Poem of the Week |

Poetry as Truth Drug and Painkilling Narcotic

Vivian Eden
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Young girl learning to write. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, 1850.
Young girl learning to write. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, 1850. Credit: Wikiart
Vivian Eden


Tal Ifergan

A picture of my father drifts from
branches of an old writing notebook.
Line after line cover
a little girl’s face.

And in the picture,
my handsome father’s hands
are behind his back.
As though he wants to embrace
and doesn’t know how.

From “Kinat Hatal” (“Lamentation”), Sifrei Iton 77, 2015. Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden

In his essay “Revealing and Concealing in Language” (1915), Hayyim Nachman Bialik, a poetic titan of pre-state Palestine, wrote that poets are “masters of the hidden and secret meaning, all their lives obsessed by the ephemeral moment which can never return.” Now you see it, now you don’t.

And about 70 years before Bialik, his “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote: “words, like Nature, half reveal / And half conceal the Soul within. // But, for the unquiet heart and brain, /A use in measured language lies;/ The sad mechanic exercise, /Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.”

Here, we have just such a moment: A picture falls out of an old notebook. This seemingly unremarkable event is complicated and enriched by the Hebrew word for what a falling leaf does (nosheret) and by the word “branches.”

How is a writer’s notebook like a deciduous tree? A writer’s notebook is a private place, where a person tries things, crossing them out, revising, doodling. In an uninhibited process, things are covered, and then they become bare. Written truth is never the same as literal truth, but it can be naked.

Did a photo of the father really did fall from the notebook? If so, the poet, in a book dedicated to the memory of her late father and with her absolute freedom to choose her words with the greatest precision, might have used the specific word “photograph” instead of simply “picture.” Why didn’t she? Possibly a tangible picture appeared – but maybe it was in words, only visible to the poet in retrospect as she tries to understand the man and his death.

Tal Ifergan. Credit: Doron Oved

The next image is “a little girl’s face,” covered by lines of writing. This too could be a “real” doodle or sketch on the page– but equally it might not be. The words covering the girl’s true face, when they were written, apparently tried to make clear or reveal a deep hurt and at the same time to dull it – writing as both truth drug and pain-killing narcotic, as Tennyson observed.

The two pictures together afford a new insight about the relationship between the daughter and her father: Perhaps because he did not know how, he did not show his love as much as she might have wanted. All of us always want more.

*Musing: Why is it important that the father is “handsome?”