Monday, March 02, 2009

Belated Responses to Gaza - 2

Wieseltier again. This is, oddly enough for something posted in a piece entitled 'Responses to Gaza', a patriotic poem by an Israeli. It's also one of the very few patriotic poems I've ever found genuinely moving.

Garbage Dump, 2000

I didn't like your faces from the start.
The words you spoke sounded phony.
Your plans were tiresome.
Even your women dreamed about something else.
But I carried on next to you day after day.
I simply had nowhere else to go.

Your futures looked doubtful to me.
Your fondness for your mistakes and your lies made me sick.
Your blindness wasn't even innocent.
Some appendage sprouted in you, bequeathed from a lower order of mammals.
But I kept finding myself in your company.
I was an orphan, completely broke.

I saw you polluting everything around you without restraint.
The most simple solutions you took as castles in the air.
Only desolation seemed simple and real enough to you.
Your children learned to growl in helpless agreement.
But I didn't turn my back on your company.
Somehow I learned to love and to hope.

My love and my hope had nothing to feed on.
Shadowy corners in the junkyard were all heat and rust.
Even the nights were thick and hazy.
Sated, sleepy faces displayed a vacuous denial of mortality.
But I made up my mind long ago this is where I'll end.
My body and soul have ripened as fruit of this dump.

This is a meditation that unfolds in four symmetrically conceived verses. In each of the verses, four lines announce a crippling distaste for one's inheritance, a distance from it that allows the coldest of dissections, delivered in brief, contemptuous phrases. 'I didn't like your faces from the start.' 'Your blindness wasn't even innocent.' 'Your children learned to growl in helpless agreement.' 'My love and hope had nothing to feed on.' This, for Wieseltier, is what his national inheritance can be reduced to - this is what 'belonging' really means, this is what he belongs to.

This could, then, have been an angry poem of disavowal, in the vein of a Brodsky or an Akhmatova denouncing the crimes of their 'socialist fatherland', or in the vein of Ginsberg's wonderful lines, 'Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb', delivered to Cold War America. Such renunciations - of party, of faith, of nation, of the bonds one is made to wear and made to feel proud of wearing, by all the smoke-screens and lies woven around us - are what gives much political poetry its bitterness, its prophetic, Cassandra-like force that tears away illusion and posturing, that drives it to, in Seamus Heaney's words, 'prophesy, give scandal, cast the stone.'

Yet Wieseltier's poem is not an act of disavowal, it is an act of belonging. The concluding couplets of each verse affirm that belonging, that attachment which has nothing at all to do with pride or with celebration or even with hope. 'I simply had nowhere else to go.' 'I was an orphan, completely broke.' 'But I didn't turn my back on your company.' 'My body and soul have ripened as fruit of this dump.' There is a helplessness to belonging, because belonging is what we are 'thrown' into, what every act of disavowal conjures up despite itself.

These lines nail, with an honesty that is stark, bare and bleak, the impossibility of belonging in the full sense, if one refuses to suture the wounds of history and the present by masking the truth, by denying to ourselves what it is that we belong to. Our 'belonging' entails necessary complicity with 'some appendage....bequeathed from a lower order of mammals' - the angriest indictment imaginable of military-patriotic fervour, of the drum-rolls of war and national sacrifice, of the sheer, amoral animality of the stories we tell to buttress this 'belonging'. And while Wieseltier writes these lines as an Israeli, with all the poignancy that this particular denunciation/affirmation of national belonging involves, I read the poem as an Indian, and would have read it as an American had I been one, or as a Palestinian had I been one. No form of national belonging is innocent of these charges, no form of national belonging has been unwilling to dip its hands in gratuitously shed blood.

And yet, knowing all this, one belongs. One builds answers, ways out of the tragedy, 'castles in the air', and one continues, all so often, to belong, with all the self-division and the pain that this creates. When Wieseltier writes that he 'was an orphan, completely broke', this is plain truth. He and his mother and sisters (his father had been killed serving in the Soviet Army) were among hundreds of thousands who made the hungry, cold trek from Moscow when the city was evacuated in 1941, the year of his birth. He ended up in Israel in 1949, an eight-year old who had already travelled, as a deportee, through Poland, Germany and France. Quite literally, he had 'nowhere else to go.' Israel was thrust upon him, over the years, as an experience of national chauvinism, paranoia and hypocrisy that he turned his back on with disgust, but at the same time he developed attachments to the land, the air, the trees, the cities and the people in ways that could not be reduced to the nationalism he was urged to feel by his society and its state. We all do, and this, really, is all that national 'belonging' can mean if we're honest, in its simplicity and its profundity. I have never read an affirmation of country, of belonging, of identity that has moved me as much as the concluding line of 'Garbage Dump, 2000': My body and soul have ripened as fruit of this dump. For most Zionists, this would be the statement of a 'self-hating Jew', the standard appellation for Jews who choose to separate their need for a home, for security, community, belonging, from the state of Israel as it exists today, for Jews whose Jewishness refuses to be bound by 'loyalty to Israel'. Wieseltier is writing from within Israel, but his 'patriotism' has nothing to do with notions of loyalty, or faith, or sacrifice. He can affirm his belonging while denouncing all that he belongs to, without looking for imaginary succour from Zionist or utopian fantasies.

But there is more than helplessness and a surrender to belonging in the kind of attachment that Wieseltier is bound by. There is something beautiful that is usually hidden by the collectively authorized forms of 'belonging', an experience that is personal, irreducible and authentic in the only true sense of the word. For at rare moments of freedom, belonging can break the bounds of duty and break into the realms of choice. In one of his most exquisite poems, Wieseltier plucks out a sense of belonging, of homeland, that transcends nation and myth, from a memory of his childhood in the small town of Netanya. As his translator Shirley Kaufman writes, this takes the form of 'a bittersweet nostalgia for his preteen years, uncorrupted by symbols of nationalistic fervour.' Here, finally, is a form of belonging that one needn't be ashamed of.

Far From The Flag Parade

It was sweet, dark and tangy
under the heavy branches
of the citrus trees bent
around Ein-Hatkehelt and Avikhail.
I called it homeland.
Shade streaming from the trees,
the heavy heads of the Shamutti oranges
scattered around me,
a glowing, saturated yours-for-the-taking,
far from the flag parade,
I called it homeland.
That was a long time ago. A kind of piratical act
of a boy who found
something he wasn't looking for.

'Homelands' envelop us all in embraces that are suffocating and unwanted. Sometimes, though, a truer sense of home can be produced by a 'piratical act' of the imagination, which lays claim to an experience that cannot be contained in ritual genuflections to the motherland, an experience which is a 'glowing, saturated yours-for-the-taking', bereft of all the symbolisms our senses of belonging are colonized by, an experience that is always, always, far from the flag parade.

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