Genre: Collection (Poems)
- Coulehan, Jack
- Date of entry: Jan-28-2003
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?
During World War II, Abba Kovner was a leader of the resistance in Lithuania, a key member of the United Partisan Organization, which carried out guerilla warfare against the German Army. After the war Kovner was active in the resettlement of surviving Jews from Eastern Europe into Palestine. He later played a significant role in the Israeli War of Independence.
In Israel Kovner became a well-known writer of both poetry and prose and is identified on the dust jacket as a "beloved master of Hebrew literature." Winner of the Israeli Prize for Literature in 1970, he was also a cofounder of the Moreshet Holocaust Institute and the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. The present collection of poems was published in Israel in Hebrew in 1987, the year of Kovner’s death. This is the first English translation.
In his Foreword, Leon Wieseltier calls Kovner "one of the most valiant men in Jewish history." After recounting the poet’s many previous wars, he identifies these poems as "an account of what happened to (Kovner’s) body and to his soul during this, his final war."(xiii) The poems, which originally appeared in Hebrew as a single book-length composition, are striking in their power and simplicity. Though the poet speaks of himself in the third person, his first person presence is undeniable; his spirit shines through every line, as he evokes the experience of grave, ultimately lethal, illness in a medical environment where optimism is the name of the game and death has no dominion (officially).