Poem of the Week / T. Carmi: Condemned to Water

American-born poet T. Carmi left a lasting mark on Hebrew literature. Here, in his poem 'Judgement,' he laments a love doomed to fail.

Judgment

T. Carmi


I am sitting on the boat deck, and I see:

our handiwork drowning in the sea.

The works and the hands,

words from mouth to mouth,

your brow, eye to eye,

awake and asleep as the question fades.

And nothing differentiates

between the day-sky and the night-sky –

all are drowning in this sea

that swells before our eyes.

I speak poetry

because we have no other language.

Had one been found for us,

perhaps we would not have been doomed to water.

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden.

***

T. Carmi (1925-1994) is the pen name of Carmi Charny, an American-born poet who left a lasting mark on Hebrew literature. He was raised in New York in a rabbinical family that spoke Hebrew at home and he immigrated to Palestine in 1947. During his lifetime he published 13 volumes of poetry in Hebrew and his “Selected Poems 1951-1994” ( Dvir Publishing House) was published shortly after his death in Jerusalem in the fall of 1994. He also published translations of poetry and drama from English and French into Hebrew and his “Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse” (1981, reissued 1997) remains a standard anthology to this day.

In this poem, first published in 1981, the speaker sails away from the end of a relationship. In Hebrew it is clear that the “you” to whom it is addressed is feminine, a “you” depicted only in the second couplet; the rest refer to “us” and “ours” and “I.”

The language in the poem is standard modern Hebrew, until the final phrase translated here as “doomed to water” – nedonim bemayyim. (We would normally expect the contemporary phrasing to be nedonim lemayyim.) The phrase is taken from Rashi’s commentary on Jethro’s remark in Exodus 18:11: “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods; yea, for they that dealt proudly against them.” Rashi provides the example of Pharaoh’s horsemen, who drowned when God caused the Red Sea to close in on them during their pursuit of the Children of Israel.

A different translation of this poem, as well as translations of other poems by Carmi, are available in “At the Stone of Losses,” translated and with an introduction by Grace Schulman, The Jewish Publication Society of America and the University of California Press, 1983.

Musings

* Who or what does the poet blame for the failure of the relationship? 

Lilach Peled-Charny