A little over two years ago, when it was time to erect the headstone on the fresh grave of the poet Haim Gouri, his widow, Aliza, asked that a personal epitaph be added to the inscription. “Ish ohev,” “a loving man,” was inscribed on the slab, along with his name and other conventional details.
When she tells the story now, she guilelessly uses his nickname, explaining: “Juri and I lived together for 70 years and at the difficult moments, in the first few months after he left us, I told myself only that something terrible had happened to me. But for 70 years I was at the side of the most loving, the most wonderful man possible. I added the words ‘ish ohev’ to the gravestone because I thought that was his essence.”
I can’t imagine what it must be like to wake up in the morning after all those years together, without him there.
“It’s terrible. I only recovered from it thanks to what I told myself: What do you want, you had 70 years, give thanks for every moment. I do say thank you for every moment. I’ve never heard of the capability to give love of the kind I was privileged to have. He was a wonderful man. People loved him and I was privileged with this wonderful love.”
There was always something of that love, overflowing with humanity, in the writing of Haim Gouri, the greatest poet of the state’s founding generation. He was among those who shaped an idyllic, outsized Israeliness, an Israel Prize laureate who has long been considered a moral compass. But upon reading “To the Other Place” – his 19th and final book of poems, published recently, more than two years after his death – the sense of humanity becomes sharp and urgent.
As in the last books he published during his lifetime (“Ebal,” 2009, and “Though I Wished for More of More,” 2015, both in Hebrew and published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad, which co-published “To the Other Place” together with Daniella De-Nur), here too Gouri faces old age and his approaching death, and looks with concern and despair at events in his country. The poems in his final book were written during the last year or two before he died at the end of January 2018, after a rapid decline in health lasting two months – and their words are charged with additional meaning.
The poems contain memories, contrition and anguish over promises he did not keep, longing for friends who had died and the consolations of family. It is a reading of the thoughts of an amazingly lucid man who scrutinizes himself and his life, and the 94 years he lived serve as a meaningful prism. His family – Aliza and their three daughters – were charged with carrying out Gouri’s wish for another book.
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The daughters are Yael Gouri, who teaches Hebrew literature; Noa Gouri-Guberman, who teaches education and is a pedagogical counselor; and Hamutal Gouri, an organizational consultant, group facilitator and storyteller who was among the founders of the organization Women Wage Peace.
“He continued to write all the time. He would always quote Vladimir Nabokov, saying he’d write for as long as “the blood still throbs through my writing hand,” Aliza says. “He said constantly, ‘I’ll publish the book.’ He said that he would be the one to publish that book. The problem was that he was never very organized, and as a 94-year-old man he managed to scatter the pages to every corner of the room,” Aliza says.
“Something happened to him and he couldn’t use a computer anymore, but he didn’t give up and continued to write by hand,” recalls Yael, the eldest daughter. “There were poems on unnumbered pages with arrows, a round arrow at the end of the poem and it wasn’t clear whether it led to a little poem at the top of the page or to the next page. It was detective work, in which we all read and we said, ‘It suits him to say this,’ ‘This doesn’t belong.’ The great fear is to make a hash of it all,” she says.
“It was very important for us not to edit him, that the words remain his,” adds his daughter Noa. “We took some bits off and shortened it a little, but we never took it upon ourselves to fill in” says the youngest daughter, Hamutal. “With all its complexity and the extent of the task before us, we felt that this was his living will. There was no question.”
How did you choose which poems to exclude? Weren’t you concerned?
Yael: “When he finished working on “Though I Wished for More of More” he was assailed with worries. ‘Who’ll want to read this book about old age, who will listen?’ It’s interesting that an older person with achievements like he had could be so insecure. There’s something nice about that. Our father was a huge perfectionist, he polished each poem to the extreme, so that when we worked on the book it was important to try and imagine what he would say, since he did not rest till the end. If there was a misplaced comma or other notation, he’d re-do it again and again. We had to do the work without him, asking if the poem sounded right.”
Noa: “It was the work of all of us. Each time there was one of us who was sufficiently removed to be able to say: not that. It was very scary.”
Yael: “You look at a poem and ask yourself what he’d want you to do with it. Should I polish it? We sat with our mother, who’d been familiar with his handwriting for years, and she too doubted herself, since all of a sudden, the responsibility was maddening. On the other hand, you know that if he were alive, he’d continue working on it, continually checking the poems. On one hand you have to continue, and on the other hand he would not have wanted you to release a half-baked poem.”
The Land of Israel pains me
Noa: “He denied old age on one hand, but experienced it fully on the other. He constantly conversed with old age and with time. These are two things that are present in his poems. On one hand vitality and the lust for life of a young man, with the frailty he experienced and fought on the other. He struggled. He fought old age. The deterioration was really sudden. During Sukkot he appeared solo on stage at a festival of story tellers, and he died at the end of January.”
It’s a bit like the tragedy of beautiful women, about whom some people say they die twice. To be so passionate about life and young at heart while having to accept the body’s dictates. To be such a sociable person while having to constantly say goodbye to soulmates such as Menachem Brinker and Uri Bernstein, whom he wrote about.
Yael: “He constantly experienced old age and the ravages of time, he was furious about it. But it also provided an opportunity to remember his wonderful life. One thing old age did not take away from him was his ability to remember the life he had, his friends. He documents memory but also the erosion.” Hamutal: “I’m not sure I can connect with the word tragic. He was a person who felt things strongly. When he’d say: The Land of Israel pains me, it was said out of a sense of duty to feel strongly for others as well.”
There’s a sense that in some poems there is a disruption in his ties to the state.
Yael: “A sense of real emergency. Something is being ruined and he has to prevent it using words, to speak out and protest, to cry out.”
Noa: “Something we took from our father is related to the fact that today it seems you can’t criticize. [People think] if you criticize, you’re not a Zionist. From him I took the idea that you can be critical; he thought there were things that must be changed, and believed that you’re critical because you love, because it’s yours.”
Yael: “He used the expression – the lover's rebuke.”
Hamutal: “For me, as an activist for social change who is used to being a party pooper, there was something nice in seeing him and his sense of mission, striving to be a voice of opposition, which can often be a very lonely place.”
Yael: “His poem, ‘I’m a civil war’ expressed a worldview, not just a poem. ‘I’m a civil war and half of me shoots the ones remaining against the walls of the vanquished.’ He’d tell us that disquiet was good. A spiritual war is better than absolutism. The absolute thing for him was his insane love for this place, but he did see the dangers, the flaws, the injustices, and he didn’t remain silent, sometimes at the cost of losing friends.”
“What would frighten him today would be the notion that if you criticize, you’re disloyal. Loyalty for him meant seeing and criticizing, being a two-bit Jeremiah, as he called it. Seeing and hearing, without having any option except to speak out. He and my mother stood in Bab el-Wad [a 1948 battleground and the title of a famous war song he wrote], two very old people, opposing the naming of a new interchange there after [controversial politician] Rehavam Ze’evi (“Gandhi”). He also took turns standing in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, protesting the eviction of Arabs and their replacement with Jews. He never let up. He wanted to be given the right not be an outsider.”
Noa: “He really believed in the power of words, that if only he spoke and said and made speeches and wrote, things would change. Today, and this is difficult for me, words have lost their power. The ability to listen to people like him is disappearing.” When asked how he was, he would answer, ‘I’m as good as my people are’, and in answer to doctors’ questions as to what was hurting, would say, ‘the country’.
“He would have found it difficult to witness these times,” Aliza says.