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First World War Poetry


With the flare-up of violence in Israel/Palestine and Israel/Lebananon and the horrors of violence in Iraq there has been increased interest in the warpoetry web site.

We are pleased to add to the site poems by writers who have particular insights into Middle East conflicts - Farrah Sarafa, and Elisha Porat.

July 2006



About Farrah Sarafa

Farrah Sarafa - a pure, product of occupation and war

Farrah Sarafa lives in New York.

She writes "My mother was born in Palestine, my father in Iraq; they married in Egypt twenty five years ago and had me here in the States. I am a pure, product of occupation and war, therefore, confused by my American upbringing. The war has been eating me up more than ever and poetry is my primary response; I hope the number of poems here is enjoyable rather than overwhelming."

Currently she is a graduate student in Comparative Literature and Middle Eastern studies at Columbia University. She is the winner of a number of prizes for poetry.


About Elisha Porat

Elisha Porat - Israeli poet and novelist

Elisha Porat, the 1996 winner of Israel's Prime Minister's Prize for Literature, a Hebrew poet and writer, has published 21 volumes of fiction and poetry, in Hebrew, since 1973. Elisha Porat was born in Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh in 1938. His works have appeared in translation in Israel, the United States, Canada and England. The English translation of his short stories collection "The Messiah of LaGuardia", Mosaic Press, was released in 1997. The English translation of his second stories collection "PAYBACK", was published 2002 at Wind River Press. His new novel "EPISODE", a biographical novel, just released by "Y&H" Publishers, Israel, 2006.

His works, poetry and fiction, were translated from the Hebrew into the English, and were published, as print and online. Elisha Porat's works were published at Midstream, Tikkun, Ariel, War Literature and Arts, Rattle, Porcupine, Oyster Boy Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Boston Review, Snake Nation Review, The Paumanok Review, The Pedestal Magazine, Poetry Magazine, Jewish Quarterly  and others.



Poems by Farrah Sarafa

Father Iraq, Mother Palestine

Mortar attacks a bus in Baghdad, 15 die
Civil war strife mirrors the war
America has waged on Iraqi life
More than two years ago.

How can this happen
How can this be
That I will never see
The land of my great grandfather?

I strive, I feel too much zeal
to help heal the schisms

splitting this poor country
and that of Palestine.

Hamas' request that they vacate the west
and return East Jerusalem
on which they settled, built checkpoint and a wall
In 1949

How can this happen
How can this be
That I will never see
The Land of my dear grandmother?

I cry, I whine, abstaining
From bodily pleasures
emptying myself
of the life deprived Iraq.

Farrah Sarafa
© Copyright 2006

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Your father,
his inheritance shed of him
like the skin of a snake.
only he cried afterward.

Walking through barren olive fields
he envisions their roots active with sprout,
alive, as they once were, with the fruit of his ancestors.

The bitter black taste of Palestinian soil
accompanied by the toasted pita-bread and melted white cheese,

he dreams
of children's olive-like eyeballs
their sparkling gaze

like onyx,
but the dream is shot with the poke of an empty hand
a branch, fringed-ash and embroidered by greed

whose jugglers and smugglers in moan
have thrown staunch families into pleas
                             they sneeze
to rid of the fumes clenching their inner lung
constricted black and frightened tongue,
ambitions sullied, by ancestor's songs unsung

life squeezed out of my grandfather's love
he blows the ash from a branch
wind carrying it from his eyes
open eyes, lashes curled toward the heavens
he inhales their deeply embedded fragrance
buried beneath layers of activity and reactivity

            from which this culture will continue to flourish.

Farrah Sarafa
© Copyright 2006


Biased Metallically:

Not gold, cherry or grain made,
not rich, sweet or nourishing to our side they laid
a biased film to hypnotize
     sleeping American french fries.

His voice is soft like chick peas
I listen to his impression as a native
and feel nothing but sympathy
for olive eyed communities.

Should my aim be to temper extremity
hard, metallic stares to sympathy?
To dull sharp knives, to melt metal eyes
     made opaque by lies

         with the beauty of eloquence?

Farrah Sarafa
© Copyright 2006

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Palestine Fig

Inner worlds lined brown like the earth,
tinted gold like divine mirth,
the occupied race of people plead
for an outside light to dissolve their worry
into the Dead Sea.

