Poem of the Week / Israel, the Brokedown Palace

What happens when the identity of an owner is both a psychological and a political conundrum?

Flat to Let

Elisheva Greenbaum


Two front rooms, semi-furnished, from owner,
a bargain, immediate, spacious-light-vacant and
all the keyholes, like my mouth, gape silently open.

Window bars, near the sea, like new, ground floor, built-ins,
yard, linked to the dollar, to the index, air conditioner, fridge, phone
(which hung up dangles like a teardrop on a chin).

View now, are the neighbors good? Central and quiet,
no agent, no lawyer, rear-facing, near City Hall,
excellent shape, somewhere, I know, under a broken floor tile

I’ll find my vine and my fig tree

Translated from Hebrew. From Lefetah Pitom Ha-adamah (“All of a sudden, the Earth), Carmel, 2005.

***

Elisheva Greenbaum was born in Jerusalem in 1965 to parents who immigrated to Israel from the United States; she died in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2005 after a short battle with a brutal illness. In her lifetime she published one book of poetry and another was published posthumously. She also wrote and acted in plays.

“The soul selects her own society,” wrote Emily Dickinson, and in this poem Greenbaum selected the society of poet Lea Goldberg, from whose children’s book “Flat to Let” she took the title and some direct quotes, and the society of the prophet Micah, who gave us the vine and the fig tree in his vision of peace at the end of days. In this exalted company, with great wit she makes real estate banalities talk about both the state of the soul and the state of the country.

The asset is contradictory: “front rooms” in the first stanza and “rear-facing” in the third – like the soul pulled toward dependence and independence and the country pulled in opposite directions by history and hope. It is semi-furnished, like the soul is partly pre-determined by nature as opposed to nurture and like Israel is by what was here before the new state. The identity of the “owner” is both a psychological and political conundrum. Despite the boilerplate “spacious-light-vacant,” there is never enough room in the soul for all it could contain or enough space in the country for everyone, while light, in any sense, can be a mixed blessing. “Are the neighbors good?” – a direct quote from Goldberg’s book – is of course the key political question here. In the Book of Micha, the vine and the fig tree come right after the verse: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

In an article in the journal Carmel (Winter, 2005), David Fishelov, Greenbaum’s life partner and a professor of literature at Hebrew University, notes that at the end of each stanza the real estate language switches to “a metaphoric formulation that confronts us with a fragile psychological element.” He adds that there is a serious question here: “Is it possible to build a perfect and happy palace within a flawed reality?”

Listen to jazz in Elisheva’s memory here.

Musings:

*What is the impact of “a broken floor tile?” 

Nir Keidar
Judith Greenbaum