In the car to my father’s funeral, my uncle who hated him told me that I really should translate this book of poems called Lives of the Dead. He’s not a man who reads poetry but had read this book and liked it, as had many people: It had gone through several editions in Israel. The following year I translated Ecclesiastes as a way of dealing with my father’s passing, and it is as sober a meditation on death as I can imagine. I then came across this book again, having avoided it despite my uncle’s suggestion. A year later, the humor of the book, and particularly the long title poem, spoke to me rather more than in the year of mourning, and the tone of delicacy, scatological cruelty, and wistful sadness attracted me. I took Ecclesiastes to be a poem trying hard to find a meaning in life, all but failing, and only finally turning to the necessity of faith in God. In Hanoch Levin’s poems, and particularly in Lives of the Dead, I found a profane, rude, unavoidably direct and modern answer to Ecclesiastes—a look at death by someone who very much did not believe in the “afterlife” but nevertheless saw and expressed all the hopes which even the most irreligious keep in the deepest, most secret closets of their heart:
What, didn’t you know that after death there is a summer camp
and God is the lifeguard?
His response to the terminal illness which led to his premature death was this book of mordant, witty, and unflinching poems on the subject. A mixture of philosophy, erotic jealousy about his surviving lover, and sheer funniness about the horrific prospect at hand, the book is unusually concentrated for a collection of poems. Most collections are composed here and there, and bring together the work of some years which may have a common theme but does not, usually, respond to one large truth bearing down on the author with the directness of a freight train. In this case one never fails to hear the whistle howling at the poet’s back.
Problems: It does rhyme, so the English in my view had to rhyme. But 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 to sustain the line unit and rhyme scheme. This is the sixth draft, and the changes were mostly to improve rhyme and eliminate syllables. Another problem was the tone, which required a slang of a particular place and a choice between America and England. I opted for England, while being aware that every English colloquialism has to balance its gain in tone against the risk of lost clarity to a potential reader. But I finally situated the poem firmly in the waves at the heart of the Atlantic, because Hebrew, among many idiosyncrasies, has a Bible-sourced tic of reiterating an action by using a verb and noun of the same root, as in “cried his cry.” In English that meant that “nappied with nappies” had to make way for the American “diapered with diapers,” for the sake of accepted usage. The tone in Hebrew weaves skillfully from low to high but is never obscure, so clarity and speed were, as in any epic, the essence of the enterprise.
Though he began as a poet, Levin made his name as a playwright, satirist, and popular lyricist: He is the most performed playwright of the Israeli stage. A comparison with Bertolt Brecht is in fact not misleading. This poem is his last comic turn and tragic aria.
I do not know if there is a heaven offering judgment, or merely a graveyard full of laughing skulls, as Levin expected. Perhaps he is in one of those places now, viewing his readers; perhaps he is laughing still, the way that the reader of this last of his works often will—laughing open mouthed like a skull, spread-jawed in horror. He was no respecter of form and gave no interviews—he wanted things to speak for themselves. So nothing much has changed, except that this particular production did not have the benefit of his quiet direction on its way to the auditorium.—AH
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This poem originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Poetry magazine