Dense bubbles, sugar grains condense
like caramel apple heating
under my hot tongue. I imagine
soldiers' threats induce a similar
effect on their poor children who have long been
constrained to sacrifice

their fame, knowledge and skill. Sweet fig flesh
that grips wrinkled outer skin
like old native man's hands made hallow
from fear, disdain, longing to cry peace by tears
formed from the pain of clouds

waiting to be tasted and felt.
Pains produced from sweet-thirsty twigs,
resting on the earth, come together,
tighten, roll, and shrink into small balls called seeds-
reproduce from the hungers, contempt and needs
of Palestinian

souls. They swim in the memories
of their buried ancestors,
whose lives, disintegrated, nourish
fig tree soils, coalesce to become seeds
that constitute fig fruit.

Hearts gold- earth speckled, firm flavor,
a seeded promise that you
will savor the Arabian air
that you will inhale when you eat a fig
from my ancestors.

Farrah Sarafa
© Copyright 2006


Blood splats on his car front window,
Mother screams
An American spits onto a bud of flame
that burst from the ground.

Soil dehydrated by flame
          (not by the desert)
Iraqi ground bears the shame
    of Saddam Hussein.

1500 aircrafts and 50 troops American deployed
into a swarm of queen bees
whose honey-coated hives
have been suffocated by Bush's demonically dry
    breath, liquid sweetness dried
into crusted fermentation in the mouth of a Conservative
          I cry to help to re-moisten the soil,
                                  to nourish the boils
   one man's angers transmits as fear and martyrdom
                  to a population of the desperate.

Farrah Sarafa
© Copyright 2006

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Blood, Sand and Tears of a Young Boy

I wipe my tears while they-
they have no tears left to cry.
Dehydrated, like dried pineapple,
the closest they come  to resembling the concentric yellow
and fiber-branching slices
is the tired eye;
swollen and puffed like a pregnant belly
their shadow-plated arches, underneath
reveal how much they question "why."

"For what are you longing,"
I ask, looking into the complicated retina of the young boy.
"What is floating in the water of your deep and narrow well my
He only speaks fear.

I feel his mother's cries moving inside of me,
shaking off flower vases and pots of marble stone
from granite table-tops
I shiver; steady in will and
willing to stay, I am made from glass
while this little boy is made from clay.
He is brought to pot by American soldiers
from which the Israelis may drink their raisin-milk in warm,
  making excuses to stay
in my mother's Palestine.

Placing my hand on his cold, winter's chest
I transfer my comforts as warmth, but their flag's pointing west;
  they are looking for help from a nation that is "best,"
though it is we
that have made Iraq into a land of nuclear test.
Missile tanks and planks
for cannonballs make storm in a place where
smoke bombs, tear gases and raping little girls from lower
bring to form
nerve knots and tissue clots
along the green-starred spine of Iraq.
These people need no more tears;
  they are merely

"What does she hide beneath her big red striped gown" he asks,
inquiring of her tasks.
"Rice with cumin-spiced meats and lemon-sesame treats
or niter, sulfur and charcoal dynamite for an endless fight
against the rest of the world," he wonders of her vast plunders.

Desert souls, their tears are made of blood mixed with sand
while I, American, laugh in pain
     at Charlie Chaplin going insane on the television screen.
CNN bulletin interrupts my bliss with news of terrors
about red and flaming wearers
of suicide and contempt.
My laughs push into cries
and form a current for the Arabian Sea
whose crystal salts perspire and become of me.
Her waves undulate like snake-thin layers of blood thickened with
sand and stone
like a serpent's plea to be let free
  and to roam
the Garden of Eden.

Farrah Sarafa
© Copyright 2006

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War fire

High-wired and fuel ridden
their toes withdraw in fear
    of dying.

    What do you hear?
Gun shots, army trucks skidding tires
whose squeaks were once minaret adhan

     Your grandparents are now buried beneath
     the mountains of your sacred pasts,
     the rubble of disturbed memories and
     American deeds, what can we heed?

        "Saddam, Saddam!"  They cry out for the
         despot whose regime was better
         than the conditions are now.

   Iraqis are dying, hundreds by the day
   and here we stay watching films
   whose figures spit on the fires of war
   from so far away,
    I cry to help put out the flames.

