Two Street Poems
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in the end you too will be a street.
Chariots will whirl along you like cycles,
bikers will fly like heels.
Your name will shine at night
like the northern lights
and the people will walk your length.
that’s in the end, but meanwhile
you stand at the curb,
and your eyes long for the other side.
If they knew what the future hides,
they would stand still, upright as a heap.
Before our very eyes the miracle happened:
His sinews twisted into high-tension wires;
his well-kempt hair welled out,
covered the square with a lovely lawn;
his bright eyes flew to the heights of the antenna;
his right hand became “STOP!”
and his left an arrow;
his nostrils widened into an underground passage,
his navel swelled into a traffic island –
and the mayor cut the ribbon!
All his life he dreamed of being a Street;
Not a Way, not a Boulevard and not a Lane.
A Street, broad and busy,
a pillar of smoke by day
and fire by night.
Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden. From "Emet Vehova" (Truth & Consequence, Dvir, 1993). This translation first appeared in print in Haaretz English Edition Magazine on November 12, 1999.
Born Carmi Charny to a Hebrew-speaking rabbinical family in New York in 1925, he came to Palestine in 1947 and joined the Palmach. He published 13 books of poetry in Hebrew and many translations of plays from English (notably by William Shakespeare) and French into Hebrew. He was also a translator of Hebrew into English: His compendious “The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse,” first published in 1981, earned lavish praise from Harold Bloom in the New York Review of Books and has become a classic.
“Two Street Poems” looks at the desire for posthumous fame. “Street” refers to the widespread Israeli practice of naming streets after dead individuals of cultural and/or political importance, which is considered a great honor. In the first seven lines of the first poem, he presents fame “in the end” as dynamic and exciting. In the second half of the poem he confronts the interlocutor with the here and now of facing death (“on the curb”) and the desire for fame and honor (“your eyes long for the other side”). In the penultimate line, “they” are “the people” referred to in line seven, and “upright as a heap” refers to the parted waters of the Red Sea in Exodus 15:8 – which are standing still but about to come down and destroy.
In the first stanza of the second poem, Carmi develops the moment of transition from “meanwhile” to “in the end” as a grotesque transformation from body parts of a human being into the complications (both ugly and beautiful) of an urban street. The words “his nostrils” refer again to the verse in Exodus ("and with the blast of Thy nostrils the waters were piled up…"); the person who is so keen on posthumous fame sees himself as God-like “and the mayor cuts the ribbon!” Carmi was a very careful punctuator and that exclamation point can only be sarcastic. The coda of the final stanza wraps up the story of the absurd ambition to become a street in the context of Exodus 13:8 -- in the image of God leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt to the promised land as a pillar of smoke (cloud, in some translations) by day and fire by night.
*Imagine “Two Street Poems” as choreography -- how does it look?