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War Poet

In new translations of his poems about soldiers, disappearance, and life cycles, Israeli poet Yitzhak Laor uses biblical allusions, humor, and rage to explore the absurdities of modern Israeli life

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A soldier on the Israeli-Egyptian border last week.(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Yitzhak Laor was born the same year as Israel: 1948. He has written stories, novels, plays, essays, and journalism, and his poetry has been recognized as among the best—if most controversial—of his generation. In 1972, Laor became one of the first Israeli Defense Forces soldiers to refuse to complete his compulsory military service in the territories captured during the Six Day War, a decision that earned him a brief prison sentence. Today Laor lives in Tel Aviv, where he edits the literary magazine Mita’am.

Issue 12 of n+1 magazine features six of Laor’s poems, presented both in the original and my translation. Here are three—from radically disparate periods in Laor’s career. What unites them are biblical allusion and a doubting of language’s capacity to effect political change—a crisis marked by flares of rage and humor.

To read more of Laor’s work, you can purchase the current issue of n+1.

Take Care, Soldier

Don’t die, soldier, hold the radiophone,
don your helmet, your flak jacket, surround
the village with a trench of crocodiles, starve
it out if need be, eat Mama’s treats, shoot
sharp, keep your rifle clean, take care of the armored
Jeep, the bulldozer, the land, one day it will be
yours, little David, sweetling, don’t die, please.

Keep watch for Goliath the peasant, he’s trying to sell his
pumpkin at the local market, he’s plotting to buy a gift for his grandkid,
the evil Haman whose bronchitis you denied treatment, eradicate
the blood of Eva Braun by checking on the veracity of her labor pains,
   silence her
shriek, that’s how every maternity ward sounds, it’s not easy
having such humane values, be strong, take care, forget
your deeds, forget the forgetting.

That thy days may be long, that the days of thy children may be long,
   that one day
they shall hear of thy deeds and shall stick fingers in their ears and
with fear and thy sons’ and thy daughters’ screams shall never fade.
Be strong, sweet David, live long unto seeing thy children’s eyes,
though their backs hasten to flee from thee, stay in touch with thy
after thy sons deny thee, a covenant of the shunned.
Take care, soldier-boy.

שמור על עצמך, חייל

חַילָּ, אָל תָּמוּת, לְמִי יש כֹּחַ לִשְכוֹל
רַדְיוֹפוֹניִ, חֲבֹש קַסְדָּה, לְבַש שַכְפָּ”ץ, הַקֵף אֶת
הַכְּפָר בִּתְעָלָה, מַלֵּא אוֹתָהּ בְּתַנּיִניִם, אִם ישֵׁ, הַרְעֵב
אִם צָרִיך לְהַרְעִיב, אֱכֹל אֶת מַמְתַקֶּיהַ שֶל אִמָּא, אַל
תָּמוּת, צְלֹף, מַלֵּא מַחְסַנּיִּוֹת, נקֵַּה את הָרוֹבֶה הַטֶּלֶסְקוֹפּי
שְׁמֹר עַל הַג’יפּ הַַמְּשֻרְיןָ, עַל הַדַּחְפּוֹר, שְמֹר עַל הָאָרֶץ
יוֹם אֶחד תִּהְיהֶ שֶלְךָ, דָודִ קָטָן, מָתוֹק, אַל תָּמוּת, בְּבַקָּשָׁה מִמּךָ.