Farrah Sarafa
© Copyright 2006

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The Dead Sea

Reality dwindles into unfulfilled fantasies
for the hungry people in Iraq.

Unable to ward off the pangs in their bellies
for food, all they can do is to convert what
they feel into something unreal, into fantasy.

   Blood thinning, Iraqi voices become cries--
   their tendons reach out into pleas,
   and their hearts painting their hands
     send out a gigantic "please!"

The organs of young Iraqi children condense
  as they sip burning cups of tea devoid of milk-
  the very substance their mothers used to build
  their bodies-without the sugar that could bring
  them joy.

The skin of young Iraqis flakes off into piles of
rubble and bricks from the many misplaced

words that abound. I stoop to pick one up
and from it begin to construct this
  plea for sympathy.

Farrah Sarafa
© Copyright 2006

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Colonizing Recipes

"We invented this food," he says, handing her the hummus, tabouli
and roasted eggplant.
"You occupied it," she responds.
"Okay, we stole it and then made it better, how's that?  Saalaam
Ala lekum!"

   You can take the land, but not our identities, she sings
taking the bag to leave,
   And now a poem:

Invading the body of our grandfather's thoughts
with their American-made shafts,
he holds his breath, unable to release

the curse of pain he perspires and dreams into rain
from the eyes of refugee children
knitting new crafts for money to eat,

to try to fill their empty bellies with the grain
they planted along the West Bank
and moulded into dough recipes

Aunties spend days preparing for the family.
Delectable bites, active chew
Now replaced by hunger and pleas

To eat one more time from the palms of their mother
land-to lubricate their dry hearts
once again with the olive oil

of their fertile Palestine, stripped from their bottoms
like an embroidered Arab rug
They long to hug the trees that gave air

to the lungs that breathed into love and conceived
Mediterranean echoes
from the past and modern fragrances

tasted and desired by Jewish foreigners
eager to feel that they belong
somewhere beautiful. They adopt

as their own, changing names-playing games to own
the delicate and fragrant flavors
of generations from Palestine.

Occupied peoples, do you starve or eat the food
planted in my grandfather's heart
from which true, pure air palpitates.

Farrah Sarafa
© Copyright 2006

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 Poems by Elisha Porat

In the Military Mobile Hospital

Who was born like me, in 1938,
Who looked for partners in his trip through life;
What other baby was conveyed home on the floor
Of an armored bus, while his young mother
Knelt over him, sheltering;
Or who else became a tourist 
crossing over alien lands
his whole life but leaving 
behind his shuddering 
heart, flapping back there, 
still in the military mobile hospital?

Always I remind myself:
We were only one year old when
The fate of our world was moulded and altered
by a bloodbath, and our first words --
Compressed words, bad words -- became
Precisely the ancient amulet.

translated from the Hebrew by
author and Ward Kelley

Elisha Porat
© Copyright 2006

Elisha Porat offers this introduction to the next poem

El-Hamma is a small village with cluster of hot springs above the Jordan valley, not far from the city of Tiberia. It is situated at the junction of three countries: the Kingdom of Jordan, Israel and Syria.

The ancient baths of El Hamma, which were in use in the Roman period, the Hellenic period and the Byzantine period became ruins and were disused for many many years.

El Hamma was included to the state of Israel, after the 1949 ceasfire agreements, between Syria and Israel, but the Syrian troops did not respect the agreements and occupied  El Hamma, and would not allow Israelis free access.

In the Six Day War in 1967 Israel recaptured El Hamma. They rebuilt all the old baths.

El Hamma has been an arena for cruel battles, and my poem is written from the point of view of an Israeli reserve soldier.

To Die at the Springs of El-Hamma

[Introduction above the poem.]

Down into the fichus boulevards at the springs of El-Hamma
come the starlings, trembling then landing.
The water is hot at the springs of El-Hamma,
Yet night is more hostile than day.
Layers of sand on those who landed before:
Layers of sand cover their faces,
The water is dead at the springs of El-Hamma.
From great distances come the starlings 
Beating to these death-ponds: always they come.
Who sends these birds to end
In the booby-trapped springs of El-Hamma?
They fly so urgently, with no chance or time,
No time for life and no chance to learn
If someone expects their return.
The starlings are flying in to die in the seducer 
Springs of El-Hamma, poisoned by the salt.
Fowl can't stop the soldiers, for their faces 
Are pointed into the earth.  Oh, how easy it is
To finish as a starling, and not as a soldier.

translated from the Hebrew by the author and Ward Kelley

Elisha Porat
© Copyright 2006

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Stone Snowy Mounds

Mounds of dead soldiers
Grow from the white snow,
From Yanta and Amiq, Meducha and Baruk.
Wintry freezing water assaults the streams
By the villages of Ein Zechalta and Ein Tzophar.

