Poem of the Week

Like Sheep, With Blood Flowing in the Main Artery

Salman Masalha tries to get some sleep when it’s dangerous to go out in the streets.

Wikimedia Commons

One From Here

Salman Masalha

A poem for the late hours of the night

It changes so fast,
the world. And for me it's
now absurd. Things have got
to the point that I've stopped
thinking about falling leaves.
Because, after all, from here,
there's nowhere to go.
And anyway, even in the park
the trees are uprooted and gone.

And at times like these, it’s dangerous
to go out in the streets in this country.
The road is so wet.  
Blood flows in the main artery.
I count them:
One from here, one from there.
I count them
like sheep, until
I fall asleep.

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden, from Ahad Mikan (“In Place”), Am Oved, 2004.

Vivian Eden

Although it was published over a decade ago, at first reading this poem applies perfectly, (and literally,) to the situation in Israel this autumn. When it’s dangerous to go out in the streets, as it has been recently, people can have a hard time falling asleep, because of anxiety, or and because they are getting less exercise.

City streets are empty. Cafes, restaurants, pubs and many shops are feeling the pinch and according to television reports, some parents are afraid to take their children to playgrounds and parks. The weather has been lovely but it has been impossible to enjoy the shedding of autumn leaves, a more subtle phenomenon in Israel than in cooler climes .

Upon closer reading, it becomes apparent that the poem depicts the existential situation in Israel. The title is the giveaway: “One From Here” indicates someone who is absolutely a part of the place.

As the Ming Dynasty Buddhist monk Hanshan Deqing (1546-1623) wrote about the sense of place: “Put a fish on land and he will remember the ocean until he dies. Put a bird in a cage, yet he will not forget the sky. Each remains homesick for his true home, the place where his nature has decreed that he should be.” Here, two national groups believe this is their true home, immigration and emigration notwithstanding, and “from here, there’s nowhere to go.”
 
“Blood flows in the main artery” conflates the human body with the body politic and public space, recalling the metaphor “artery” for “road”, both in Hebrew and in English.

The phrase “I count them” appears twice. The first time, the count is of “one from here, one from there” but it isn’t clear who or what “they” are, though the context hints at danger and bloodshed: Are they attackers? Attacks? Jews? Arabs? Dangerous drivers (also in a metaphorical sense of leaders)?

The second time, “I count them” is followed by “like sheep” – meek, easily herded animals that all seem to look alike so that counting them becomes an exercise in monotony designed to lull one to sleep. The “one from here” and the “one from there” are the same. Will the insomnia ever end?

Salman Masalha, a frequent contributor to the Haaretz opinion pages, was born in 1953 in the Galilee village of Maghar and has lived in Jerusalem since 1972. He has published six books of poetry in Arabic and one in Hebrew.

*Bonus: Lina Makhoul sings “Autumn Leaves:”
(backup in case that doesn’t work:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ntdox12Dl0M)