More translations by Karen Alkalay-Gut
Ben Zion Tomer
Translated from the Hebrew by Karen Alkalay-Gut
Letter from the Land of the Dead
And all the earth is to me a gallows.
Haim Nachman Bialik
In vain were you terrified. I admit: you were right.
Almost always did I look back
at the living, betraying the dead,
and betrayed the living with the dead.
As if everything here was a tiny leaf in the wind
and only there in my ruins a shelter for the head.
Yes, possessed by a dybbuk I looked back.
And even when I didn't, or escaped
from a magnet, I was sucked into
but not as you feared:
I wasn't a pillar of salt.
I am well. Fine. Perfectly all right.
Really. If it is all right to feel all right
in the land of the dead.
In a plane, enveloped in a shawl of clouds, I prayed:
If only everything beneath me could be covered in lime,
as in the Middle Ages,
in cities cursed with cholera and plague.
And now we land, and the door of the plane opens
and a distant aroma— almost forgotten and now right before you—
a sea of lilac,
lilac in white
and lilac the shade of lilac.
Of all the aromas,
precisely that one—
invaded my mouth,
all of me
the entire head for the smell of lilac:
blossoming here and now—a knife in my eyes—
and no lilac in lime can blossom.
And how lovely it is here. Terribly nice.
If it is nice to say lovely
in such an awful place.
And what quiet, an island forgotten by the heart,
like all the cries:
a green cathedral
of quiet, empty of man and God.
At last they are together, crushed finely
inside the dome of dust,
with Esther and Father, and my grandmothers
with and with and with.
Names like the sand on the beach,
names of affection and nicknames,
that if lifted on the shoulders of the other,
would become a ladder with its head in the skies,
on which no angel of God descended to see
as now he does not descend to hear
Because I do not know where their dust was scattered,
all the world is a graveyard to me.
Last night, at the inn, a shout's cry away,
between a sip and a crossing,
when the white-mustached one in the brown of his foul beer
and his eyes rolling as if they'd struck a dead man
or a shade, an old farmer told me:
on this dome a quorum of wolves gather
and gaze at the moon in silence.
Like me now, in the same moldy inn,
opposite the Jerusalemite who comes here,
twice a year,
no, not to preach to the dead,
or to mourn.
They are so lonely, said the man,
whose doors are open summer and winter
to shades; if they leave too,
who will dine with him in the evening?
And added: that between the memorial candles
that he lights here and at home,
a candle in memory of God was not missing,
and added: if, despite all, He survived,
He too has lost His soul.
Now, even the inn is spinning,
wobbling like a boat from the beer, wine, and vodka
and clattering heels on a squeaking wooden floor
to the rhythm Ach! and hai-hai! and Ha! and Ho Ho!
of thick-waisted country girls,
who seem to have invaded the inn straight from the canvasses of Breughel
with the sounds of fire and nakedness that race the blood.
the night is late and I conclude.
On the phone you asked when I'd be back.
Soon, my love, soon.
But there are places from which one returns
and from which one never leaves.