My mother’s death
The nurse said:
There are things a person
Even when he sits watching waves flicker
And dark snow of seagulls.
I never thought I’d reach
My forty-third year.
I was certain that a person who sings
And a person who prolongs
Sits mute in face of noonday.
In the meantime
I saw seagull flakes falling on a white river
And I had sons born who talk in their sleep.
It was barely possible to see
Her yellow body behind the oxygen mask.
I sat beside her and heard her taking off:
Skin and bones,
And a voice beyond the barrier –
And she is already a heavenly body
In the yellow of a last leaf
And the white of a government sheet.
So I said to myself
(Because I was already breathing through my eyes):
So now she is taking off.
When I went outside I found out
I had to travel far.
And today, 23 years later,
An ocean, a strait and a sea away,
Facing a beautiful semaphore of waves
And flakes of black gulls,
It became very clear to me that the nurse was right;
There are things a person doesn’t forget.
Jaffa, June 1969
From Davar Acher: Shirim 1951-1969 (“Selected Poems 1951-1969, Am Oved, 1970). Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden.
There are times in the lives of men and nations that are game-changers. Pundits say the world is living though one right now. Here, one man looks back at a tipping point in his own life, the moment of his mother’s death, when he became fully adult and solely responsible for his choices and actions.
“The nurse said / Leave.” Literally: Leave your mother’s deathbed. However, this instruction also resonates with the Almighty’s order in Genesis 12:1 after the death of Abram’s father: “Leave your country and your father’s house.” And indeed, in 1946, shortly after the scene in the poem took place, T. Carmi did leave his birthplace, New York, where he grew up in a Hebrew-speaking rabbinical family – whom he disappointed by not following in his father’s Orthodox and clerical footsteps -- to work with Jewish war orphans in France; in 1947 he came to Jerusalem. “There are things a person never forgets,” the nurse adds, and then, seamlessly, the speaker becomes the contemplative narrator, transitioning into the poem’s “present,” with the gulls and the waves.
The narrator reflects on his younger self, debunking the romantic but mistaken notion that creativity is the sole province of the young and people who live long do not have anything to say. Now, in his middle age, at "noonday," everything is blindingly clear to him, including his own mistake.
Remembering a parent’s death is often remembering oneself, as it is here. In stanza 3, we finally see the mother, a look that is not explicitly emotional but rather largely visual, colored white and yellow. The emotion packs a punch in “breathing through my eyes.”
In the final stanza, he has traveled far, geographically, as a man and as a poet. He wraps it up as an artist who with the greatest of ease transforms shrill black gulls into silent white snowflakes. The layered human wisdom of the nurse’s professional remark is affirmed, taking us back to the beginning of the poem.
T. Carmi (December 31, 1925 – November 20, 1994) is the pen-name of Carmi Charny (the “T.” comes from how the surname is pronounced – Tcharny). He is undoubtedly the most significant American-born poet in contemporary Hebrew literature. Selections from his 16 volumes of poetry were published posthumously in “Selected Poems 1951-1994,” and he is also remembered for his translations of plays from English and French as well as for his monumental 1981 anthology “The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse.”
*Try this at home: Nature is indifferent to human lives but we often read messages into it, as in the “beautiful semaphore” here. Write down a message nature seems to have sent to you.
*Bonus: Joni Mitchell sings “A Song to a Seagull”
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