Among the blackened cedar palms,
The bulldozers raise rocks
Above the dead who lie under the snow.

The spring grass, the memory,
Suspends this siege on the mounds,
and tries to see who once lived but now
Lies under these melting waves of stones.

translated from the Hebrew by
author and Ward Kelley

Elisha Porat
© Copyright 2006


The Young Students 

"The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses:
who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them
at night when the clock counts."

-- Archibald MacLeish.

 On the morning of Memorial Day I walk into the class.
"The young dead soldiers do not speak. 
Nevertheless, they are heard . . . "
I read to my young students;
My voice echoes in the silent space of the class.
Their eyes are fastened to my lips,
Fear beats upon my face:

I'm the one who knows,
I'm the one who remembers;
I bite my lip, and  begin to cry.

Abruptly I flee from the classroom,
As the eyes of my young students
Drill into the silent space in my brain.
Speak to me, dear children,
How I truly need to hear
Your voices now.

translated from the Hebrew by
author and Ward Kelley

Elisha Porat
© Copyright 2006


Salamanders on the North Border Road 

Two salamanders are crossing the North
Border Road. Sluggish and indifferent, they
Creep under the borderline barbed wire. I stop
The patrol. Above the ravines and fields, 
Silence suddenly drops for a moment: we watch
Their orange backs, a poison colour, their tails
Striped black, and their evil aura darkens
The morning light. I feel the danger, 
And give an order, but even helmets and
Bullet-proof vests can't help when your terrain
abruptly explodes: in the orange glow 
I can see the creatures: evasive, lazy, innocent,
As if they don't carry on their backs
Marks of fear and mortal hints.

translated from the Hebrew by ~
author and Ward Kelley

Elisha Porat
© Copyright 2006

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Painful Birds

The helicopters, skillful, painful birds,
Again bombard targets above my head:
I sit, shaking at my writing desk,
I bend down to my notebook, clench
My shuddering pen. As if they know...
As if they sense an inner tracer, a red laser
Signal: they make another bomb run,
This time circling above my aging heart,
Who hastens to remove its rooms 
And empty spaces as though they had become
Black tanks, easy targets, sluggish vehicles
Flooded by grief and suffering.

Elisha Porat
 © Copyright 2006

translated from the Hebrew by
Ward Kelley and the author.


Yolki Flowers at Tel Hazika

That autumn, when their time came, 
The Yolki flowers bloomed on Tel Hazika.
On the rocks, among shredded helmets, 
Dark yellow patches suddenly blossomed,
Blinding yellows, as if they warned: 
You can never forget us, 
We will never give you rest;
You will always, every autumn, wonder
From where came this yellow yolki color? From where 
Came this egg-yolk color? And where is the swallowed 
Rock, that turned to red, submerged, 
Soured from forgotten blood? 

translated from the Hebrew by
the author and Ward Kelley

Elisha Porat
© Copyright 2006



for Sima and Ephy Eyal

Poetry is a sudden process
of verbal compression.
I remember well one such illumination:
her father was a famous artist
who used to load his brush
with one bullet many --
to explode on the canvas with first touch.
He drew the beautiful head of his daughter
and shook his head with pity at my sweaty pages:
I feel for the two of you,
she doesn't know yet
that a poet is a continuous process
of the pain of existence.

Elisha Porat
© Copyright 2006

translated from the Hebrew by Tsipi Keler.



On The Way to Nabbatiya

The path to Nabbatiya is truly unpleasant, 
even for veteran soldiers such as myself
who, as you know, "are not killed,
but simply vaporize..."

I try to bring a quick smile to the lips
of my escort rangers crew. "What do
we really have to lose?" I ask them.

