Poem of the Week The Truth About Immigration

Natan Zach on the conflict between the old world and the new.

Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden
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Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden

Rest

Natan Zach

This ocean is full
That ocean is empty
These trees are green
No color is right for those trees
How lovely this place is
In that place there is no space
How colorful this world is
That world is wonderful and wan
Not glaring
We’ve been on the way so long
At last we’ve arrived,
We’re unloading our bundles
That can’t be unpacked
We are resting now
We’ve been everyplace
There is just one place
We haven’t been
Let us arise and be

—January 1996

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden. From “The Collected Works of Natan Zach,” Volume 3, Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 2008

***

Natan Zach was born Harry Seitelbach in Berlin in 1930 to a German father and an Italian mother; the family immigrated to Haifa in 1936, and by all accounts it was not an easy transition. Zach completed a doctorate at the University of Essex in 1978, taught at the University of Tel Aviv and Haifa University, and lives in Tel Aviv. After publishing about a dozen books of poetry beginning in 1953, in 2009 he published “The Complete Poems” (Hakibbutz Hameuchad) in three volumes; in 2013 he published yet another poetry book, ‘From Where Weʹve Never Been to Where Weʹll Never Be” (Hakibbutz Hameuchad); and he has also published several books of prose.

Upon the appearance of Zach’s “The Poetry Beyond Words: Critical Essays 1954-1973” (Hakibbutz Hameuchad) in 2011, Eli Eliahu summed up the often controversial poet’s place in the canon: “Zach has done for Hebrew poetry what T.S. Eliot did for English poetry: He has been a major innovator, a trailblazer, a poet whose work is based on theory and whose theory goes hand-in-hand with great poetry, an intellectual who had the wisdom not to write intellectual poetry, and a poet who knew how to stir emotions without being sentimental.”

“Rest” exemplifies this. It deals with a common issue in Hebrew poetry: a conflict between a “here” and a “there”, which goes back at least as far as the rivers of Babylon in Psalm 137. In deceptively simple declarative statements, the first nine lines give prominence to the demonstrative pronouns “this,” “that,” “these” and “those,” as though in a text for learning a new language. There is equal ambivalence about the old place (Europe), which is “empty” but “wonderful” and about the new place, which is “lovely” but “glaring.”

The repeated “we” in the second half brings to mind the conventions of collective patriotic identity characteristic of much of modern Hebrew poetry before Zach’s generation broke away to a more personal voice. The baggage from “there” can never really be unpacked; the “resting” isn’t the pleasure of the Sabbath. “Arise” is a key piece of rhetoric in the Zionist lexicon, immortalized in speeches and in rousing “folk songs” and “folk dances,” created in the zeal to invent a new Hebrew culture.

Watch a recent interview with Zach (in Hebrew) here:

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