For Hanoch Levin, a great Israeli playwright, author, and poet born in 1943, death was the one and only true muse, the great and bottomless well of inspiration. And so, it is only appropriate to remember this iconic author shortly after his yahrzeit last week, 19 years after his death of bone cancer, at age 56. Death permeates, in some way or another, nearly every poem of the recently published Lives of the Dead: Collected Poems of Hanoch Levin, translated by British poet and playwright Atar Hadari. The volume, which received a prestigious PEN Translates award in England, is the first, and long overdue, book of Levin’s poetry to be released in English, and it is a cause for celebration.
Levin’s dramaturgical work had been formative for generations of Israelis. He was both revered and reviled—for his radical left-wing politics, no-holds-barred satire, obscenity, and absurdism. He wrote 56 plays, and garnered numerous awards for them, but he only published six books of poetry, a genre, it seems, Levin reserved for his most intense, varied, and poignant contemplation about mortality. As Hadari points out in the introduction to the volume, Levin’s work is the “profane, rude, unavoidably direct and modern answer to Ecclesiastes.” Consider these lines from the collection’s epic title poem:
Oh 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
To read these lines, in English translation, in California where I live, is more than surreal. In this poem, Levin is giving generations of the dead a pep talk—lest they forget their predicament. The poet is riffing on the well-known biblical verse, Genesis 2:24: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” But whereas Genesis optimistically points toward formation of new familial bonds—a chain of them—in Levin’s rendition, the true and final beloved, is the cessation of it all. A bleak, but bracing perspective.
The volume is bilingual, and reading the original alongside Hadari’s translation, one notices that the opposite of sunny “California” is the musically resonant, dark kever, i.e., the grave. One can also notice the sudden, eerie near-rhyme of ve-imo (mother) and ba-muto (unto his death). Reading this closely can make California no longer feel like California.
Despite Levin’s immense popularity, not a great deal is known about him. As Israeli scholar Freddie Rokem wrote in the introduction to The Labor of Life, a selection of Levin’s plays published in English translation in 2003: “In comparison with most of his contemporaries in literature and the arts, at least in Israel, who quite willingly expose themselves to the media, consciously creating a public persona and expressing their opinions about political and other issues, Levin fervently guarded his privacy throughout his career, giving only a few, rather angry interviews during his first steps as a writer.”
Levin’s legendary introversion is the subject of Igal Sarna’s superb essay, “The National Poet’s Mother,” translated and included in abridged form in this volume. The piece opens: “Hanoch Levin spies on the neighborhood, I spy on Levin.” Sarna, who wrote this piece when he was just starting out as a writer, is now a renowned journalist and author. With great eloquence and gusto, he described his failed attempts to get through to Levin. It was worse than a failure: As Sarna put it, even “more surprising was the silence of his friends, even those he’d not seen for many years. … When I approached them, they sought his consent. Levin preferred them not to speak with me.” It was as if, in deference to the author’s desired privacy, those in his circle had taken a vow of silence.
At one point, however, Sarna located the South Tel Aviv building Levin grew up in. There, he found the poet’s mother, and something clicked: “In the abandoned buildings, used heroin syringes from the night before rolled on the floor; inside I also found Malka Levin, who spoke to me through the crack of the door. I was holding on to the door handle, she was pulling from the other side.”
In a phone interview, recalling the time of writing of the article, Sarna told me: “It’s very Polish [i.e., Ashkenazi], to hide. … You care very much what other people think about you. It’s the shame. Especially when you’re poor, when you grow up with a weird mother.”
Levin’s parents immigrated to Palestine from Lodz in 1935, and Levin’s childhood was overshadowed by poverty and a keen awareness of all of his relatives who had perished in the Holocaust. On top of that, when Levin was only 13, his father died of a heart attack. As Sarna told me, “Death of a father at a young age leaves you unprepared, and exposed. You organize your protection. And poetry, I think, is the best way to do it.”
Indeed, Levin’s first poetry collection, Morning Prayers (1965), included in this volume, describes the life of an impoverished neighborhood and its inhabitants’ reaction to the death of one of their own. The title of the opening piece, “Sing to the Lord a New Song,” is both a riff on the well-known psalm and a literal attempt to compose a new kind of a mourning ritual, an elegy that is vastly different from a kaddish. Speaking directly to the deceased, the narrator recounts:
… the smell of onion was wafting.
Then your wife leaned across,
then the neighbor came in in a fright the way a neighbor does,
then the doctor came and certified the hour of your death
with his breath all toothpaste minty fresh.
The rain fell and fell on the synagogue.
