Betwixt and Between
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One by one the cartons assemble in the rooms
like silent animals and the poem
climbs the empty walls like
a gecko. There are some accounts that need to be settled.
Cracks here and there. Is that a problem?
Less and less space
to move around in. Objects have lost their usual
place and flaws that had been concealed
by a picture or a rug now
float in the space like ghostly
scars. Our bodies turn,
like sunflowers, towards the new space
waiting on the other side
of town to be filled with all we have: breath,
fear, love and the possessions that follow us silently
like a blessed shadow.
From “The Day’s Labor” (Helicon, 2001). This translation from Hebrew by Vivian Eden first appeared in print in the Haaretz “Books” supplement for February, 2012.
Objects relocated in space or time – a book as headgear (as in the image by Italian Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, shown herein); entire groups of buildings trundled 20 meters to make room for a road – can be endowed with new meanings. The same is true of works of literature: Every production of, say, “Hamlet” brings new resonance to William Shakespeare’s text and every re-reading of a poem can do the same.
Read at a time of peace, this poem seems anxious and spooky, with words and phrases like “cracks,” flaws” and “ghostly”. Re-read now at a time of war, however, it directs the weary mind to the optimism at the end, calm if a bit reserved.
The speaker and his family haven’t been forced to move because a rocket has damaged their home or because bombs demolished their house, killing some of the people inside it. Rather, despite the presence of “fear” alongside the “breath,” “love” and “possessions” that are accompanying them, the move is a free choice in pursuit of more space, perhaps, or a more convenient neighborhood.
“Betwixt and Between” captures a moment when inanimate objects seem to come alive. It is also a poem about poetry – ars poetica -- and specifically about metaphor. The word “metaphor,” the transfer of meaning between two seemingly unrelated objects or ideas, is from an ancient Greek word meaning “transfer or carry across” – and indeed in modern Greece you will see moving vans labeled with a form of that word. Shternberg introduces the idea of metaphor by animating the cartons in the first line with the active verb “assemble” and then directs explicitly us to the rhetorical device with the simile “the poem … like a gecko.”
In Hebrew as in English, “climbing the walls” in the sense of “going crazy” is a “dead” metaphor – i.e. a metaphor so familiar we don’t even notice it. The gecko literally climbs the wall and the phrase comes alive again.
Lyor Shternberg was born in Petah Tikva in 1967 and now lives with his wife and daughters in Jerusalem. He has published five books of poems for which he has won numerous awards and is a prolific translator of poetry in English, particularly by Irish poets. He is currently at work on a selection of poems by the late Seamus Heaney.
*Musing: How is the poem like a gecko?