Poem of the Week

Sh'ma Palestine, You Look Oddly Like New York

From New York, Michael Heller invokes sacred and secular texts to ask Israel and Palestine, “Why avenge?”

Palestine

Michael Heller

I.

Snow glides down in the west Forties.
Like a child, I could lick the snowflakes
from my wrists. In storms,
bums will nibble at the wood of tenement doorways.
The weather precipitates dreams, fantasies, I too
have my dreams of the snow's purity,
of its perfecting worlds, so little like my own.
Could I be a gentleman of this snow, my calling card
one evanescent flake to place upon a blemish?

Frankly, I'm delighted with a new scientific proof:
at any moment at least two places on the globe
must experience similar weather. Hence my
Palestine and hence my joy. Baudelaire
watched the Negress in the street stomp her feet
and imagine date palms. I don't want the territory,
just the intensity of a visit. Sh'ma Yisrael, only
the symbol world holds you and me or I and Thou.
Sh'ma Palestine, aren't you always where snow falls.

Jane Augustine

II.

My Palestine, which means I love one woman,
so why not two? Which means I love that distant sky
and the lovely irritants of my inner eye. My tears
for what in life is missed. The Red Sea of my philosophy
will irrigate with salt these barren lands.
Does snow fall there too?

III.

Always somewhere else, and always held by someone else . . .
Sweet figs, sweet thighs to Suez or Port Said.
But when snow falls one's place is yet another place.

IV.

In that salty biblical sweetness, why avenge?
Grief is vectored north, east, west, the Wailing Wall.
Why avenge? Terror has cast its rigid mask,
and with fraternal semblance, transformed all
into sisters and brothers. Why avenge?
Only the dead wear human faces.

V.

Yea, though I am not lifted out of sorrow,
yea, though the opus of self regard endoweth me
for nearly nothing, I have not forgotten snow. I
have no more forgotten snow than other poets forget
time or blackbirds. I have, with love, put the snow aside,
I have let the snow melt so that I may envision Judea
as a stately gentile lady, a crusader, a crusade.

VI.

I am so far away,
yet for Americans
distances are musical.
So I am near. I am with snow
which softens the city in which I live.
I am in the Forties and the snow glides down
and fills all the niches that lie between
the living and the dead.

From “This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010,” (Nightboat Books, 2012).

Hear O Israel, hear O Palestine – but “Palestine” is a word largely absent from the current Israeli election campaign. The discourse tends to be more prudish about it than about sex and money. Why? As German Romantic poet Friedrich Schlegal (1772-1829) observed: “Prudishness is pretense of innocence without innocence.”

Neither prudish nor sanctimonious, this poem combines the erotic and the political, treating sacred texts with irreverence so profound that it is reverent. In an email, Michael Heller elucidates: “Written during the early days of the First Intifada, a period of shocking violence, tit-for-tat revenge and repression. A poet searching for possibilities, ways of seeing or feeling that may arrest ones thinking or penetrate through hardened attitudes.

"The ‘symbol world’ of the poem embraces difference, the promise of love not only of individuals, but of peoples, of a land which itself was originally built on foundations of love, justice and even inclusiveness. The snow falling softens, transforms, covering and modifying harsh outlines and sharp edges, blanketing the blemish of horror and bloodshed, making it possible to ask three times ‘why avenge?’ The hope lies in compelling imagery to question so-called ongoing ‘realities,’ not as a matter of force but as an appeal.”

Born in 1937, Heller has published over twenty volumes of poetry, essays, memoir and fiction.

*Glosses: The “west Forties” include Manhattan streets where Jews have made major contributions to America – the Theater District, the Diamond District and part of the Garment District.

Baudelaire’s Negress is from “The Swan” (1861), which is set in Paris: “I think of the negress, wasted and consumptive, / Trudging through muddy streets, seeking with a fixed gaze / The absent coco-palms of splendid Africa / Behind the immense wall of mist “(Translated from French by William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954.)

Stanza V references Psalm 23 and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (also a snow poem) by Modernist poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955).

The closing lines echo the ending of James Joyce’s “The Dead” from “The Dubliners” (1914): “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

*Musing: What do the references from various times and places add to the possibility of mutual understanding between Israeli Jews and Palestinians?

*Bonus: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”