from Lives of the Dead: An Epic: Chapter One

By Hanoch Levin 1943–1999 Hanoch Levin

Translated By Atar Hadari Read the translator's notes

Shmerl sells to Berl,
and Berl buys from Getzl.
And inside of them all
like a hole inside the bagel
is death, also known as Detzl.

And the dead man lay in the cart
pale with shame and helplessness,
and diapered like an infant in his diapers
without trousers and without underpants.

And his lips taut in a twist of disgrace:
I can no longer satisfy a woman.

Completely starkers, no coat and no trousers,
just wrapped in a white sheet, like a baby wrapped in diapers,
here lies the dead man on the narrow cart
that strolls slowly down the path of dust.
And before the cart walks the cantor and sings, wearing his trousers
chewing with his dry stalk voice dry prayers,
and after the cart comes a woman, weeping, dressed in widow’s weeds,
and her face swollen and red as the face of one straining in the toilet,
and a handful of men hang around her in a murmur of trousers,
and nod their heads and honk from time to time their schnozzles.

At the lip of the hole the dead man was displayed and there was silence.
And the dead man knew and they all knew he was not a man any longer,
for his dear trousers had been stripped from him forever,
as a mark that he would never again
evince a groan of pleasure from the throat of woman
they wrapped him in the baby’s white nappy cotton.
And when they cast him in the baby’s white nappy down to the hole’s bottom
the dead man’s lips were pale with the terrible humiliation
and stretched backward in the rictus of an apologetic grin
and he had a fierce need to swallow the bile of his shame, but his mouth was all dry.

The mouth of the living is awash with spit, it has enough to melt and wash within it
pigs and fish and cakes and still have enough to spit at friends;
and the dead man’s dry mouth has not enough to silently swallow the disgrace of his death.

And the level of the dead man’s mouth is set below the living woman’s crotch
and is found in the thick of the earth on the plateau of the sewage pipes
there the deceased is joined to all the dumb host of the dead
that lie in the darkness, stretched on their backs
keeping the eternal watch on the filth and stink of the great warehouses of shit.

Rise and join up with death, set off on the great adventure,
go stink at attention, lie debased and groveling
in the great boot camp of blind obedience,
go defend in darkness the kit bags of refuse
of the woman that you left overhead,
that she lowers down to you dawn by dawn
with a little cloudy water, through the drain.

Nighttime, silence. Just the fermenting sound of bodies rotting,
like an unceasing moan, and from here and there above the bark of a toilet,
a burst of water in the bowl streams like wild mocking laughter, full of living
and Bob’s your uncle, filth goes down the chute, slides down
after it a kind of gurgle of new water in the bowl
as if it hadn’t had its fill of laughing, and adds a little chortle
in the face of the deceased who wants to swallow spit
while his mouth is dry, surrounded by shame and debris.

And the crotch of the woman gazed drily
as the dead man was lowered to stink
four yards beneath the soles of her feet
on one level with the sewage lines

and the woman’s rear in the smallest room
will be above him like a sentence for all time.

Source: Poetry (May 2009).


This poem originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

May 2009


Hanoch Levin, one of Israel's leading dramatists, was born in Tel Aviv and studied philosophy and literature at Tel Aviv University. At first he wrote poetry, but later concentrated on the theater. He became resident playwright of the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv and also worked with Habimah, Israel's national theater. Levin wrote fifty plays, thirty-four of which habe been staged. His work includes comedies, tragedies, and . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Death, Relationships, Men & Women


Poetic Terms Free Verse, Epic

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