from Lives of the Dead: An Epic: Chapter Four

By Hanoch Levin 1943–1999 Hanoch Levin

Translated By Atar Hadari Read the translator's notes

And the dead man was sick with sorrow
and his flesh wasted away
and his pale lips ate back from his mouth
and his teeth were bared in a base grin.

And the man tore from his face the grin
and there underneath it rose a chortling.
With the flesh gone the heart’s desire dried.
Life, dreams are of flesh. Now
flesh was gone. Who’s next in line? The bone.

Without tears and sorrow and without waving a hanky
bones took their leave of the dead man, from the one body
and left, each bone on its solitary journey.
As cries lose touch with the crier’s mouth,
lose touch with the pain that gave them birth,
and set sail in the air, playful gusts of sound,
so the bones quit the body of the dead man
to roll an independent roll through the ground.

And the dead man continually shrank, and continually shriveled,
bit by bit of him was lost.
The leg detached from the body and went its way
and became a separate entity.
The hands left one another and became estranged,
what are you to me, we were sisters,
we clapped together, now we’re grown old,
two gray spinsters, hard bitten,
falling apart is something we can manage to do alone.

Indeed, the mesh of bone is tough, you will not melt it
with longings and memories; another world, hard and strange
hides beneath our flesh; bone does not love
does not remember, not women
and not the light of the sun, with a rubbing sound
like the sound of porcelain scratching,
it crumbles and with the knock of breaking bones
the living form recedes and is forgotten.

Goodbye legs, goodbye hands, goodbye hip sockets and spare ribs,
goodbye spine and collar bone, goodbye all of you
we knew together a kind of rickety ensemble good for taking pains
that bore on it with a sigh a sackful of hanks of meat
for Christmas; Christmas is past, the meat consumed
it’s time to part even from the bone that bears,
so now is our parting season, the tree’s leaves
fall in autumn, so our body loses its leaves.

And of the dead man just a little ball of skull is left,
and in it four holes packed and bunged with earth
and since the flesh of lips is all eaten and his teeth bared to the end,
the shameful smile of the dead man is lost and he’s mixed with the earth,
and from between bared jaws, as from a broken urn, a last grin blossoms
for is it not a horrified grin, in the skull of death.

The dead man lay in his grave’s darkness and smiled his horrified grin
that all his forefathers grinned at him (and he joined in
watching the crowd of the dead, and waits expectantly
for the funny spectacle of his son’s death, his fall into the grave
and his ridiculous desire to be taken to his father’s bosom),
and they all lay, a field strewn with skulls,
each man a skull deaf and dumb
fastened into the earth and gazing up into the night sky.

And opposite the night sky checkered with stars beaming—
winking at the magnificence of the universe and its secret,
there is a firmament below, rolling with rollicking skulls—
winking at the horrors of death and its terrors.

And firmament looks at firmament, as in a funhouse mirror.
And a man all bent, that goes home alone at night,
seeking a fitting mirror to the burden of his life,
won’t raise his head on high and won’t wonder at the universe’s mysteries
only he’ll gaze below, for there the sky suits him
and it has no secret, only a piercing pain
and it has no riddle, only a laughable solution,
and there is no dome of blue, only a peel of mockery
where score upon score of horrified grins
shine gleaming from the lower firmament,
like stains of fat from a butcher’s filthy apron.

Indeed, it seems shame has no end,
as if death put paid to everything
and only left the insult that wriggles.
And as it grows darker, and there was a dark there
inside of darkness, and as the dead man dies further
and gets lesser, fainter, and crumbles
so the shame magnifies.

And as one who shuts his eyes and squints in the darkness with great effort
suddenly sees colorful stains of light,
so, in the darkness of his adopted death, the dead man sees
the piercing shards of laughter, its cutting leaps,
colorful mockery, unexpected, sharp, a startling panoply of shades—
so hurtful, that there is nothing like it in the embraces of joy
and all the wreath of these colors was not created
except to decorate the pain of our shame.

And at the end of many years, when even the skull is fallen away
and become flakes of dust, the wind
with a whistle of contempt will cast them out
to every part, and still will be borne with them the sound
of the cry of the dead man,
a moan so great as to never pass:
Hey, you up there, I was here too!

Home goes the tired ass,
the lights go out slow,
whoever cried out in his sleep
in his cradle of earth sank, mute.

With his ass and cart Messiah crawls
and cries out: “Any old iron! Any old shoes!”

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

POET’S REGION Israel

Poetic Terms Free Verse, Epic

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