By Alyssa A. Lappen
ForPoetry.com | February 2003
Sloan Kettering first appeared in Hebrew in 1987 as a single poema, an extended verse on Abba Kovner’s terminal struggle against throat cancer. He died of it in Israel in 1987. But the poet’s other struggle bleeds through the skin of this work. This pentimento effect renders these 61 poems subtle, bold, and classic.
Throughout its history, Vilna’s rich cultural life made it known to Jewish residents as the Jerusalem of Lithuania. In June 1941, the city fell to the Nazis. Kovner hid in a nearby convent.
That fall, few believed the muffled rumors of Nazi horrors. But Abba Kovner, who had already suffered cruelly, was inclined to listen. In December 1941 he returned at great risk to learn from a 17-year-old girl of mass murders at Ponar and her survival beneath naked corpses in an open pit. As perhaps only a visionary leader could, he understood that this presaged Nazi extermination plans for the Jewish people of Europe. He knew their only hope for survival was to fight. Thus he led the Jewish partisans in Lithuania’s forests, along with his future wife Vitka Kempner and their friend Ruzka Korczak.
After the war, Kovner constructed an extensive Jewish underground to lead refugees from a criminally indifferent Europe into pre-Israel Palestine. Tens of thousands skirted Britain’s draconian immigration rules, which illegally denied entry into the Jewish National Homeland to all but a handful of Jews. Arrested by the British in December 1945, Kovner was imprisoned in Cairo and Jerusalem on unspecified charges until 1946.
The UNâ€™s November 1947 partition of Palestine ushered Kovner into Givati Brigade leadership to ensure the safety of Jewish Palestinians, whom the Arabs had begun to brutally attack. That year, he nevertheless also found time to write and publish his first book of Hebrew poems. Kovner’s voice reverberated with the enormous events that had shaped it in While There is Still Night, (and 21 books of Hebrew poems that followed). Forty years later, he lost his voice to cancer.
Sloan Kettering admirably avoids self-pity or sturm ung drang. Looking at his sons’ photos, Kovner asks, “in their presence/ may one cry?” He reflects his loss only with understated irony. “We had the grandchildren for Hanukkah. I didn’t/ sing “Maoz Tsur” with them, you know why…” Several of his
senses vanished after the operation,
but I’ll tell you about that and about
other things some other time,
if there is one.
There will not be
another conversation. Just as this one is no more
than the invention of a throat in ruins.
Kovner notes his loss with modesty. His “burden of molten/ rocks” is to “stay in the archives/ it is not for the operating table.” One stanza of a poem instructing his heirs consists of the first two words of the “mourners’ Kaddish — “Yitgadal veyitkadashï [magnified and sanctified].” The next notes the greater suffering of “others”
The house of his father
and his mother
by herself: in front of her Sabbath
Then, he remembers God, reciting the third and fourth words of the Kaddish–“shemei rabba” [is the Name].
In his struggle against disease, Kovner relives his fight in Lithuania’s forests for the survival of the Europe’s Jewish people. He shudders here, like he did then, “challenged to stand up for his right/ to live.” Were he alive, Kovner would perhaps agree that the poems also reflect the current war against Israel, in which most of the world again stands ideologically pitted against the Jewish people, again asking how the vast majority can be wrong.
Kovner knows the answer, presciently warning, “The worst of all comes back.” He asks, “Will we ever/ get out of this terrible forest?”
In Sloan Kettering’s silence echoes the great silence 65 years ago, when a Jewish prisoner was
cut off from his supervisor
finds himself running
from room to room
with no idea where to turn.
One encounters again “a pathless wilderness/ between yellow arrows/ and blue signs.” Reflecting his furtive life in Nazi-occupied Vilna, the New York cancer center is “a trans-life corridor.”
The fingers of a black nurse taking his pulse, mirror “the velvet pad where Mother/ kept her needles.” Impossible circumstances forced Kovner to abandon her to save others. His mind and heart, however, never left her.
At the end of every night I sit
and tell her about fears, imprisonment, an unclosed
account, sometimes about
the grandchildren. She should have a little joy
He recalls his friend Itzik Wittenburg, betrayed to the Nazis on July 16, 1943, who went along in the hope that doing so would save others. The next day, he was found dead in his cell, having swallowed prussic acid
The gate is still open. The wicket
and the sound of his footsteps on the cats’ heads
a nation holding its breath.
For 43 years “he has been turning in his bed/ his weeping unrecorded.”
Kovner’s metaphors also reverberate with the life that the cancer patients struggle to keep, against hope and time. In a sense, they capture it too, for in this Eddie Levenston translation (like poems translated in A Canopy in the Desert and My Little Sister), these are larger than life. Kovner describes a Thai man lying beyond a screen, “from a country of free people/
once” whose cities appear wretched to “those who live on, in solitude, in their dead world.” His roommate’s face looks like “Lost parchment/ in the heart of the desert.”
Kovner understandably has no more “trust in the mercy of heaven,” recalling “the day he lost patience waiting/ for the echo of his cry… to come back from empty space.” Yet like all his work, these poems invoke Jewish prayers, themes and biblical proportions, some (though not all) detailed in notes at the book’s end.
Readers may recognize the rams and young sheep of Psalm 114 in Kovner’s
mountains of Palmyra,
when they set up the most advanced of radio-
telescopes, the planners rejoiced
like young goats.
Though scientists may “scan/ the uttermost secrets/ of the universe”, its “uttermost ends flee and escape/… beyond space.” This is Kovner’s Jordan that fled backward. He asks,
isn’t that how cancer sits,
lurking in his vocal cords
hiding from the eyes of the doctor
concealed from the self-assured rays
of the CT?
An abyss fine as a pinhead
with mysterious patience
like the galaxies of emptiness
beyond the black holes
left in space
like a fateful seal
with no dawn–
These poems come as close as any I have read to capturing absolute truth–that strangely elusive engine, invisible to most people most of the time, which poets spend their lives seeking to record. At the core rests Abba Kovner’s muted and simple humility. He writes so delicately of massacre and genocide–terms lately bloodied by their false invocation and overuse–that even for those readers who might be unaware of his history, Abba Kovner’s poems will ring true–pristine, awesome and beyond reproach.
This review appeared in ForPoetry.com in February 2003.
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