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Lot's Wife, Crowned With Bones

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A block of salt, perhaps also inside. “Separation,” by Edvard Munch, 1896, Munch Museum, Oslo.

In the Mediterranean with Lot’s Wife
Aryeh Sivan

If you had come from the North, a pillar of ice
crowned with the bones of smoked fish,
I would have dipped you in the blue water
of the summer sea, massaged you
and slowly thawed you.
But you are a block of salt, perhaps also
inside, wrapped in layers of salt,
like the shrouds the Egyptians used to wrap
mummies of women.
                                I am the salt of the earth.
I can see you standing on the mountain,
your eyes pinned on the city where you were born
and the death of people among whom you lived
and the streets that poured their images before your eyes
and in which you became a woman.

You are a woman still. All limbs
intact. My
head in the sun and almost my entire body in the seam my eyes dim.
I am carried away, conceited, believing
that if I were to touch the right spot
a spring would flow inside you
and miraculously melt the pain, flushing
the piercing sadness into the water
like pebbles in a desert river bed.
                                 I am red like copper.

When I touch you, you will moan,
you will moan and cry out
as I go forth, swaying, like that man
on the road from Gethsemane to Golgotha
still waiting for a miracle when he reaches the Gihon,
a kind of miracle of fishes that multiply themselves at an uncontrollable pace
in a lake excited by its grasses.
                                   I am clay with iron sinews.

I feel: bandages
loosening. I feel
something unraveling, falling apart. I open my eyes:
the face of the screaming woman on the bridge
in Edvard Munch’s painting.
                                I am sand I am dust.

Aryeh Sivan.Credit: Dan Keinan

Translated from the Hebrew by Lisa Katz, Modern Hebrew Literature 22 (Spring/Summer 1999).

Poet Aryeh Sivan passed away last Friday at the age of 86.

In an interview shortly before Sivan was awarded the Israel Prize for literature in 2010, one of his sons — Aluf Benn, now editor in chief of Haaretz — asked him: “What makes a poem good?"

Sivan replied: "A good poem has several dimensions. You, the reader, find in it a first, second, third layer. It's not certain that that was the poet's intention. That's the work of the reader, if he's receptive to the poem.”

This poem offer the reader a multiplicity of layers of disjunction: One is the layer of disjunction between northern Europe and the Mediterranean. Another is the erotic disjunction between a man and a woman and on a third layer, there is the disjunction between the Israeli Jew and the Jew from “there” — (Sodom is Europe). And there are more layers still — among them the relationship of the Hebrew poet to Christianity and the disjunction between imaginings and reality and even a layer about layers ("of salt, like the shrouds the Egyptians used to wrap mummies").

Lisa KatzCredit: Tineke de Lange

The man in the poem talks about how he, as the “salt of the earth,” the manly sabra— admittedly “conceited” — would revive  Lot’s wife (Genesis 19:26), a frozen or stiff woman he desires (and on another level the Jewish people),  by touching the right spot, and miraculously melting the pain.

Then, after a pause for reflection afforded by the stanza break, in the coda - he too feels pain at the disappointment of hopes on all levels, erotic, national and personal: “something unraveling, falling apart. I open my eyes: / the face of the screaming woman on the bridge in Edvard Munch’s painting. / I am sand I am dust.”

In the 1950s Sivan, along with Natan Zach, Benjamin Harshav, Moshe Dor and others, formed a literary group that published the journal “Likrat,” which aimed to replace the collective voice of the Palmach generation with a more individual voice in Hebrew poetry.

“The critics say it fomented a revolution in Hebrew poetry,” Sivan told Benn. “First of all, in the transition from 'we' to 'I' at the center of the poem, and secondly, in the modes of writing, without meter and rhyme.” And yet it seems that the “I” still bore the burden of the “we” — and perhaps more painfully than ever.