sated with wanderings, who returns to his city and finds people 'who speak a different Greek.' At the end of my poem the man doesn't return to his home, but rather remains alone and a stranger at the end of the day: "Dew came down on his head, / wind came kissing his lips. / Water came bathing his feet like aged Eurycleia,/ and didn't see the scar / and continued down the slope as water does.'" [Translation: Stanley Chyet].

Elsewhere you describe another world that no longer exists: "Many of us loved the villages we blew up, that same world that is destroyed and gone." That is, in a certain sense both the world you blew up and the world that you built in its stead isn't here any more.

"Yes, there was a whole world of streets and people where I was at home. And there was also the Arab world that was destroyed. And it's impossible to answer this question without scars. The Arab world has accompanied me since my childhood, it's a world I grew up with. Tel Aviv and Jaffa were two close cities, and since then I haven't stopped writing about this duality: Most of my literary work and personal experience is of this seamline between us and them.

"I've always written about living people. In my work the Arabs weren't metaphors but rather living and breathing neighbors. I've never stopped writing about Jaffa. The ancient, oriental, multi-generational Jaffa of the prophet Jonah. The Jaffa that lures with its voices, its flavors and its scents. The Jaffa of Nahum Guttman. And there was also a frightening, threatening Jaffa of the imams' incendiary sermons, the green flags of Al-Juma'a al-Islamiyya and the hands brandishing swords. A remembrance of the blood incidents.

"I say: 'Don't leave out a single component of identity.' Arrive at a war of contradictions. And there was a contradiction between the socialist, universal component of 'all the world is one people,' and the national Hebrew component. But you have to know how to live within a system of contradictions. If people aren't prepared to accept you as a person of many contradictions, that's a problem. As an adolescent I believed in the greater land of Israel and I hoped for the day when the country would be unified, and I fought for that. This encounter with Israel after 1967 was amazing, it was like the resurrection of the dead. And also after that I was at Sebastia, but the same thing that happened to Hebrew poetry happened to me: The agonized friction with the 'other' crushed this dream. The wall passes through Abu Dis."

You talk about the multitude of contradictions in your identity and you once wrote: "So who am I, damn it?" The answer is: "You are ours and we won't let you go." "Ours" refers to the Jewish identity that is thousands of years old that doesn't give you the possibility of a different definition.

"I've always wondered what territory and language do to my identity. I saw Holocaust survivors, I fought in the Palmach and I covered the Eichmann trial, and I'm not prepared to lose any component of my identity. When I'm asked nowadays how I define my identity I say that I am an Israeli. Up until 1948 I had defined myself as a Hebrew, but in 1948 Hebrewness became Israeliness, and this state of being includes all the generations of the Jewish people in all their incarnations and all the incarnations of the land that has changed owners.

"I see a great deal of damage in the solidification of religion as an established and coercive force. The separate of religion and state could have saved Hebrew culture. It hurts me that the Bible, which had been the flagship of secular Israel, has become in the minds of many of our children a text that belongs to 'the dossim (religious Jews).' This is serious damage. In my opinion it is necessary to establish an overarching Israeli identity that will suit both a child from Colombia who was born and has grown up here and speaks Hebrew and is connected to us, and a Jew from Russia about whose Jewishness there are doubts. A people that was persecuted because of its identity and language should not be taking a crushing approach toward others in its country. We have to strengthen Israeli identity and it can't be that people who live here and want to become part of us are simply distanced by the religious or national mechanisms. Israel needs to examine how to transform the concept of Israeli into something that is also a place of cooperation among people who are different."

I have heard you say of the Israeli bohemia that it was a bohemia different from that in other places in the world, because it was connected to a national project and a war for existence.

"I wonder a lot about the bohemians - Avraham Shlonsky, Natan Alterman, Alexander Penn and more and more famous actors, writers and journalists, sculptors and painters and literary and art critics, who filled others with dread and also felt its sting. There were the cliques, the guru and his disciples, fans and groupies, priests in training and the people of the other clans who added to bohemia the sharp spice of 'us and them.' But in contrast to the uninvolved and uncommitted bohemia, most of them were seized up to their necks in the Israeli condition, took part in the political disputes and felt responsibility for what was happening in this stormy country.

