Helen Bar-Lev: Poems from “Cyclamens and Swords”

Cyclamens and Swords, a new book from Israeli poets Helen Bar-Lev and Johnmichael Simon, has just been published by Ibbetson Street Press. This beautifully designed book is illustrated with Helen’s watercolors and sketches of Israeli landscapes, which someday I will acquire the technical ability to reproduce on this website. Meanwhile, she’s kindly allowed me to reprint two poems below:

The Map on the Back of the Shower Curtain

The world appears pale and backwards
and indeed a bit obsolete,
on the opposite side
of the shower curtain

I search for you my country,
little mapspeck
amongst plastic folds
perhaps three other nations
have the distinction
of being smaller than you,
but that is all

I compare your pinkness
with the enormous expanses
of greens and browns,
yellows and oranges

And am amazed at the fuss
the world makes over you
as though Madam Justice
put you on one scale
and the rest of the world on the other,
to balance things out

Everyone wants you,
little lovely country,
and I who love you
with the passion of unreason,
with the naturalness of one who lives in and for you,
am able to understand this

But they,
they cannot know


A Hot Cup of Corn Soup

She was skinny as a skeleton
her age disappeared into her thinness,
did not disclose itself;
neither young nor old,
she was a woman eternal

We met each morning,
she on her way into the building
inside my painting,
a nod and a pleasant shalom
and our days continued separate

It was seven degrees below zero
in Jerusalem and there I was as usual,
weaving branches into my watercolour,
with fingers which would not stop freezing,
too imbued with the need to create
than to heed the wisdom of remaining
at home in front of the heater –
even water tanks cracked on roofs
cascaded their contents
over buildings, onto streets,
then froze there, treacherous

At ten a.m. that day she brought me a cup
of hot corn soup – a gesture unexpected,
unprecedented, through those many winters
I had sat on the ground, painting Jerusalem
we chatted, I asked her age,
her history of six and one half decades
spilled out onto my page into my heart
unwilling to believe, down from the roof
of the twenty-storey building where her
son, ten, ben z’kunim* and friends had been playing
when he fell, fell, into her grief
into her thinness, into this place
where she was working when her older sons
came to tell her, down down onto the couch
of the analyst who said
life doesn’t continue forever,
one day you’ll be with him again

One session, no more, then she went on
into her thinness, waiting for the reunion with her son,
until then, knowing he was watching,
approving, she continued doing kindnesses,
such as bringing a cup of hot corn soup
to a freezing artist on a February morning
in Jerusalem

* ben z’kunim = a child born to parents late in life 


Cyclamens and Swords can be ordered through Lulu.com or by emailing hbarlev@netvision.net.il or j_simon@netvision.net.il . Prices are 65 NIS (including postage to Israel), US$18 (including postage to US or Canada), 14 euro (including postage to Europe or Australia), or 10 pounds sterling (including postage to the UK). Payment accepted by cash, check or PayPal.

One comment on “Helen Bar-Lev: Poems from “Cyclamens and Swords”

  1. Indian says:

    With the bases loaded you srtcuk us out with that answer!

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