I wrote the following poem in response to newspaper articles about the Second Intifada (2000-05). From the still-raging conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, to the dreadful news of the terrorist bombings in Brussels this week, it seems that the cell phones of the dead never stop ringing, and desperate people never stop killing and dying for their political visions. Though my family heritage gives me a visceral concern for the survival of the Jewish state, I made every effort in this poem to give a balanced voice to the Palestinians suffering from Israel’s human rights abuses. May there be peace and an end to prejudice.
This poem was first published in Clackamas Literary Review (2003).
Jerusalem Cycle: April 2002
The phones of the dead are ringing
as pale men in black vests
gather them into plastic sacks
methodically as bone collectors
for centuries in this holy desert
have hunted the bodies of the past.
The shoes of the dead are bewildered.
They were humble, being shoes,
only wanting to help the dead,
who weren’t dead yet, walk safely from synagogue
to café to bus stop; they never asked
to be flung into flight
and lodged like crows in a tree
beside the peeled bus.
The toys of the dead are grinning like warriors:
no explosion can shake their focus,
bright fur in the gutter, mud over one glossy eye.
The newspapers of the dead are a thousand shot cranes.
The phones of the dead are ringing and ringing
like mad birds in a sack.
One by one their shrilling
will be cut off by the touch of a button
and someone, always the wrong voice, will answer.
I had a clay house and now it is gone.
Tanks laid the land bare and rational.
But who doesn’t harbor a guilty one
in her heart, a dark son
with a stone in his fist, secret Ishmael?
The baby was coming and now it is gone,
his head cresting red and hopeless as the sun
while rubble blocked the passage to the hospital
as if it might harbor a guilty one
sleeping dangerous as Jesus in his tomb.
The donkey walks the same path to the well
and circles back, forgetting that they’re gone —
water, house, memory. Only the gun,
the moment that is its own rationale.
How quickly this clay house is gone.
Send forth the brave, the guilty one.
For you were a stranger in Egypt,
enslaved by heat, alien vowels
like sharp seeds on your tongue.
Asking for only a crack
in this prayer wall
to shade from the sun
your white unwritten skin.
A stranger in Israel,
returned to glean a heritage
like porridge spilled in the dust
by a regretful Esau,
asking too late for the blessing.
So you died at this table
at a seder in Netanya,
another suicide bombing,
your dinner knife embedded in the ceiling
left behind by the practiced men who hosed
next day the floor clean of blood and prophet’s wine.
Everyone has a right to the morning.
Today I will not be a girl.
I will strap on death like a cock and go riding.
Maybe it will be on the foolish bus
that my heart will flame like a can of petrol,
or dismounting at the market, the dusty place
where you burned your black shadow on the wall,
Ayat, sister. You were spent like a bullet,
like a coin, unsentimental.
A coin’s only worth is in what it buys.
The soft enemy mourns the loss of his own
but we celebrate when another martyr dies.
I am wrapped with nails like a prickly pear.
No one spies me moving stiffly as a robot.
Ayat, we played with dolls and combed our hair
and dreamed of something. What did the land
mean to us? Our mothers pouring tea
in the kitchen, nights listening to the sand
whisper outside our bedroom window,
and nothing dangerous in the distance —
a world without anything we know,
without bulldozers, without checkpoints. Children old
like us, dying. Now my foot is on the bus.
I am paying the toll.
Did it hurt very much when you split apart?
Was it worse than childbirth? I need you
to tell me it’ll be all right,
this maidenhood I’m losing, the last touching
I’ll ever know. Oh, Ayat, you died and left me
here among the useless living.
if you had led us out of Egypt
and not fed us with manna in the desert,
Dayenu (it would have been enough)
if you had fed us through the desert
and not offered us your law
if you had not led us
out of fear and scattering
out of every fatherland
floods of hair, quarries of teeth
falling like dew into the dead pit
out of the icy gulag, the grey agreement
marching into the future
where looters now loll in furs
the end of the hammer dream
even out of the soft cradle
of the Christian smile,
this most expansive host land
of buttery fields and wind-up monuments
wakes up! to find us departed
from their streets and comic books,
every bearded judge and fish-fingered peddler,
leaving silver holes in their movies
if you had laid on us your law
and not led us into the land of Israel
even when G-d promises, bring a knife
who are these that stand on line for water
whose children are stones rising
like the desert they want one thing
like the sun they will burn it all to bone
who has negotiated with the desert,
or shared a bed with the sun?
if you had given us the land
and not given us peace
and not given us peace