"we'll go back home, and what good things
are waiting there for us - boring work,
heart attacks, accidents? But here,
you'll be gone in a minute, all at once,
and you won't even know where the bullet
comes from, the one that rids you of all
your troubles...

then you'll be granted a charity,
because you'll finish your life
in 'dignity, as a brave soldier;
soon you'll be posted in the newspapers,
even the weakest of you who never would
have been absolved - not for a single word -
in your entire life.

And the principal charity?
You'll remain young forever,
for generations upon generations,
for eternity, and no one can take
this from you."

Then suddenly, unendingly,
the joke transforms into an unexpected
seriousness...the curvature
of the narrow path becomes sharp;
dark, little bridges appear from nowhere,
as the rocks aside the road draw near
with frightening closeness,
and the dark, green wood
appears suspicious.

Elisha Porat
© Copyright 2006

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Editor's notes:

Tel Hazika is the name of a basalt hill on the Golan Heights, where Porat's battalion had a bloody battle against the Syrian army in 1973. 

Yolki is the Hebrew name of a yellow flower that blooms every autumn, in the northern Israel, after the first rain.

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First World War Poetry

A poet going into war

An Interview with the Israeli poet Elisha Porat, ARS magazine, Tirana, Albania, May 2004.

Interviewed and edited by Gilmana Bushati.

Q: why do you write?

-Well, I don't know exactly why I write. It's something that I must do. I think writing is my duty, my talent, my obligation. I think it's my secret destination, a mission given to me at birth. Let me put it this way: I cannot live without my writing.

Q: is there any difference in between your daily life and your life as a poet?

-Oh yes, my real life is not my writing, and my writing definitely is not my real life. The commitment an author makes to writing is like an another existence, a second life. I know it sounds like a pat explanation, but I think it's the reality that writers encounter. Authors whose private lives mimic their writing, and vice versa, suffer greatly. To live your life as you write is to accept a certain agony. The separation between art and reality is essential.

Q: what will be the distance between Elisha the poet, and the voice who speaking in the poems?

- If you think you can know my homeland from reading my poems, you have made a mistake. The Israel of my poetry is not the one in which I live, oh, no. But there are deep ties between the real homeland and its representation in my work. So you can say that the distance between the land in which I live and the one I create in my poems is the same distance that exists between reality and imagination.

Q: why a poet goes to the war?

- I think this is a poor question. The poet is not going to war, for the poet is a citizen of his homeland and a soldier like any other when he puts on his uniform.  Archibald MacLeish, the great American poet from World War I, was a regular draftee into the army, as were a million other men. So you can't say 'a poet goes to the war' -- no, you can only say a man goes to war, a citizen goes to war. Now, if he is a poet, the war will influence the whole of his life. And I know from my own experience that his life will become very, very difficult and very, very different because he also is a poet.

Q: a poet that goes in three wars, how he can stand and survive this situation?

-This terrible situation is an extension of Israel's position. Our enemies continually make war against our country. We must fight from time to time. I'm envious of peoples and states whose continued existence is assured. In the burning Mideast, life is completely different. We have no security such as you are able to enjoy in Europe. It's a tragic situation, and I pray for peace every morning.

Q: did you won those things that you fight for them, at the fields and at the poems?

--No, sorry, I can't say so. Peace and normalcy are still far from our horizon. But we hope for better times, for better days. There are too many dead, too many innocent victims, too much cruelty and bloodshed, but we haven't another choice.
Q: when did the writer feel disappointment ?

--The writer is not different from other intellectuals and other conscientious men of his generation. There is not a special disappointment that such men face. If there is a disappointment, it is common to all persons of intellectual inclination, to all who dream about peace and agreeable relations between Israel and its neighbors. But for now the fighting is not a choice, it is a necessity.

Q: how you realized the creation process at the war periods?

--Well, I began to write memory poems while under bombardment from Syrian guns in 1973. I had no paper on which to write my first drafts, so I took scrap papers from every corner -- an ammunition guide paper, a cigarette package, torn military maps. When I went home on leave, I sat at my desk at night and re-copied the poems. The fears of every soldier, wrought through with the particular fears of a poet, were committed to paper during those nights. I remember them with so much emotion that even now I am sometimes left sleepless. That time made me hard, yes. I acquired a poet's special hardness.
Q: we have read more poetry from the mideast, and about the hate between the both sides, is your poetry contain a hate?

