Poem of the Week / Four Faces of Jerusalem

British poet Elaine Feinstein returns to Israel, where she will give a special reading at Tel Aviv University on June 27.

Jerusalem

Elaine Feinstein


1

Your stones still hold the glow of a June sun

     until the desert night drops

a dark blue cloak over the streets

abruptly, as always in the Levant.

     When I saw you first,

barbed wire threaded your heart,

and the clarity of your stars pierced me

     like an ancient tribal God.

I sold back all my silver trinkets


so I could wander the narrow alleys

     with your white dust

in my sandals for a few days longer,

drink mint tea with my Moroccan lover

     under Jordanian guns before

I left for rainy London and the man I married.

2     Abu Tor

We flew together, after the Six Day War,

     -- with an unfamiliar salt on our lips --

to visit Arieh Sachs, in Abu Tor

     above the stone strewn valley of Cedron,

whose waters lead to the Valley of Hinnom,

the supposed scene of the Last Judgment.

     Arieh was holding a drinks party

fired by the peculiar astonishment,

     of a boy who has taken on the school bully,

and floored him with an unexpected blow.

We argued until it was dawn with poet

     conscripts: about courage and ghettos,

Warsaw and Sobibor. We talked

     of peace, the loss of close friends

and the dangerous energy men find in war

Nobody spoke of Victory with elation,

     or pretended local hatreds had gone away.

At first light, we set off along Nablus road

     for the American Colony hotel

a Pasha’s palace, where the journalists stay.

3

In Mishkenot Sha’ananim twenty years on

     at the time of the first intifada

Amichai advised us sensibly:

‘Yes, go into the Old City

     but not too often, and not

for long. When the shutters

begin to come down, remember

     the shopkeepers are also afraid of gunmen.

So don’t barter after you hear the bell.’

4     2003

In Mahane Yehuda, a few old Russian men

     are playing Shesh Besh in the courtyard below

It is a Festival--there are so many Festivals--

     and I am shivering under a light coat

April is often cold in Jerusalem

     but that’s not it.

I have seen my old boyfriend

     which was disappointing.

I shall not forget Jerusalem

     which is always threatened

and more alone than ever.

     I am also alone.

***

Elaine Feinstein is a British poet born in Lancashire to a Russian Jewish family. She has published 16 books of poetry, three books of Russian poetry in translation, novels, short stories and biographies (including works about Anna Akhmatova and her friend Ted Hughes.

In a BBC interview, Feinstein related that after completing a degree at Newnham College at Cambridge University, she became a young mother and began to write poetry about her domestic life. In her search for her voice, she looked to her family’s origins in Russia and found Marina Tsvetaeva, with whom she identified because “she had all my faults and rose above them.” Her translations of Tsvetaeva’s works have won both praise and prizes.

“I write about people,” Feinstein told the BBC, “and my life – an uncensored autobiography.”

During Feinstein’s visit to Israel in 2003, about a year and a half after the death of her husband, immunologist Arnold Feinstein, I asked her whether it is indeed possible to read her poetry as autobiography, in contravention of the critical convention that holds it necessary to make a careful distinction between the poet and the speaker in the poem.

“Definitely,” she replied. “I don’t use personae, except when declared.”

This poem, “Jerusalem,” is from Feinstein’s most recent book of poetry, “Cities” (Carcanet 2010). The “lyrics,” as she calls the four parts of the sequence, depict four phases in the history of modern Jerusalem and four phases in a woman’s life. The first begins with a flashback from the present – “Your stones still hold the glow” – to a time when the woman is young.

Though this is not explicitly stated, the year is some time between 1948 and 1967 and Jerusalem is divided – as is the woman, between the city and her “Moroccan lover” on the one hand and “London and the man I married” on the other. Is it possible that the details about weather in this lyric signify the essence of the poet’s Britishness? The “you” here refers neither to the lover nor to the man she married, but rather to the city.

The second lyric has its own subtitle, “Abu Tor,” referring to a neighborhood of Jerusalem that was on the border with Jordan until 1967. It is still divided into a Jewish section and an Arab section. Arieh Sachs, who lived very near the border, was a professor of English and theater studies as well as a poet.

Apparently the “we” in this lyric refers to the woman and the man she married – Feinstein herself and her husband. The “unfamiliar salt on our lips” here is echoed in Feinstein’s poem entitled “A Visit,” from her collection “Talking to the Dead” (2004): “ I still remember love like another country / with an almost forgotten landscape of salty skin and a dry mouth.”

The party vignette captures the energy of the time immediately following the 1967 war – “the peculiar astonishment, / of a boy who has taken on the school bully, /and floored him with an unexpected blow.” Young, small Israel had emerged victorious against far larger armies and felt like king of the playground.

Some of the “poet conscripts” at the party were undoubtedly men with vivid and perhaps first-hand memories of World War II in Europe (nearly everyone able-bodied was called up in the Six Day War). Sobibor and ghettoes were still fresh in many people’s minds and the Holocaust had not yet come into use as a trump card that could kill any ethical argument.

Even the typography here echoes that war: The capital “V” in victory was very much part of the rhetoric of World War II. The complexity of the political emotions and debate was also more typical of those times than these, but the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, outside the Old City walls, was and to this day remains a kind of beacon of Orientalist romanticism where foreign journalists still hobnob with well-connected Palestinians and Israelis.

The third lyric is set during the first intifada, which began in December of 1987. Amichai of course is the poet Yehuda Amichai. Mishkenot Sha’anaim also overlooks the old border – it was the first Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem outside the Old City walls, and after the Six Day War it became a cultural center and guesthouse.

Here again, the woman appears to be accompanied by someone – “Amichai told us,” not “me.” The advice about knowing when to quit, for safety’s sake, is juxtaposed against the poet’s having taken off for the American Colony at dawn 20 years earlier. Amichai’s advice can be understood not only literally but also metaphorically: Yes, delve a bit into the exotic and perhaps also the past, but there, too, bad things can happen so know when to go home.

The fourth lyric, labeled 2003, is set in the Mahane Yehuda market, which is not on the border but had been the site of a number of terror attacks in the second intifada. Shesh besh is backgammon. The speaker is again alone and again very aware of the weather. The “lover” in the first stanza has become a mere “old boyfriend.”

The “I” is more present here than in the other stanzas and Jerusalem is no longer “you.” This is made conspicuously clear in the line “I shall not forget Jerusalem” – which recalls Psalm 137:5, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem” – yet avoids the intimacy with the city that had been so strong in the first stanza. She is not talking to Jerusalem here, but only about it; the city is no longer a second person – it is a place with which she identifies because both are “alone.”

It will be interesting to see if another lyric is added to this poem after Feinstein’s visit here 10 years later. Feinstein is now in Israel and will be reading her poetry on June 27 at 1:30 P.M. in the Gilman building on the Tel Aviv University campus, room 496. If you can’t make it to the event, you can hear her read here:

Musings

*Does the specificity of the people and places add to the reader’s experience of the poem, or detract from it? How would these lyrics sound if they were set to music? 

Courtesy
Haaretz Archive