Poem of the Week / Zvi Atzmon and the Heart's Territorial Waters

In a nod to The Song of Songs, the poet reflects on the duality of a love he cannot save.

Foam of Many Waters

Zvi Atzmon

Half your body is submerged in light

and half in a breakwater’s

shadow

half your body swims through air

humid with salty spray, the other is 

a dipped brush

stroke

and when at last you turn back, to shore,

your thoughts sail away, disappear beyond

my territorial waters

I can no longer rescue

the castle we built in the sand before

raging foam

of many waters

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden.

***

The speaker, a male “I” on a beach, addresses a female “you” in his mind as he watches her swim out. The phrase “a dipped brush” calls attention to the pictorial quality of this poem. The brush divides the poem into two parts, and this notion of duality is thematic.

The first part is about the body: The swimmer is depicted as split in half twice, in a painterly way: First the body is split into light and shadow – counter-intuitively, it is “submerged” in the light – and then it is split into the swimmer’s upstroke into the saturated, salty air, and the rest of her body under water.

The second part of the poem is about the mind. The woman’s mind has become remote, something of a mystery to the speaker, and their shared dream – a sand castle – is unstable and perhaps even no longer exists. Probably this relationship has been a long one: Young lovers believe they think exactly alike and are two parts of one indestructible entity; mature lovers have learned this is not true.

The foam in the translation is said to be “raging” because the word ketsef, especially in old, biblical Hebrew, means both “spume” and “anger.” The phrase “many waters” is from The Song of Songs 8:7 – “Many waters cannot quench love, / Neither can the floods drown it; / If a man would give all the substance of his house for love, / He would utterly be contemned.” Traditionally, the Song of Songs is read as an allegory of the relationship between God and Israel. In this case, the repetition of “many waters” in the poem’s title and at its conclusion encourages a reading of this poem as an allegory as well, though more in the contemporary political sense than in the biblical sense, as indicated by the phrase “territorial waters.”

Zvi Atzmon was born in early 1948 in Mandatory Palestine. He teaches life sciences at David Yellin College in Jerusalem and is the editor of the popular science monthly “Galileo.” This poem is from his eighth volume of poetry, “The Wallenberg Effect, Psalm 151” (Aryeh Nir, 2006) and is included in his volume of collected and new poems “Smooth Portion,” published January, 2011 (Keshev Press). Atzmon was awarded the Yehuda Amichai Poetry Prize in 2011.

Musings

*Does the knowledge that the poet is a scientist affect your reading of the poem? (If you understand Hebrew, watch this video.)

*How is this poem a meditation on the relationship between life and art?

*What is the symbolic heft of sand in the Bible and in the cultural history of the State of Israel? 

Alon Ron
Moti Kikayon, Courtesy of Poetry Place