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The wounded forms appear:
The loss, the full extent.
– Leonard Cohen
In the narrow boat we are two.
One woman upright as a raven
and a boy in white. With us, the boatman,
his face anyone’s.
The sky is viscous iron,
the water the hue of a sardine’s belly,
the boat’s reflection a blue blade.
Europe’s rot in our nostrils.
If I am the boy I have a sailor cap
and three pearls of tears from my round cheek
freeze towards my open collar.
If I am the woman swaying above him
my eyes gaze at no shore.
My clothes are neither wool nor silk
but brushstrokes of black
and the banknotes in my purse
are letters penned in invisible ink:
In the blink of an eye truth becomes nothing.
If I am the boy I know only this:
My toes are petrified with fear,
the water has a big mouth.
If I am the woman, under the flowers
bloated like jellyfish on my hat
is the voice that tells me, confident,
inside the black veil: Know,
you will have no rest.
The cloth will be torn from the wound slowly
Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden.
Tal Nitzan is an award-winning poet and editor, and a major translator of Hispanic literature into Hebrew. Among her many acclaimed projects is an anthology of Hebrew protest poetry that she edited, “With An Iron Pen,” which is also available in English, co-edited by Rachel Tzvia Back.
This untitled poem is from Nitzan's fourth book of poetry, “The First to Forget” (Am Oved, 2009), the manuscript of which won the ACUM (Israel Music Composers, Writers and Publishers Association) 2007 Prize for Poetry Submitted Anonymously. This translation, along with a French translation by Isabelle Dotan, was published in a limited edition in France by Al Manar in 2011, with illustrations by Guy Paul Chauder, under the title “Dans l'esquif etroit.”You can listen here to Leonard Cohen singing “The Letters,” the song from which the epigraph is taken.
In the first stanza, the woman in the narrow boat is compared to a raven, bringing to mind the first association in the Hebrew sources of a bird and a sea-going craft – Noah’s Ark, in Genesis 8:7. In that episode, Noah sent the bird to bring good news, and it does not. It is a story of disappointment, yet in subsequent literature – and in nature – the raven is always cunning and a clever problem solver; it is a successful survivor but never really loved.
The boatman brings to mind Charon, who in Greek mythology ferries from the world of the living to the world of the dead. The reference here is wry, because he is carrying the woman and the boy – we do not know if they are mother and son or random strangers thrown together by circumstance – from “Europe’s nostril’s” to the world of the living, perhaps.
In the first stanza, the speaker is first-person plural – “we.” Later in the poem, the speaker becomes an “I” who alternately imagines herself, or himself, as one of the two characters in the boat. The boy, as children will, senses only the present; the woman senses both past and future and does not hope for miracles.
The material world in this poem is totally unreliable – not only is the identity of the speaker contingent and shifting, and not only could the boatman be “anyone,” but the clothing is only brushstrokes and the money is minted in invisible ink.
Tal Nitzan tells Haaretz: “In general, this poem is a painting I saw in my mind (therefore it is so visual) and it depicts a psychological state of fear, pain and loss. I was interested in the attempt to depict this psychological state by means of the transitions between the woman (black) and the child (white).”
She notes that the poem has “no connection to the Holocaust. It describes, as I’ve said, a psychological state. Sometimes Europe is just Europe, and it appears in this poem as the old continent.”
*What do the letters in the woman’s purse have to do with the letters in Leonard Cohen’s song?
*More shiftiness: The poet says this is not a poem about the Holocaust. But could it nevertheless be read as a poem about historical refugees, in addition to one about a state of mind?
*What is the source of the confidence expressed by the voice in the final stanza?