from Lives of the Dead: An Epic: Chapter Two

By Hanoch Levin 1943–1999 Hanoch Levin

Translated By Atar Hadari Read the translator's notes

And the man said, what has the dead man left
if not to be philosophical,
I’ve plenty of time here at my disposal
to solve the deep meaning of it all.

The man peeked in himself and knew
in this life there is no riddle.

In the darkness of a sealed hole, in the small sad world of his flesh’s dispersal
the dead man manages his miserable dead existence.
And as will happen to a man asleep with his mouth open who dreams a dream
so a friendly wise guy stops all of a sudden overhead and drops his pants to take a leak
in his mouth for a lark
and the sleeping man leaps up in pained surprise
and shakes his head and spits and wipes the ordure from his mouth
and for a moment the human world is lit before him with a burning glow that nauseates
thus the mud is stuffed and the water drawn to fill
the hollow in the open mouth of the dead man
and the dead man does not jump and does not spit and does not protest,
and only the pained surprise on his face does not fade.

And the dead man got sick with sorrow and his flesh wasted away
and his pale lips ate back from the rim of his mouth, and his teeth bared a foolish grin
and for all he tried to shut his grin, that smile of the embarrassed dead, apologetic,
to swathe his face in a severe frown of wrath as befits one in pain,
the more his teeth unveiled, and the grin broadened, and stretched from ear to ear
and became the twisted crude laugh of a good for nothing.

All the dead lie flat, laughing crudely toward heaven
as if they saw over them hope wink
like a troupe of ugly women chortling at a disco
at the bad joke of a fat man without a penny, while in their hearts there’s bitterness.

And the dead man takes to heart the fact that he will not soon rise from this hole
and a long time more he’ll pass in tortuous lying on his back without a stir
so he says, how shall a man spend his death, what remains
if not to ponder, study, and resolve the riddle of his days.

For the lives of the dead are good and fit to think thoughts, he’s solitary
a confirmed bachelor for the rest of his days, children and milkmen don’t bother him,
his organ doesn’t jump and his heart does not beat,
and his brain is not flooded with the poisoned blood of lust
and he’s not worried about his health, he’s not conflicted
about the puzzle of what’s preferable, gymnastics or swimming,
and he bears a certain resemblance to a poet sitting at the foot of a mountain,
staring at the sky revealed between the tops of the trees
and drawing analogies to the mountain and casting them in rhyme schemes
till suddenly the mountain falls on him and buries him beneath
and he continues lying in the poet’s swoon and keeps musing on the mountain
only this time with no analogies and no rhyme scheme.

Then the dead man lights the dim lantern of his memory, that tends to gutter
and illumines the dark ends of his soul, that are covered in death’s cold mosses,
to rummage after the secret of his life, its joy, sorrow and meaning.
But as the man gnaws through his soul, his soul is full of magazines,
in all the basement of his soul roll only tatters of magazines
and piles and piles of newspapers fill even the hidden chambers of his heart that are unknown.

How the man’s soul longs for an evening paper,
his daily bread at noon while life he lived,
—oh the juicy headlines, wafting smells of meat and spices,
and oh the little typeface sweet and crisp, melting in your mouth!
And at noon he grasped the evening paper,
and his hand brushed it even at nighttime,
and even the next day he fondled it a bit,
like the mechanic fondling of an old lover—
so newspapers filled him till there was not room for anything else.

Even at noon on the day of his death, while still he lived in sweat,
the man read as he sat to his repast, lots of news items
about what was happening in Iran
and the family of the Shah of Iran
and about the American reaction
and about the strange dealings between
the ministers of Trade and Treasury in our fair land.
These were the last things his soul pondered
the man who lived at noon on the day of his death.
He didn’t understand how the Shah of Iran
got to where he got to,
and in this confusion over the Shah of Iran
death jumped on him suddenly in all its rage.

And when the man set to deciphering his life’s meaning,
he saw the Shah of Iran peep at him from his soul’s cellars
(he and his wife and his three children had applied there for asylum)
and the minister of Trade and Treasury and noted matchmaker Venus Katz,
and many more Presidents and ministers and generals and members of parliament
and pimps and car thieves and television presenters and football players,
they and their wives and their kids in a great milling multitude
with all the ordure accompanying them from the depths of the newspapers,
and they’re squealing and parading in the cellars of the soul of the dead man
and eating and moving their bowels and making a mess, they spit and suppurate
and the ceiling of the dead man’s soul is begrimed,
smeared with the vapor of these people and their sweat,
that rises in a stink from the prattle of their mouths and breath of their noses,
and from their armpits and holes in their loins and goop between their toenails
and the floor of the dead man’s soul is rank
with the spat out shells and crumbs and empty sweet wrappers of men
and piss of children trailing after them with noses running.

Then the man knew that he’d been cheated by the world,
and that he’d no foundation and data from which to decipher life’s meaning
and that his soul was shaped like an army crapper
where there’s an endless shortage of tissue
and so many torn ends of evening newspaper
roll there and every tear of newspaper
contains a tail end of crumpled news or squished story
and is wiped in the middle with a good wipe and rolls on the earth to where it will.

The Shah of Iran laughed, and his children laughed in turn
and the minister of Trade and Treasury laughed (one by one),
and Venus Katz laughed, and she’s already pairing up a laughing man with a woman busting a gut,
and around them a multitude laughs and cheers and celebrates.

And the dead man cried a desperate cry for his base life that was lost,
and no one heard the dead man’s awful moan
for it was choked in the hollow of his mouth that was stuffed with earth.

And not a sound was heard at the graveside, and there was silence
except for a little simmering, a whispering hiss,
like the sound of a silent fart,
like the sound of a flute that plays so quiet,
till all that’s heard is the flautist’s breath
which is the voice of the body that’s sadly rotting
and makes such a sad romantic noise.

And the dead man was shown as an empty vessel
and the riddle of his base life
was a foot pad for the soles of the shoes
of the relations of the Shah of Iran.

And his lips lap with an obsequious grin
the exchange rate of the dollar and price of kerosene.

Source: Poetry (May 2009).

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

May 2009

Biography

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, Arts & Sciences, Philosophy

POET’S REGION Israel

Poetic Terms Free Verse, Epic

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