Poem of the Week

Knowing You: Not Angels, but Engels

Savely Grinberg, on avoiding surveillance in the urban night streets.

Dreamstime

Moscow 1961-1962

Savely Grinberg

In ravines
of the centuries of stone
illuminated anew.
We walk
at that massif’s feet.
We need
to elude
and to stalk.
Walk
cut the seclusion
in the ravines
in the elongated ribs
of the night streets.
.

The pathway
opens and is devoured again
curved in a spine
of fluorescent lights.
In the ravines.
Always.
Until the immense wave has leapt.
Distant thunder, muffled,
trapped
in a maze
of curving depths.

Translated from Russian by Gali-Dana Singer and Vivian Eden, based on Singer’s translation in the Hebrew volume Bedu ‘Ir (“In the Dual City”), Even Hoshen Publishing House

Last week Israel listened to Shula Zaken’s surreptitious recordings of conversations with her former boss and prime minister, Ehud Olmert and no one is shocked by their existence. Surveillance is easy now, with a camera on every corner and a microphone in every pocket. Our mother, our spouse, the police, the NSA and its ilk can know our every move and many of our thoughts.

People are ambivalent about being watched. Many believe in divine providence – a deity who watches us closely and who, through prayer or intercession by dead holy men or living rabbis,  can be persuaded to change the course of events. Christian children are taught to believe in Santa, who knows if they are good or bad, and guardian angels. Apps share our every moment in images and words, consequences be damned.

However, there have been times when people devoted considerable energy to not being overheard. This poem captures the heyday of the Soviet Union, when many people, Jews among them, lived in constant fear of being under surveillance by the intercessors for Marx and Engels, the NKVD state agency for internal security, and only felt able to speak freely, if cautiously, out of doors. We have known Russians who opened up only on a ski trail, and that in the United States.

Jerusalem-based poet, translator and editor Gali-Dana Singer explains: The place depicted could be a park in the historical city center surrounding a cluster of buildings, to which Grinberg often referred to as “mountains.” The phrase “illuminated anew” refers not to the fluorescent lights, which had been there for a while, but rather possibly to a new vision of the place and its history.

The “giant wave” may allude to a famous 1850 seascape by Ivan Aivazovsky in the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg called “The Ninth Wave”, referring to the sailors’ belief that waves can come in an increasingly fierce series of 10, the last of which is cataclysmic. Thus, the “distant thunder” presages a change in the course of Russian history, which though it may have come is not doing so well at the moment.

Savely Grinberg (1914-2003), a well-known poet in Russia, grew up in Moscow and immigrated to Israel in 1973.

* If you listen carefully, what message do you hear from your city?

*Bonus: Angels watching over Sarah Jordan Powell and Ray Charles

Israel Maler