At the first service they wondered where you went,
at the second service they already knew
Sure, in the world of lyrical poetry, it is not uncommon to evoke the rain as the symbol of mourning, or crying. But other than that, the poem’s tone is completely disaffected, detached, and almost disdainful. Levin’s attention to smell, particularly the unwanted and misplaced smells of onion and the doctor’s breath, intensifies the pathetic smallness of the world surrounding the protagonist’s demise.
This poem is the opposite of a prayer. Whereas prayer—on this occasion, a kaddish—is the song of praise, this is a song of disdain. Prayer seeks connection, while Levin’s poetry asserts loneliness and alienation. Prayer points to eternity, while Levin is bent on finality. Instead of piety and repentance, Levin uses subtle humor and sarcasm. And yet, paradoxically, the sublimity is here, too—it is just summoned by a very new and different route. After all, a skeptic is entitled to a religious experience as much as a believer is.
In our conversation, Sarna called Levin “a truly great writer”—meaning underappreciated in comparison to better-known writers such as Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua. According to Sarna, Levin was really able to show that Israel is “a country of survivors, and it’s ugly.” Indeed, in his poetry, and in his plays, Levin depicts Israelis in less than flattering ways. Consider this character sketch from Morning Prayers:
… Berta Levi’s already sitting by the window,
Her buttocks, two noble hefty weights of tender flesh
Bow to one another graciously as she walks,
now rest in their residue, the flowered cushion.
Her breasts, two curious good-fellows with swollen faces,
Rise up against the bra, belisha beacons to those who’ve
lost their way
Everyone is fair game in Levin’s satire—women and men, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, rich and poor, pious and secular. In an email interview, I asked Hadari why Levin’s poetry had not been translated until now. Hadari replied: “He’s not ‘in good taste’ and not ‘politically correct.’ Isn’t that often an obstacle in poetry publishing?”
There are other obstacles, too. In the volume’s introduction, Hadari, himself a talented poet and playwright, acknowledges that “Hebrew is a much more compact language than English, so a real difficulty was making the much longer sets of beats in English keep moving.” Moreover, Levin sporadically and unexpectedly uses rhyme—often to emphasize a sarcastic remark. Looking over the original, it is clear that sustaining Levin’s music—its dryness, precision, and at the same time, its spontaneity and richness—was simply not possible at all times.
And then there is also the question of translating the language of Yiddishkeit—that is, not merely Hebrew, but Hebrew pertaining specifically to the world of Jewish ritual practice and culture. Hadari’s decision was to render Levin as universally accessible as possible. And thus a kid named “Adonai” (a ridiculously ostentatious name for a child) becomes “Milord,” “mezuzah” is the “door scroll,” “minyan” is the “service,” “Sefardia Berta Levi” becomes “Spanish Bertha Levi”—and other such examples abound. Hadari’s aesthetic choice certainly has its merits, though I personally would have preferred to have heard these words in the original. All the more so because Levin’s characters seem so old-world, so much closer to the characters one finds in the works of Isaac Babel, I. B. Singer, and even Sholem Aleichem.
The collection’s heaviest poems are those written by Levin in the final years and months of his life, and addressed to his wife. Aware of his spreading cancer, in a prose poem Drawing Your Image Into a Mind Scheduled for Annihilation, Levin writes: “When we sit at a table together, or walk in the street, I suck you inside of me, a huge mosquito sticking you with its feelers. … And when I’m filled, I retire to a corner to digest your stirs and words, all the smithereens of your image.” These are brutally honest, disturbing, and heartbreaking lines. In the poems from this cycle, in death’s proximity, Levin admits to fear, disappointment, visions of his beloved with another, and goes at length into gory decomposition details. And yet, undoubtedly, these are love poems. Here, once again, the sublime enters through a strange and unexpected backdoor, for just as a skeptic is entitled to a religious experience, a cynic is not immune from passionate love.
Lives of the Dead is no easy reading or light entertainment. But it is a profound, disturbing, and deeply affecting volume, and Hadari has done English-speaking audiences a great service by translating it. And on Levin’s yahrzeit, I would like to recall the following lines from Morning Prayers, where he depicted the scene of the resurrection of the dead—which he clearly did not believe in. Yet, might he not have agreed that reading poems of the deceased poets is itself a minor form of resurrection?
And all the dead will wonder
How tall the trees have grown and how grey their grave
And still they’ll look and wonder at themselves
And Messiah pass among them and laugh
Handing out to each of them a mint cough drop
Read more of Jake Marmer’s Tablet magazine essays on poetry here.