Levin, Hanoch. “Lives of the Dead: Collected Poems”, (English and Multilingual Edition), translated by Atar Hadari, Art Productions, 2017.
Finally in English
Nineteen years after Hanoch Levin’s early death from bone cancer, the great Israeli playwright’s bleak, searing poetry is finally translated into English. Levin was a great Israeli playwright, an author, and a poet and above all else, he was a man who dared. He was born in born in 1943 and death was the one and only true muse, the great and bottomless well of inspiration. The cause of death was bone cancer and he was only 56-years-old. Death permeates, in some way or another, nearly every poem of this recently published collection which has been translated by British poet and playwright Atar Hadari. The volume, which received a prestigious PEN Translates award in England, is the first, and long overdue, book of Levin’s poetry to be released in English, and it is a cause for celebration.
Levin’s dramaturgical work had been formative for generations of Israelis. He was both revered and reviled for his radical left-wing politics, his iconic satire, obscenity and absurdism. He wrote 56 plays, and garnered numerous awards for them, but he only published six books of poetry, a genre, it seems, Levin reserved for his most intense, varied, and poignant thoughts about mortality. Levin’s work is the “profane, rude, unavoidably direct and modern answer to Ecclesiastes.
”Oh miserable dead, this isn’t California,
this is the dark grave and this is death!
So shall a son leave his father and mother
and man leave his wife and cleave unto his death”.
Here, Levin is giving generations of the dead a pep talk—lest they forget their predicament. The poet is playing with the well-known biblical verse, Genesis 2:24: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” But whereas Genesis optimistically points toward formation of new familial bonds—a chain of them—in Levin’s rendition, the true and final beloved, is the cessation of it all.
The volume is bilingual, and reading the original alongside Hadari’s translation, one notices that the opposite of sunny “California” is the musically resonant, dark grave. Reading this closely can make California no longer feel like California.
Despite Levin’s immense popularity, not a great deal is known about him. As Israeli scholar Freddie Rokem wrote in the introduction to The Labor of Life, a selection of Levin’s plays published in English translation in 2003: “In comparison with most of his contemporaries in literature and the arts, at least in Israel, who quite willingly expose themselves to the media, consciously creating a public persona and expressing their opinions about political and other issues, Levin fervently guarded his privacy throughout his career, giving only a few, rather angry interviews during his first steps as a writer.”
Igal Sarna’s essay, “The National Poet’s Mother,” has translated and included in abridged form in this volume. “Hanoch Levin spies on the neighborhood, I spy on Levin.” Sarna, who wrote this piece when he was just starting out as a writer, is now a renowned journalist and author. He describes his failed attempts to get through to Levin. It was worse than a failure: As Sarna put it, even “more surprising was the silence of his friends, even those he’d not seen for many years. … When I approached them, they sought his consent. Levin preferred them not to speak with me.” It was as if, in deference to the author’s desired privacy, those in his circle had taken a vow of silence.
At one point, however, Sarna found the South Tel Aviv building where Levin grew up. There, he found the poet’s mother, and something clicked: “In the abandoned buildings, used heroin syringes from the night before rolled on the floor; inside I also found Malka Levin, who spoke to me through the crack of the door. I was holding on to the door handle, she was pulling from the other side.”
Sarna says that it is “very Polish [i.e., Ashkenazi], to hide. … You care very much what other people think about you. It’s the shame. Especially when you’re poor, when you grow up with a weird mother.”
Levin’s parents immigrated to Palestine from Lodz in 1935, and Levin’s childhood was overshadowed by poverty and a keen awareness of all of his relatives who had perished in the Holocaust. On top of that, when Levin was only 13, his father died of a heart attack. The death of a father at a young age leaves one unprepared, and exposed. Poetry is a of hiding.
Levin’s first poetry collection, “Morning Prayers” (1965) which is, included in this volume, describes the life of an impoverished neighborhood and its inhabitants’ reaction to the death of one of their own. The opening poem “Sing to the Lord a New Song,” is both a satire on the well-known psalm and a literal attempt to compose a new kind of a mourning ritual, an elegy that is totally different from a kaddish. The narrator speaks directly to the dead body remembering:
… the smell of onion was wafting.
