Poem of the Week / A Mother's Guide to Sexual Semantics

'With what pleasure you were made, and with what pain you will be expelled.'

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Intergenerational Linguistics

Rami Saari

The mother’s motherland is given by the mother
like in those old forms that asked about
your mother’s country of birth
and your father’s country of birth.
The mother tongue is given by the place.
Therefore the place is your father,
or your mother, or both,
or a faceless collective that takes you
and plants you in its bosom so you’ll remember
as long as you remember
with what pleasure you were made
and with what pain you will be expelled.
But between the pleasure and the pain,
between them and with them and without them,
this whole long sojourn
where the motherland is an eternal flame, just
like the eternal motherwisdom:
“Little children tread on your toes,
big children trample your heart.”

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden.


This poem was first published in Hebrew in Haaretz on October 17, 2008, and is included in Saari’s new book "Mavo Lebalshanut Minit" (Introduction to Sexual Linguistics), Carmel Publishing House, 2013.

Rami Saari, a scholar of Semitic and Uralic linguistics, was born in Petah Tikva in 1963 and spent part of his childhood in Argentina. He currently resides in Athens and is the author of nine books of Hebrew poetry, in addition to his translations from numerous languages including Spanish, Finnish, Albanian, Maltese, Estonian, Hungarian and Portuguese. Saari has been awarded the Tchernichovsky Translation Prize as well as the Prime Minister’s Prize for Literature, twice.

In this poem – as in many of the poems in his new book – Saari invokes the discipline of linguistics to contemplate other aspects of life: love, nationalism, pain and belonging.

In the first line, the Hebrew word for “homeland” is the feminine noun "moledet," derived from the root meaning “to give birth.” Hence, it is translated here as “motherland,” since there is nothing “homey” in the poem.

The connective “Therefore” in the sixth line is not meant to be logical; rather it takes the poem into a kind of associative dream thinking in which the irrational becomes possible. The place — “your father, your mother, or both, or a faceless collective”— is terrifying and its aim is to control your mind. The mind control, too, is in the realm of the impossible: No one recalls the moment of his conception and no one “remembers” his moment of death. The word translated here as “expelled” is the same verb that is used in the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24).

“The eternal flame” is a reference to the ner tamid, the constantly burning lamp that hangs over the holy ark in synagogues, symbolizing God’s constant presence — a notion undercut in the dream illogic by the down-to-earth eternal “motherwisdom” in the final line.


*Is the “motherwisdom” counterintuitive? How does it take the point of view of a child?  

Detail from Nikola Obrazopisov family portrait, 1908.Credit: Wikipedia
Rami Saari.Credit: Michalis Mukhtaris

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