הִזּהֵָר מן הדְּלַעַת של גלְָיתַ הַפַלָּאח, הוּא מְנסֶַּה לְמָכְרָהּ
בַּשּׁוּק הַקָּרוב, לֹא מֵרָעָב, לִקְנוֹת לְנכְֶדוֹ מַתָּנה הוּא זוֹמֵם, שְכַח
את הָמָן הָרָשָׁע שֶמָנעַתָ טִפּוּל בַּבְּרוֹנכְִיטִיס שלוֹ, מְחַק את דִמּוּמָהּ
שֶל אֶוהָ בְּרָאוּן, כְּשֶבָּדַקְתָּ אִם זיִפְָּה צִירֵי לֵידָה, דוֹמֵם את צִוחְוֹתֶיהָ
כָּכָה נשְִמָע כָּל חֲדַר לֵידָה, הֱיהֵ חָזקָ, לֹא פָּשוּט לַעֲבוֹר מָה שֶאַתָּה
עוֹבֵר, בֶּטח לֹא פָּשוּט עִם עֲרָכֶיךָ הָהוּמָניים, רָק אַל תִּתְבַּישֵּ
)הַצָּרפָתים בְּאַלְג’ִירְיהָ לא הָיוּ יוֹתֵר טוֹבים(, שְׁמֹר על עַצְמְךָ, שְכַח

אֶת מַעֲשֶׂיךָ, שְכַח אֶת הַשִּׁכְחָה, שְׁכַח אֶת שִׁכְחַת הַשִּׁכְחָה
לְמַעַן יאֲַרִיכוּן ימֶָיךָ, לְמַעַן יאֲַריכוּן ימְֵי בָּניֶךָ, לְמַעַן יוֹם אֶחָד
ישְִמְעוּן עַל מַעֲשֶׂיךָ ויְתְִקְעוּן שְׁתֵי אֶצְבָּעות בָּאֹזנְיַם ויְצְִוחְוּן
מִפַּחַד, צְוחָה אֲרוּכּה אֲרוּכָּה, וזְעֲַקַת בִּנךְָ/בִּתְךָ לא תִדֹּם לָעַד.
הֱיהֶ חָזק, דָּודִ מָתֹק, והְַאֲרֵך ימִָים, רְאֵה את עֵיניֵהֶם של ילְָדֶיךָ
עָרְפֵּיהם יחֵָפֵזוּן לִבְרֹחַ מִמֶּךָ, שְמֹר עַל קֶשר עִם חֲבֵרֶיךָ
לַנּשֶק, אַחֲרֵי שֶבָּניֶךָ יתְִכַּחֲשוּ אֵלֶיךָ, בְּרִית בֵּין
הַמְּנדִֻּים. שְמֹר עַל עַצְמְךָ, חַילִַּיקוֹ

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Moshe says:

Someone should learn idiomatic Hebrew before attempting a translation:

לְמִי יש כֹּחַ לִשְכוֹל

means; “who has (or no one has) strength for ‘radiophonic’ mourning? It has nothing to do with “hold the radiophone”.

Pilar says:

Someone should learn that translating poetry literally is often a terrible idea.

this is an embarrassing translation.

Pilar says:

What’s embarrassing? It seems to me that it puts the poem into actual English…. You do better.

Michael says:

Laor is an execrable poet and egomaniacal blowhard, but is a pet of the Israeli far left and so it was only a matter of time before he was imported into the U.S. Presumably his new friends at n+1 and elsewhere don’t know (or don’t care) about the rape accusations either.

Take care soldier is one of the worst, arrogant poems that I have ever read

Shalom Freedman says:

Yitzhak Laor is one of the most vicious anti- Israel figures in Israel. He is so far off the wall in his hatred of Israel that he openly identifies with Israel’s enemies.

Of all the tens nay hundreds of Israeli poets he is the last one I would think ‘Tablet’ should feature.

I saw with my own eyes in ’88 the wreckage of what Israel did to the Sinai peninsula in ’73. I can only describe what I saw of the scorched and battle scarred earth there that I saw as looking like that of the aftermath of a rape.

Michael says:

Um, Jules, Egypt attacked the Sinai in ’73. And you were there 15 years later, so whatever it was that you say you saw, doesn’t really reflect “what Israel did to the Sinai peninsula in ’73.” A little logic would be nice.

…and Israel in ’67 in which war the peninsula was seized…and so the senseless cycle goes on without cease.


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War Poet

In new translations of his poems about soldiers, disappearance, and life cycles, Israeli poet Yitzhak Laor uses biblical allusions, humor, and rage to explore the absurdities of modern Israeli life