--I don't think people engaged in modern war personally hate their enemies. The whole situation is absurd. When you engage in battle you haven't the other ways of seeing your enemy that less passionate observers enjoy. You have only one way to see the situation, and only one mission to accomplish --  to win the battle, to win the war. It's  easy to sit thousands of kilometers away and ask why is there so much hate. And I think that was the position of millions of Europeans about the Balkan wars. Why do the Croats hate the Serbs? Why do the Bosnians hate the Slovans? Why do the Serbs hate the Albanians? Why? Have you a good answer? Are there Albanian poets who wrote war poems about Kosovo? Maybe they could better explain what it means to be at war.

Q: you have talked so much about the war poetry, what are you think about the poems of Mahmud Darwish?

--Perhaps Mr. Darwish is a great poet, I don't know. But I know that he is a great hater of Israel and of the Jewish people. I think his poetry, which also is full of hate, contributes nothing positive to either Israelis or Palestinians, and certainly does not advance the potential for future agreements between the two peoples. It is always disappointing when a poet uses his talent to advance a short-sighted political cause.

Q:  Jose Saramago in an interview said that the Israelis hidden byond Auschwitz, to justify their struggle against the Palestinians. Is it right?

--Jose Saramago is a well known foreign writer in Israel, and very famous. Nine volumes of his bestsellers were superbly translated from the Portuguese for Hebrew readers. Brilliant translations. But I think his characterizations of the Israeli-Arab conflict are mistaken. He holds a conservative position, but does not understand the reality of our situation. He repeats old-fashioned communist slogans that are not representative of Israel's current leadership. He is a great novelist, but we see from time to time that great persons can fall into tragic misunderstandings, and I think that is this case with Jose Saramago.

Q:  why do you think that the poetry express more than the prose, in a crisis and tragic extremely situations?

--Poetry is a compressed form of storytelling, much more compressed than prose writing. As a result, I think poetry is a superior form in which to explore crises. Poetry is able to express great tragedy and great joy with brevity and precision. A poet lives life with heightened sensitivity.  Please see my ars poethic poem at the up of these pages.

Q:  have you ever read any book of Albanian author? Poet or writer?

--Oh yes, I have read The Pyramid by Ismail Kadare, a very good book, that was translated from the Albanian into the Hebrew. A very good translation directly from the Albanian language, not from the English. And I have read a few pieces in translation by Visar Zhiti, Dritero Agolli and Lindita Kardako.

Q:  is it difficult for a writer to be forgotten ?

--I'm not the right person to ask. I'm not a well known author, not a famous writer and not a familiar poet. So, you can ask me another question: Is it good for an unknown poet, humble and modest, suddenly to be exposed as your kind interview exposes me and my poetry to Albanian readers? The answer to that is yes.

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 by Ward Kelley

 Ward Kelley:  At what age did you first start writing poetry?

 Elisha Porat:  I published my first chapbook of poems in 1976. It was titled, "Hushniya the Minaret." I was then thirty-eight  years old. I had started to write the poems two years before the book appeared. These were bad and sad times in Israel, the years after the hard Yom Kippur War of October 1973.
I began to write what I call memory poems; these first poems involved the memories of my best friend who had gone off to the hard war, and the memory of my land, Israel, as she was before the terrible war.
Before 1974 I had only written fiction. My first book of fiction, a collection of short stories, called "Desolate Land", was published two months before the war, in the summer of 1973. It was an unlucky first book since both the book and its author were quickly forgotten in the tragic events of Yom Kippur 1973.
So after the war I decided I must start everything from the beginning with my writing, as though I were a new writer. This was really hard.

Ward Kelley:  When you went back to the beginning, you found poetry here?

