Poem of the Week

Once I Even Managed to Get Close to the Human Race

But I couldn't see until I stood back: Elisheva Greenbaum tells of growing up and replacing ideals with reality.

Olivier Fitoussi

Stranger Woman

Elisheva Greenbaum

Ever since I learned to tie my shoelaces,
I've been tailing the human race.
Once, I even got very close to it.
We played together. Hide and seek, tag,
bridge. All sorts of "couple" games.
We lived together in a rented apartment.
I have pictures from that time.
The trip to Jerusalem. Holding
sunset in our hands.
Those were the days.
A refrigerator was a place full of possibilities.
A child was something to give birth to.

But I had to step back
to be able to see it better.
Without realizing, I turned transparent
as a telegraph pole.
Sometimes, he passes by, the human race,
even quite close. Friday afternoons,
on the way back from the market.
Two different hands holding one basket,
tomatoes bursting with seeds.
Barely touching, sweating, there are words
I must look up in the dictionary
to understand.

Now he lives right downstairs,
the human race. Sultry murmurs
float up from the verandah.
A confusion of words. A baby crying.
I listen. I can even
smell an omelet.
And to think that once
the moon was an example
of a faraway place.

Elisheva Greenbaum
Judith Greenbaum

From “Oref Haor,” (“The Nape of Light,” Helicon , 2000). Translated from Hebrew by the poet.

In this poet’s coming of age tale, a small girl’s ability to tie her shoes enables pursuit of the human race without grownup help. She plays with it and later becomes its roommate or lover. The pastimes – hide and seek, tag, bridge, “couple games” – indicate the passage of years when self-evaluation is relative to others and ideals are conventional – sunsets, possibilities, a child.

“But then,” says the poet, “I had to step back to see better.” A telegraph pole is not transparent but it hardly blocks the view. She is transparent to herself – a narrow, dark, upright core remains but on either side the world is visible. She and the human race are “two different hands;” the dictionary is a tool for gaining understanding through words.

In stanza 3, she and the human race are not soul mates, but neighbors – and she is upstairs, with the better view. Sounds and smells of ordinary domesticity filter up. The human race is further away than the moon, and is the substance of her writing.

Elisheva Greenbaum was born in Jerusalem in 1965 to parents from the United States and died of a brutal illness at the end of 2004. She wrote poetry and plays in Hebrew and translated her own work into English.

Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that in stanza 1 the human race is “it” and but becomes “he” in stanza 2.

Greenbaum’s father, the psychologist Professor Charles Greenbaum, writes that he and his wife “understand her translation as expressing a shift from a perspective seeing the human race as a universal group (referred to as ‘it’) to one which presents a particular person as representing the human race (referred to as ‘he’). It may well have been a particular person she had in mind.

Since in Hebrew all pronouns are gendered, this would not come out explicitly. However, this shift can be expressed literally in English; in the Hebrew, the reader has to figure it out.”

However, the Hebrew reader knows something the English reader doesn’t: With miniscule changes in the vowel-pointing the poem’s title, Hazara, also refers in the theater world to the Brechtian “alienation effect” or making the familiar strange – exactly what happens here.

Greenbaum’s monodrama “Ben-Sheetreet’s Baby,” is now running at the Tmuna Theater in Tel Aviv. A memorial performance to mark the 10th anniversary of her passing will be held on the evening of January 3.