Poem of the Week / Does He or Doesn’t He Know?

T. Carmi winks at faux naivete.

Wiki Commons

The Romantic’s Monologue

T. Carmi

Everyone knows something I don’t know.

They know that in the heart of the full moon
nests the scarlet lackworm.
.
They know something about linkage,
betterment tax and overdrafts.

They know that even angels’ feet
blacken snow.

T. Carmi
Lilach Peled-Charny

They know that those who walk in the dark
walk in the dark,

that the same mouth that praised will curse
and say:

Everyone knows something I don’t know.

Translation from Hebrew by Vivian Eden, by permission of Lilach Peled-Charny, from “Monologues and Other Poems” (Shirim Min Ha-Azuva), Dvir, 1988, of which the motto is:

The Poet’s Monologue

Poor guy, the Angel of Death,
he doesn’t know how to play with words,
to live it up.

This poet, however, does know how to play with words – which in some sense is a definition of writing poetry. With a wink, “The Romantic’s Monologue” is both serious and playful, instantly and consistently subverting the premise of the opening and closing statement: “Everyone knows something I don’t know.”

In the first couplet, the “romantic,” simply by stating it, shows he does indeed know that loss is inherent in what looks to be roundly perfect; this is cyclical like the phases of the moon. Similarly, in the second couplet, he knows that money and its prosaic complications and hassles are important. In the third, he knows that nothing in this world is totally pure and holy.

In the next couplet the romantic reveals his ploy explicitly in the tautological observation: “They know that those who walk in the dark / walk in the dark. The doubled darkness brings the readers’ mind back to the waning of the moon in the first couplet and the angel’s feet that blacken in the third, thereby casting shadows from all directions onto the economic issues in the second.

The last couplet wraps it all up in the duality of clean praise and dark curses in human language, cycling back to the opening statement that by now is transparently ironic. The reader is left to draw conclusions about the moral implications of pretending not to know.

T. Carmi (the pen-name of Carmi Charny) also owns up to the device of truth in lying elsewhere, for example in his “Monologue to a Child of Old Age": “You aren’t talking yet / and I am already lying to you.”

Carmi was born in New York in 1925 into a Hebrew-speaking family and accompanied a boatload of Jewish refugee children from France to Palestine in 1947. He published 13 volumes of poetry in Hebrew translations of poetry and drama from English and French.

T. Carmi met the Angel of Death on November 20, 1994, in Jerusalem after a battle with cancer. His “Selected Poems 1951-1994” (Dvir Publishing House) was published shortly after his death., and hisPenguin Book of Hebrew Verse” (1981, reissued 1997 and 2006) remains a standard anthology to this day.

*Musing: Who is “everyone?”

*Bonus: To mark 20 years since his passing on November 20, 1994, a celebration of Carmi’s work will be held at Beit Bialik in Tel Aviv on December 4.