Elisha Porat:  I, myself had not thought for a moment that I was going to write poetry. All my previous writing attempts involved strictly prose; there was no poetry at all. If someone back then had told me that in the next twenty years I would publish four books of poetry, I would have laughed out loud. Poetry was so far away from my true self; poetry was inconceivable for me. Then my life abruptly changed. my father died suddenly from a heart attack. he was only sixty years old.
The sorrow I felt about my father, and his sudden death, did not come out in my prose. It was too hard for me to make prose about his absence in my life, about my severe longing for him. I remember that my first attempts to deal with his memory unconsciously turned out to be a few short poems. For a long time I didn't know what to do with a literary experience such as this. I continued to publish prose and fiction, but I kept these immature, early, imperfect poems to myself, something like a secret.
Then exploded the bloody war of October 1973. I spent nearly half a year in the army - until the spring of 1974 - in what would be one of the hardest periods of my life. I was not what you could call a young soldier: I had a family and many commitments in my life, and the war seemed as if it would never finish. Yet it was from the heavy pressure of the war that were born my first perfect poems.
I suddenly found myself compelled to write poetry constantly - I wrote on every piece of paper I could find at the front. I wrote on a cigar box, on ammunition packing, on military dispatches and copies; anything that could be written on, I wrote on it. Some of these poems I sent home to my wife, on soldier cards [editor's note: postcards issued by the government to soldiers at the front], asking her to keep them for me until I returned on leave. When I finally got home - some leaves were for 24 hours, others 48 - I discovered that the poems that were there waiting for me now demanded that I sit down and finish them. This was very hard, because I had so little time for such things, but I did it finally.
In that period i couldn't stop writing poetry. I wrote about my private sorrows, and my yearning for my lost father. I wrote about losing my Israel, the one that we all had before the war, and I wrote about my friends who had been killed in that hard war. The poems came by themselves to me; I didn't want them, I didn't call to them, but they came and came and never left me alone.
So suddenly, there in the last days of 1974, I found myself with a book of poems in my hand. My first book of poetry was almost finished.

Ward Kelley:  Much of your work involves war and the plight of the common soldier; what is the poetry of war? What is demanded of the poet who witnesses a war?

Elisha Porat:  My generation is the second generation of the founders of the state of Israel, and we needed to fight almost our whole lives. I was proud to be part of my generation, and also realized I had been given the character of the poet - that special ability to be part of real life, daily life, the life of your times, while at the same time being able to view it all from the outside. The poet can fight, yet also yearn for other times, other places.
In modern Hebrew poetry, we have a great heritage of war poems. After the war of 1948, the war of independence, our poets began writing a great Hebrew war poetry. This modern Hebrew war poetry has become a model foe all subsequent Israeli poets. Every poet who is compelled to write war poetry must consider the 1948 model. Back then the identification of oneself with the war policy was absolute - the world of national aspirations was completely integrated into the world of the solitary poet.
Yet in the times when I began to write my own poetry - as a result of the wars i witnessed - it was a far different world. War, as a single solution, was no longer accepted by all; instead, the awareness of the sanctity of a single life was now the conventional outlook. The death of our young soldiers became the main element, and a trend of elegy poems began to take the place of war poetry.
My own war poetry is completely elegy poetry - elegies of the deaths of young soldiers, elegies of their lives, of all nature and the physical landscape surrounding their deaths. The main targets or subjects of war poetry have changed to illustrations of the sorrow and grief over the premature deaths of our young soldiers.
I remember one night, in the middle of the 1973 war, I decided to write my war poems as witness poems. I swore I would be as accurate a witness as I could be - no political lies, no lies of the generals, no empty nationalistic slogans. Nothing from these abominable matters would I bring to my poems. Instead i wanted the little things, the little situations, the common life of the common soldiers whom I knew so well, since i was that common soldier.
And I wrote my elegy poems, my war poems, without hate and without fury or anger. There were no big promises of revenge. I wrote sorrowful poems, exactly as I saw the real war, from the lowly point of view of the common soldier - the point of view of the human, at his most basic level.
My poems witnessed the reality of this hard war. They were testaments of the unique events I lived through in the war. I wanted to capture what was fast forgotten. And another thing I came to understand after a long time - my poems had helped, maybe, in my struggle against shellshock.

Ward Kelley:  Some readers would say your poems are anti-war. Would you agree?

Elisha Porat:  I was never a proclaimed anti-militarist. And i was never an active pacifist. No, the anti-militarism of my poetry is a later by-product of my writing. I always wrote my poems without any underlying intentions. The only reason I wrote was to answer the primary writing impulse.
The possible anti-war or anti-militarism meanings to my poems all came to light later on. I didn't consciously write anti-war poetry. Yet it has become clear to me after the years, from the critics and the views of readers, that there is indeed an anti-war message within these poems.
The human aspect of the battle, of the war, is the aspect of which I wrote. And the human aspect can be the only aspect of the common soldier. So I strive to keep my poems clean of nationality arguments, clean of military arguments, and clean of political arguments. I write only of the common soldier's world in the war, the human aspects of this world.

