Poem of the Week / Haim Gouri on Memory and Destruction

Israel’s revered poet marks his 90th birthday this week.

The Sandcastles

Haim Gouri

You remember,

it’s like the afternoon wave that washed away

the sandcastle,

the tunnels and the fortress towers,

the patience, the seashells and the stalactites,

extra trimmings.

And didn’t know.
 

The barbarism will return.

Insensitive to nuances, it doesn’t hang back.

It thinks big.
 

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden. From “Hashirim” (The Poems), Volume 2, Bialik Institute, 1998.

***

Poet, journalist, documentary filmmaker, embodiment of his times (and mensch) Haim Gouri celebrates his 90th birthday this month. Born in Tel Aviv to a socialist Zionist family, he joined the Palmach pre-state Jewish underground and was sent to Europe in 1947 to help smuggle Jewish refugees to Palestine. In the War of Independence he was a deputy commander in the Palmach Negev Brigade and he continued serving in the reserves through the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Gouri worked as a journalist for the now-defunct newspapers Lamerhav, for which he covered the Eichmann Trial, and later Davar. He has published more than 20 books of poetry and prose as well as countless articles, including in Haaretz.

Gouri is remarkably frank about his changing opinions and willingness to admit mistakes – notably, his support for the inception of the West Bank settlement project in Sebastiya in 1975.

In this poem, the “you” in Hebrew is masculine and singular, implying that it is an interior monologue. Gouri is always holding debates with himself. In his poem “I Am a Civil War” he wrote: “And there, those who are right fire at the others who are right."

The trope of waves washing away human endeavors is nothing new in literature, or even in Gouri’s own work, but here it is fresh because it is presented from two contrasting perspectives. The first stanza presents the engineering, building and embellishment of the castle – the state as conceived and built by Gouri’s generation – and the unknowing wave that wipes it away in a clean, inevitable act of indifferent nature. In the second stanza the speaker steps back and is critical. That anthropomorphized wave is “barbarism,” insensitive to nuances – of history, effort or art – and is consciously devastating, with an agenda.

Gouri’s "Shir Hare’ut" (Friendship Arms Poem), a commemorative anthem for dead comrades of the generation of the Palmach and 1948, with music by Sasha Argov, is said to have been Yitzhak Rabin’s favorite song and will certainly be sung at memorial gatherings later this week to mark the Hebrew date of Rabin’s assassination on the 12th of Heshvan in 1995.

Musings

*Are both parts of the poem of equal weight? 

Wikipedia
Alex Levac