Poem of the Week / Dennis Silk Spots Nasser and His Herd of Dead Ships

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The Soldier Blockades Suez

Dennis Silk

He dips three toes in the Great Bitter Lake,

two in the Little Bitter Lake,

adjusting his binoculars spans


Spots Nasser the big ship

and his herd of ships

unmilked and lowing.

They low. He laughs.

Look, he says, at all the

cowlike dead ships.

From “The Punished Land, Poems by Dennis Silk,” Penguin Books, 1980.


Dennis Silk was born in London in 1928 and died in Jerusalem on July 3, 1998. In an obituary in The Independent, Oliver Bernard wrote: “Being a Jew in post-war Britain was not at all his cup of tea. After doing his National Service in the RAF followed by a year's agricultural training in Sussex, Silk … left England for Israel. His first year in the country was spent at a General Zionist Kibbutz, but he left this to settle in Jerusalem, where he eventually made his living as a copy editor, working for many years at the old, liberal Jerusalem Post, and only leaving it – in, admittedly, failing health – when it began to move towards the political right.”

In Jerusalem, Silk developed a genre he called Thing Theater, for which he wrote and performed plays, some of which are collected in the volume “William the Wonder Kid: Plays, Puppet Plays and Theater Writings” (Sheep Meadow, 1996). The plays featured his eclectic collection of toys, dolls and bibelots, along with ordinary objects such as hats and chairs and body parts of live actors and puppets – the premise being that that the relative dimensions of things are unreliable and that the boundaries between the animate and the inanimate are fluid.

This is also the premise of Silk's poem here about Sinai, which keeps cropping up as a trouble spot for Israel. On July 26, 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser decided to nationalize the Suez Canal, which led Israel to embark together with Britain and France on Operation Kadesh, commonly known in English as the Sinai Campaign or the Suez Crisis, depending on who is talking. The operation was intended to keep control of the canal and to topple Nasser, but the combined efforts of the United States and the Soviet Union forced the withdrawal of French and British troops.

In February of 1957, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower threatened to stop more than $100 million in foreign aid to Israel – which then withdrew as well. During the 1967 Six-Day War, Nasser ordered the scuttling of 14 ships in the canal at the Great Bitter Lake, which along with the Little Bitter Lake is adjacent to Kantara, a city on the Eastern side of the canal about 50 kilometers south of its outlet to the Mediterranean. Only in 1975 were the ships cleared and the canal reopened.

“The Soldier Blockades Suez” is from Silk’s sequence of military poems “The Punished Land” (in the Penguin volume of a selection of his poems that bears the same title). In the dedication, Silk writes: “These poems are about a land too beautiful for its inhabitants. So they punished it (or rather her) with a general ill will – Jewish, Christian, Muslim. Sometimes she hits back. Perhaps she’s also a punishing land.”

As in Thing Theater, the animate and the inanimate are fluid and interchangeable – Nasser is a ship and the ship is a cow – and the dimensions of things are monstrous and perplexing: How could a soldier dip two toes in the one lake and three in the other? Are all the toes on one foot? Human laughter and bovine/marine lowing constitute a conversation.


*How are the ships “cowlike”? What would this look like as a computer animation?

Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gamal Abdel Nasser.Credit: AP
Dennis Silk recumbent. In red ink on the back of the photo, in an unknown hand: “Don't worry! He's alive. ... Israel, summer 1958.” Credit: Courtesy of Dennis Silk's estate.

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