"When the illegal immigrant ship Knesset Yisrael arrived here battered and scarred, its commander, Yossi Harel, reported on the voyage of suffering to the habitues of Cassit. Fighters and afterward people from the army would sit there until the break of day. Poets like Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine would not have felt at home among people who asked why there wasn't an X-ray facility in Beit She'an, or in the company of Ze'ev Yoskovich, who took the trouble of taking theater to the immigrant transit camps to make the children of the poor happy at Purim. They were in the heart of history."

In a speech that you gave in 1998 on "Zionist Ideology and National Strength," you said: "The main thing is the sense of the rightness of the way ... Without a sense of the rightness of the way there is also no military strength." In the context of the things that you are describing, it's a bit hard to sense the rightness of the way.

"There is a problem in the matter of the rightness of the way in the prolonged rule over another people. The Six-Day War that united the country has mortally torn the nation apart. The disagreement is getting harsher and is also affecting the situation of the army. Of course I also have very difficult days. I am a witness to an Israeli reality that is devoid of compassion and human kindness, a terrifying gap between the poor and the rich. Crudeness and violence. Ever since [Yitzhak] Rabin's assassination no government in Israel has completed its term. The terror is continuing and on the eastern horizon Iran is looming. But I do believe that Israel is strong enough to defend itself."

'A life's work'

Your last book to have been published was "I Am a Civil War" (2004), which collected poems and pieces that you had written during the previous 60 years. Are you writing something new?

"I hope that this year my book 'Poetry and Time' will appear: articles, essays and personal memoirs that appeared during the course of the past 50 years, as well as chapters that will be published there for the first time. A life's work. In the two volumes, which deal with the connections between poetry and time, there are also encounters with people who played a significant role in my life. I'm also continuing to write the 'Eival' poems and 'Additions to Eival,' some of which have been published recently in the daily press and various journals."

You are now engaged in organizing your archive. What kinds of feelings are you having at a time like this?

"My mate Alika [Gouri's wife Aliza] is busy with this, and for years she has been doing the big job of sorting the archive. There are thousands of documents, literally thousands of all kinds, that are connected to my work as a poet, writer, journalist, citizen and former military reservist. This is an extraordinarily disturbing experience. It's clear that there are letters that make me feel happy and perhaps proud, and there are those that are like reminders of iniquity. I am reliving a life that I had forgotten.

"I admit and confess that the number of people whom I can telephone and meet with is getting smaller. But I am in contact with writers who are younger than I am. The generations aren't dwindling. No. And when I try to draw a conclusion from all those documents, it is that a significant part of the culture I grew up in from childhood till now is a culture of guilt feeling: If you have to do something and don't fulfill the mission, terrible things happen and you haven't done anything. All the time you're persecuted for some sin that you have committed. We didn't save the Jews of the Holocaust, we have been cruel to the Arabs and to the immigrants from the Arab countries. If you examine Hebrew poetry you will see many manifestations of guilt. Today too I'm living with a heavy sense of guilt."

Poems like "Bidding Farewell" ("He is bidding farewell. And knows until he bids farewell. And no longer knows how it could be otherwise. And keeps on bidding farewell to himself and somehow keeps on saying to himself that this, apparently, is the farewell he was told about, that this is how it looks") or the poem "Preparation for Farewell," courageously, with humor and beautifully depict a person who isn't repressing the farewell, but rather is preparing for it. I'm reminded of a line by Yisrael Pinkas: "And the years were more compacted and compressed and agile than we were."

"I share that feeling. The most significant poem that I have written about time is called '1923-1958': 'And I didn't have time / Now it's clear that I didn't have time / I'm the man who didn't have time.' This whole cycle of 'Late Poems' is made of poems of a person who is bidding farewell. A poem like 'Changing,' for example, which talks about old age: 'Strange and varied troubles are coming to live in me / opening legations of evil.'

"I grew up in a generation that celebrated the culture of youth. Everything was done by young people, especially revolutions, and we refused to grow old and at the same time the test was in our growing old. And suddenly I'm writing about sickness and growing old and bidding farewell, suddenly I'm engaged in reckoning of conscience and summation. During the writing of this cycle I realized that many everyday things - a sunset, a couple embracing in a park - have become very dear to me and look like some wish that has been stolen from you, something of which you are worthy, but isn't going to be any more because you are already a bit outside. After all, there is always something left in our lives that we wanted to do and didn't manage to do, or something that had we seen it in time, everything would have happened differently. 'And the face-scratching alternative followed in our footsteps, / persisting, insisting that everything might have been different / on that mountain / had we only listened to its voice.'"