Yusuf and the Constellations
I’m teaching him about
Orion, Andromeda and Cassiopeia
are becoming friends.
Last night we met Ursa Major
just as at the edge of the lens
a large black metal bird broke through.
I threw myself down on top of Yusuf
and whispered in his ear
so the bird wouldn’t hear
“Son, there is nothing to fear”
and I knew I was lying.
I held his hand tightly
until he cried
“Daddy, it hurts!”
We went down 84 steps
to the shelter that is a home
and on the way down I dreamt
about Yusuf the first man
I must persist in this mission
of acquainting him with his new environs
so he’ll be well prepared
when I buy him an air ticket
first thing after the war.
From an anthology of works by young Hebrew poets about the war in Syria, edited by Ilan Berkovich, Haaretz Tarbut Vesifrut, June 10, 2016. Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden
The poet, who is also a musician, owned by email that the title might be “a great name for a band, perhaps a progressive-rock group from the 70's” – but it isn’t. The name Yusuf tells us we will meet at least one Muslim or Arab person. (“Yusuf” is of course Joseph, who dreamed about stars in the Bible and his father was Jacob, who loved him best of all his children.)
The invented first-person narrator is teaching a small boy about the constellations in the night sky. We know the child is young because the constellations are described as “becoming friends,” an educational locution that would appeal to people under the age of about 5, and then “we meet Ursa Major” – possibly in a playful etiquette lesson along the lines of “How do you, Big Bear? I am Abu Yusuf and this is Yusuf.” Suddenly, “a large black metal bird” – childspeak for airplane – appears.
Things we have unconsciously assumed reading the opening are confirmed as the poem progresses. The narrator is clearly Yusuf’s father only when he is called “Daddy,” we know the telescope was on their rooftop only when they run downstairs and the metal bird is unambiguously an airplane likely to drop bombs only in the last line, with the word “war” – yet if we stopped and asked ourselves questions as we read, all this would seem clear by line 7. The poet confirms our expectations and then wallops us with an unforeseen ending.
The father, who acts like a responsible adult (“I knew I was lying”), loses his cool in the second stanza: He squeezes Yusuf’s hand so tightly that the child complains “It hurts.” His innards having turned to jelly, he imagines a fantastical plan to save the boy by sending him to Mars. Ironically, the destination is named after the Roman god of war.
The poem isn’t just about war: It explores the gap between how we make ourselves appear and what we really feel inside under stress. Why did the Hebrew poet invent Arab characters? A guess: empathy and the Brechtian move of rendering issues “alien” to make them thought-provoking.
Born in Tel Aviv in 1973, Roy Zemach lives in Ramat Gan. He has published three books of poetry and works as an editor at The History Channel.
*Musing: Why specifically 84 steps?
*Bonus: From Zemach’s most recent book (2016), Gedy Ronen sings the title poem, “World War”.