Abba Kovner

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Kovner, Abba

Last Updated: Jan-28-2003
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)


Abba Kovner wrote these poems during and after his hospitalization at Sloan Kettering for throat cancer. His exile into the world of illness begins as he enters the hospital. "He fell asleep under strange skies" (p. 7) and in the hospital "the silence astounds on all / its many floors."(p. 11) [Throughout the book, Kovner refers to himself in the 3rd person.] He tries to pray: "Is there a prayer for one who prays like him / seething . . . " (p. 15) He decries "the infuriating confidence of the doctors." (p. 21) He celebrates the beauty and magnificence of New York. But then the bad news arrives: "When they told him they were going to cut away his vocal cords / entirely it was merely / a confirmation of what he already knew."(p. 31)

To the brisk, young hospital staff, he is just another patient, nothing but an "ancient shard”: "They could not imagine that this was a man / who had fought the world."(p. 36) Only Norma, the Puerto Rican night nurse, connects with him at a different, more human level. "He blushes / when Norma says: What a lovely / head of hair you have, sir!" (p. 88) As he prepares for the laryngectomy, images from the past invade his consciousness--Christmas Eve, 1941; the Vilna ghetto, where "the lice / got under your skin" (p. 68); and "a shoemaker, his name forgotten" (p. 74). The Holy Guests--the souls of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David--also visit the sick room.

After the surgery, the conspiracy of optimism brings him along, carries him forward: "What a healthy recovery, / they said. And patted him on the shoulder / with admiration: You’re doing fine. Wow!" (p. 85) But this is at best a voiceless recovery: "From the wreckage of his voice / there arose a bubble / a tiny bubble . . . " (p. 101) Eventually, the patient leaves the hospital, leaves New York, and arrives home: "Fearful from the moment of arrival: he / watches the landing that cannot / be avoided, into / the arms / of people who love him . . . " (p. 111) He settles into a routine, lives his life as if there is nothing new, but ends at "An Ending, Unfinished" (p. 126), back at Sloan Kettering. "Where now? He asked himself . . . " What next?

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