Poem of the Week

Look Carefully: These Lives Are Not Invisible

'Bosses and the stinging ants': Tal Hasan leads us subtly into the history of a family.

Olive trees, like this hoary one by Moshav Hadid, can be centuries and even millennia old, yet retain their vitality.
Eyal Toueg

Two Old People

Tal Hasan

The yard at the old house dried up from longing for those who left,
Those dry thorns and grass became the yard
Bosses and the stinging ants, labor
And serve themselves there energetically. The green garbage bin,
Which loved green, lies on its side with the broken leg
In total desolation without a wisp of consolation.
The wistful tree in front of the house speaks an unclear language –
The language of the dead;
The screen door facing it is torn and tired – listening
To its own murmurs and a window for black and white cats.
Two old people, wearing white, sit reconciled
Around the table next to the kitchen; they too speak their own language, smell
The food cooking, share and yearn

From Haneshama Ro’ah Ahora (“Tal Hasan: Poems”) Gvanim, 2015. Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden

Tal Hasan.
Courtesy

The poem draws the reader into a house, perhaps the home of the narrator’s grandparents, a shabby dwelling in the middle of nowhere. In Israel, such houses dot peripheral towns populated by what Interior Minister Arye Dery calls “invisible” people. It is surrounded by a neglected yard where once children played and bossed one another around. Now they have left to earn a living and enjoy brighter lights elsewhere. The yard “yearns” for them – the first hint that everything in this seemingly dismal picture is intensely alive. Now the hostile stinging ants – communal and industrious – are in charge and working hard for their own benefit, telling us that the poet is observing closely and noting this sign of life in the general weariness of the immediate surroundings.

The broken green bin that “loved green” might once have been a container for composting – coaxing new life from waste – but is now simply rubbish – “In total desolation without a wisp of consolation.” (There is an internal rhyme here in Hebrew too.)  The words “loved,” “desolation” and “consolation” attribute human emotions to the broken bin – subtly bringing yet more life into the picture.  The tree in front of the house is also animate. It talks -- speaking “the language of the dead” – not the living language of the neighborhood or country, but the language of the place from which the inhabitants of the house immigrated.

Two old people in white, and a cat. Illustration by Wanda Gág, 'Millions of Cats,' 1928.

That place of origin could be anyplace, though the poet’s surname suggests somewhere in the Middle East or the Maghreb. The murmuring of the screen door is the flapping of the torn bits; maybe it doesn’t close well and knocks against the doorjamb gently and constantly, creaking a bit. And cut into the main door is a cat flap – which the narrator knows is – or was – for specific cats, black and white.

The white clothing the two old people wear suggests one of the holidays when Jews traditionally wear white – Yom Kippur or Shavuot – or perhaps shrouds. They speak companionably in their own language– “reconciled,” yet yearning, like the house itself, for previous and future generations that are with them no longer.

Tal Hasan was born in Israel in 1975, lives in Netanya with his wife and three children and teaches mathematics in a high school. The book in which this poem appeared was awarded the Culture Minister’s Prize for a debut book this year.

שני אנשים זקנים / טל חסן     

חֲצַר הַבַּיִת הַיָּשָׁן הִתְיַבְּשָׁה מִגַּעְגּוּעַ לְאֵלּוּ שֶׁהָלְכוּ;

הָעֵשֶׂב וְהַקּוֹצִים הַיְּבֵשִׁים הַלָּלוּ נִהְיוּ לִמְנַהֲלֵי

הֶחָצֵר וְהַנְּמָלִים הָעוֹקְצָנִיּוֹת, פּוֹעֲלוֹת

וּמְשָׁרְתוֹת עַצְמָן שָׁם בְּמֶרֶץ. הַפַּח הַיָּרֹק,

שֶׁאָהַב יָרֹק, שׁוֹכֵב לוֹ בַּצַּד עִם רַגְלוֹ הַשְּׁבוּרָה,

כָּבוּשׁ עַד חָרְמָה לְלֹא צֵל שֶׁל נֶחָמָה.

הָעֵץ הֶ עָלוּב בְּקִדְמַת הַבַּיִת מְדַבֵּר בְּשָׂפָה לֹא בְּרוּרָה – 

שְׂפַת הַמֵּתִים;

דֶּלֶת הָרֶשֶׁת מִמּוּלוֹ קְרוּעָה מֵעֲיֵפוּת – מַקְשִׁיבָה

לַמִּלְמוּלִים שֶׁלּוֹ וְחַלּוֹן לַחֲתוּלִים שְׁחֹרִים וּלְבָנִים.

שְׁנֵי אֲנָשִׁים זְקֵנִים, הַלּוֹבְשִׁים לָבָן, יוֹשְׁבִים מְפֻיָּסִים

סְבִיב הַשֻּׁלְחָן בְּסָמוּךְ לַמִּטְבָּח; אַף הֵם

מְדַבְּרִים בְּשָׂפָה שֶׁלָּהֶם, מְרִיחִים

אֶת הַבִּשּׁוּל, מְשַׁתְּפִים וּכְמֵהִים...

*Musing: Nothing is loud here. Why?

Old Folks YouTube

*Bonus: The Miles Davis Quintet, “Old Folks