Prose from Poetry Magazine

Jerusalem

Revealing what had been concealed.
Introduction

During the years when walking was impossible, especially in this car-crowded city of hills and sprawl, when arthritic pain nailed me to my desk chair, the only way to feel that freshness was to walk through others’ lines and times, against the grain of my language. That was the pleasure of translation—of moving and being moved across a landscape into the foreign, and taking on form and sense as they shuttled between the eyes and ears and lips and tongue. Looking down the alleys of assonance, and into the crannies of consonance. There’s a glittering weed—or was that planted?—in any case, it’s shining. Let me bring that back into an English weave. There’s a car bumper holding the sky. Now a breeze shifts over a knoll, rushing through a scrim of jasmine. Is that literature or is it life? How can I capture—no, create—no, capture—the pitch of that coolness and scent?

Walking is a way of remaining in place, or in a place, of leaving oneself to return to oneself, of upping the odds that surprise might flow through. Of giving one’s eyes something to do, so that the world within might be heard.

*     *     *

During the years when walking was impossible, especially in this car-crowded city of hills and sprawl, when arthritic pain nailed me to my desk chair, the only way to feel that freshness was to walk through others’ lines and times, against the grain of my language. That was the pleasure of translation—of moving and being moved across a landscape into the foreign, and taking on form and sense as they shuttled between the eyes and ears and lips and tongue. Looking down the alleys of assonance, and into the crannies of consonance. There’s a glittering weed—or was that planted?—in any case, it’s shining. Let me bring that back into an English weave. There’s a car bumper holding the sky. Now a breeze shifts over a knoll, rushing through a scrim of jasmine. Is that literature or is it life? How can I capture—no, create—no, capture—the pitch of that coolness and scent?

*     *     *

Jerusalem exposes one like no other city I’ve known. It opens one to and within that sense of translation across a landscape where people and syntax, garbage and shade, languages, longing, and soma merge. But it also exposes as in stripping bare—or revealing what had been concealed. Jerusalem will “dissipate romantic expectations,” noted Herman Melville, having walked the city. “To some,” he added, “the disappointment is heart sickening.”

*     *     *

Walking is a way of erasing oneself by asserting oneself, or asserting oneself through erasure—it’s a way of absorbing, of zeroing in on all the little links that involve us, of letting the world in-form us. Maybe words will rise from that influx, like a mist or cloud form. So that an image or cadence emerges, as though from the cells of that registration. And only from that registration.

*     *     *

I pass by the Knesset and Supreme Court buildings, on my way back from a day at the library, and it occurs to me that I am at this point all too numb to the mechanisms of the state and, in a sense, to the nation-state as such. Though not to its landscape—battered and scarred as it is by so much of what happens within those halls.

That soon-to-be-phased-out library and the old university grounds are among the most cultivated and focused places in the city. My pace slows, my breathing widens, as soon as I pass through the main gate. Small groves of cypress and pine, with a limestone footpath winding through them, offer tents of shade from the sun’s drill and its leveling glare—restoring a sense of extension and volume. The modest geometries of the international style, deployed around a central, tree-studded carpet of grass, augment the aura of rightness. And an olive tree adds time to the equation, its opening fist of a trunk giving way to the most tender of canopies and indicating that it is much older than this ecumenical paradise, this enclosed green campus, and may be one of the few visible remains of the Arab village that stood where all this now exists.

This tribute to learning and openness is built, in other words, on government-confiscated land.

*     *     *

The sage, said Dahlberg, is he who sits. The Hasids say it’s he who walks—to gather the sparks, to enter divinity’s feminine presence. So it is en route to the accountant, the archive, the demonstration, the doctor, the market, the museum, the post office . . .

*     *     *

Walking is a way of deferring arrival, but also of making it possible.

*     *     *

Watching people walk in Jerusalem: is anything more dispiriting? The twisted effort and utter unease of it. As though they were battling not only the dismantled infrastructure of the city—its dug-up, treeless downtown streets, its gaping pipes and makeshift lampposts, as well as the dust and heat—but some more essential or metaphysicalprinciple. And yet . . . Just back from two weeks in ghostly, almost Jew-less Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania; from placid, baroque, and almost Roman Vilnius, the geographical heart of Europe, where the boulevards and plazas are wide and the walking is leisurely and part of the rhythms of the day, and where watching that walking in the municipal space is also part and parcel of that rhythm—I’m reminded that ease is not all.

In Judenrein Vilnius, the stroll signifies repose in place and both stained and sustained belonging. In Jew-crammed Jerusalem, the unease echoes exile’s depth.

Originally Published: October 30th, 2009

Poet and translator Peter Cole was born in Paterson, New Jersey. His collections of poetry include Rift (1989), Things on Which I’ve Stumbled (2008), The Invention of Influence (2014), and Hymns & Qualms: New and Selected Poems and Translations (2017). With Adina Hoffman, he wrote the nonfiction volume Sacred Trash:...

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In
  1. November 2, 2009
     Pretty Segwai

    I like this a lot,mainly due to the images and phrases that make me think beyond the place written about. It penetrates more into to the journeys we take as individuals.

  2. November 3, 2009
     ray gibbs

    this beauty be sustained

  3. February 7, 2010
     pillischer

    I too have walked that city, looking for
    places to avoid the sun, I identify and love
    the rhythm of the words, the images

  4. December 10, 2012
     Judy Labensohn

    I love this Peter. Reminds me of a sentence in Thoreau's essay "On Walking." "For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels."