from Lives of the Dead: An Epic: Chapter Three

By Hanoch Levin 1943–1999 Hanoch Levin

Translated By Atar Hadari Read the translator's notes

And one more desire the dead man had left
to be taken to his father’s bosom
and hide his crumbling face
and weep with his arms round the neck
of his progenitor that’s rotting.

And the laughing gold skull of his father refrained:
I too had a father and I too yearned.

Slowly, slowly the lines of the dead man’s face vanished,
the shape of his body gradually shrank,
nature carved the dead man to the style
and single mold of all the dead from way back.

And the remaining frame of his lips locked with the dust
and hid in the earth surrounding it
and the shamed smile of the man gradually dimmed
and melted in the thick of the earth.

And the dead man forgot his ignominy and forgot the Shah of Iran
and the minister of Trade and Treasury and the matchmaker Venus Katz,
and all the ends of evening newspaper became a sticky paste
and mixed with the universe’s general rubbish
and the dead man who cried as he was lowered in the hole and wept for many days
was already quiet now, faithfully devoted to the process of his death,
a dedicated student of the nature of decomposition and the kidney,
innocent and untouched by any contact with the life over his head,
a retired righteous man, silent monk,
purifying in the silence of his death,
and his brows raised a little in an expression of spiritual uplift.

And with the sinking of his life’s filth and clarification of his soul,
the dead man listened to his innards
and there was silence, complete and absolute was the silence,
and in the middle of the quiet, the heart of stillness, like a boat
on a section of congealed lake water,
he heard a faint silent keen, the keen of a little boy,
a kind of peep that was folded and cramped in the inmost part of his soul
so many years, like the first cheep crushed
in the breast of the chick hidden in the egg,
for is it not the eternal keen, that is not drawn and is not drained,
the keen of the boy to be hung upon the neck of his Dad.

For what more is left in us when we peel away—
the paper and the wife and a crust of bread?
Being held up in our father’s arms, the frightened face pressed
in between hot neck, smelling of fresh soap
and the collar of his fresh pressed shirt.

There, in that place, a spot we’ve known, a warm hollow
between the neck and armpit, a little island of tranquility.
This island is lost, but we still search in every person
for arms that will lift us up,
in every face—the glow of our father that floods
with love’s dew our tears.

All of the people, from one year old to seventy
whether alive or dead, all need Daddy.

Here’s the hooker standing on the corner at nightfall
and here’s the old man going up to her.
She’s an orphan. Though she has breasts and thighs,
and apparently something more useful, still
her eyes dart around, clearly: she has no Daddy.
And the old man, it goes without saying, he too is orphaned.
And two orphans meet, both a little scared,
they fix a price, they go in the yard,
he drops his pants and she—her dress,
and an orphan manhood rises—falls—
where are the uplifting arms of Daddy!
—and spread before it an orphan crotch and in another minute,
the great sorrow of orphanhood enfolds
a dozen (or fewer) feeble thrusts
like an orphan’s Kaddish on a morning of Tevet,
and as an orphan cop sneaks in the yard
and catches the two orphans by the neck
and leads them to the patrol car
there they sit, an enclosed trio,
three orphans in the silence of their ache,
without knowing what and where and how,
and the paddy wagon’s siren wails out the great sob:
here ride three people that lost their Daddy.

And the dead man lay on his couch, and the mold of a skeleton
was already drawn through the torn ends of his flesh,
and his face is turned on high, expectantly, and waits for his Daddy.

In your love I trust, Daddy, I know
that you will come when I call. And as I trust in death
and know he’ll come, all the more
I trust my Daddy, for who
if not my Daddy stands behind the gate of death
and in his hand a suitcase holding all my summer clothes,
swimming trunks and towel,
and in his other hand a lunch pail, and in it a buttered roll and pear
and in the breach he stands, my Dad, and waits for me and smiles:
What, didn’t you know that after death there is a summer camp
and God is the lifeguard?

And in another town, in another graveyard, old
lay the Daddy of the dead man, all skeleton
a veteran resident of the world of carrion and shame
and from his exposed skull beams a horrified grin.

For he too, the Daddy, is an orphan, he too has no Daddy,
and he too wants, why not, to hide his face in his father’s neck
and find there the consolations of his life and death.

And his father too has a Daddy, a Daddy.
And all the fathers are sons, and when you peel back their skins
and see they’re little children, and all dream of being raised up
to the soap-washed fresh neck flesh of Daddy.

O miserable dead, what will you do if you exit your graves,
climb one over another, orphan over his sire,
and form a motley chain of skeletons, a ladder of bones,
of sons and fathers whose head will disappear into the clouds?
And how will you console one another, for when the father hangs
his two hands on his father’s throat, how will he handle his son?

Who will console whom? Who lie in the bosom of whom? Many
consolation-hungry stiffs will quarrel over a bosom?
And where is the bosom? Where is the neck? Did anybody ever catch a whiff
here even once of the smell of fresh soap?

O 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.

And the dead man saw how his father betrayed him.
And his father’s skull grinned its horrified grin.
And with it grinned his father’s father’s skull, and grinned
his fathers’ fathers to the last generation.
And as the audience’s smile gleams in the dark of an auditorium
at seeing the threadbare comedy (not a smile of pleasure,
but a smile of delight at the misery of actors embarrassing themselves)
so, from the darkness of their cellar graves, shone the horrified grins
and skulls upon skulls upon skulls rolled in silent mirth
at the sight of the eternal son, his foolish hope to be taken to his father’s bosom,
and his bitter cry in the hole, this is the eternal cry, that rolls endlessly
gladdens the heart, each in his turn, of the audience of hole residents.
With death the bonds of family are loosed
and son to his father’s a dog
and on Passover night each one by one
will lick his own bones alone.

Our father, who us did love,
his mouth is gaped to heaven: ruff, ruff!

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, Relationships, Family & Ancestors, Religion, God & the Divine

POET’S REGION Israel

Poetic Terms Free Verse, Epic

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