Then your wife leaned across,
then the neighbor came in a fright the way a neighbor does,
then the doctor came and certified the hour of your death
with his breath all toothpaste minty fresh.
The rain fell and fell on the synagogue.
At the first service they wondered where you went,
at the second service they already knew.
The tone is completely disaffected, detached, and almost disdainful. Levin’s attention to smell, particularly the unwanted and misplaced smells of onion and the doctor’s breath, brings home the sad smallness of the world surrounding the dead man.
This poem is the opposite of a prayer. Whereas prayer—on this occasion, kaddish—is a song of praise, this is a song of disdain. Prayer seeks connection but Levin’s poetry asserts loneliness and alienation. Prayer points to eternity, while Levin is bent on finality. Instead of piety and repentance, Levin uses humor and sarcasm. And yet, sublimity is here, too. A skeptic is entitled to a religious experience as much as a believer is.
Levin was really able to show that Israel is “a country of survivors, and it’s ugly.” Indeed, in his poetry, and in his plays, Levin depicts Israelis in less than flattering ways. Look at the character in “Morning Prayers”:
… Berta Levi’s already sitting by the window,
Her buttocks, two noble hefty weights of tender flesh
Bow to one another graciously as she walks,
now rest in their residue, the flowered cushion.
Her breasts, two curious good-fellows with swollen faces,
Rise up against the bra, belisha beacons to those who’ve
lost their way
There are no borders in Levin’s satire—women and men, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, rich and poor, pious and secular. Some feel that the reason his poetry had not been translated is because Levin never exercised good taste or political correctness.
“Hebrew is a much more compact language than English, so a real difficulty was making the much longer sets of beats in English keep moving.” Moreover, Levin sporadically and unexpectedly uses rhyme; often for emphasis of a sarcastic remark. Translation itself is a problem as Levin’s poetry
is not merely Hebrew, but Hebrew pertaining specifically to the world of Jewish ritual practice and culture. Levin’s characters are old-world and closer to the characters one finds in the works of Isaac Babel, I. B. Singer, and even Shalom Aleichem.
His heaviest poems are those written by Levin in the final years and months of his life, and addressed to his wife. He was very aware of his spreading cancer and he referenced it in brutally honest, disturbing, and heartbreaking lines. In the poems from this cycle, in death’s proximity, Levin admits to fear, disappointment, visions of his beloved with another, and goes at length into details about decomposition and yet these are love poems. The sublime enters through a strange and unexpected backdoor and even though he was a cynic and a skeptic, he felt passion and love.
The poems here are profound, disturbing, and deeply affecting. In “Morning Prayers”, he depicts the scene of the resurrection of the dead (which he clearly did not believe in).
And all the dead will wonder
How tall the trees have grown and how grey their grave
And still they’ll look and wonder at themselves
And Messiah pass among them and laugh
Handing out to each of them a mint cough drop.
I have been something of a Hanoch Levin groupie and this began when I first saw “Yaakovi and Liedenthal” and then saw new productions of “The Bathroom Queen” and “You, Me and the Next War”. I remember totally “The Great Whore of Babylon” and “Rubber Merchants” and “The Trials of Job”. I could watch them over and over. There is one poem that appears in one of Levin’s plays that I have fallen in love with “Checkmate”. Below is my attempt at translation:
My child, where did you go? My good child where are you?
A knight that is black strikes a white knight.
My father won’t return, he is never coming back
A white knight rams a black knight
There are tears in the homes and silence in the streets,
As the king is playing with the queen.
My child will never wake, he sleeps, he will not grow.
Black knight downs the white knight
My father is in the darkness and will never again see light
White knight downs a black knight
There is weeping in homes and silence in the streets
as the king is jostling with the queen.
My son who was at my breast is now in the clouds
Black knight fells a white knight
My father is in my heart but his heart has stopped
White night fells a black
There are funeral wails in homes and silence in the streets and
the king keeps playing with the queen.
My son where are you now, my dear son, where have you gone and why?
The white knight and the black knight are dead.
My father won’t return, he’s never coming back
There are no knights— black or white.
There are screeches in the rooms and silence in the streets,
on the empty chessboard there are just the living king and queen.