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Word Kelley:  Are there only Hebrew poets in your own heritage of war poets?

Elisha Porat: Absolutely not. Let me tell you a little story. In the middle of that dark period of World war II, in 1943, a unique anthology of poetry was published here in Eretz Yisrael - Palestine, poems translated into Hebrew from the poetry of the world. This anthology concerned war poems: memorial poems and memory poems. Among the many poems from many languages were few translated from English, and one or two from American-English.
I read this anthology ten years later, in the middle of the 1950's, and I can remember these feelings so vividly. I was very impressed with the perfect poem of Archibald MacLeish. It was called "The Young Dead Soldiers," and he wrote it in Flanders during the first World War.
This poem received a perfect translation into Hebrew by one of greatest Hebrew poets, Avraham Schlonsky. the young people all over small palestine-Eretz Yisrael, all the Jewish guys and girls, read this poem in their meetings. It was quoted in radio broadcasts, in newspapers, and in bulletins everywhere. it was surprising how many in this young Jewish generation knew the poem by heart.
Many, many years later, I found myself in the middle of the war in Lebanon, there in the summer of 1982. One night, as I rested - after a few nights without sleep - somewhere in a field off the road to the Beirut-Damesek highway, I took out a newspaper that was two or three days old. It was a Hebrew newspaper, and in it was a short article about the death of Archibald MacLeish. He had died a few days before this, at the age of 90...God help me!...that night I was not attacked by Syrian tanks; I was not attacked by Lebanese troops; no, dear Ward, that night I was attacked by my memories, and the beautiful words and unforgettable lines of his poem now felt like bullets:
"The young dead soldiers do not speak/ they have a silence that speaks for them..."
I have never forgotten this marvellous memorial poem. A few years after that night in the field where I read of his death - I think it was 1984 or 1985 - I wrote my own Hebrew poem, "The Young Soldier Who Died," and sent it to the literary supplement of one of our big newspapers. It was published immediately. Days later i changed the name to "The Young Students," and with this name the poem was published in my second book of poems, "Shir Zikaron" )Poem, Memory(, in 1986.

Ward Kelley:  What do you tell the younger generation about war?

Elisha Porat:  A month and a half before the war in Lebanon broke out, I was invited to a classroom to discuss with the young students the meaning of National Memorial day 1982. I decided to read the the touching poem, "The Young Dead Soldiers" by Archibald MacLeish:

"The young dead soldiers do not speak.

Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses: who has not heard them?

They have a silence that speaks for them at night when the clock counts."

The young students sat quietly under my eyes as I stood at the front of the class; my loud voice echoed throughout the room. Their eyes were glued to my lips. It seemed as though they could sense my old fears, my hard memories swarming back to me from those far away years. I felt as if I were the only man who remembers, the only man who truly knows. And I had a duty, a bloody duty, to remember and to remind others. From far away, from another war, the one of 1973, I could hear soldiers call to me, the voices of the young soldiers who were lying in the makeshift morgues, I could hear them call, "You will remember us; you will not forget us. You must tell the others, the many people who never knew us, they must see us lying dead in this place, and they must hear how we expected that never came. And then you will describe the look of betrayal in our dying eyes."
The young students watched this great emotion attack me. I pulled out some other papers, more war poems that i had planned to use to illustrate the special meaning of National Memorial Day, but I couldn't continue my lesson. The faces of my students had suddenly changed into the faces of the soldiers from the MacLeish poem. I stopped in the middle of a sentence, and couldn't proceed. I begged their forgiveness in a quiet voice, then escaped the classroom.


This is an example of one of Elisha's soldier cards:

"They say: Our deaths are not ours; they are yours; they will

mean what you make them.

They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace

and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say; it is you

who must say this."


Ward Kelley:  In a poem concerning Jerusalem, Yehuda Amichai writes,"...already the demons of the past are meeting with the demons of the future..." What do your poems tell us about Jerusalem?

Elisha Porat:  Right from my first visit to Jerusalem, I was very impressed by the demons past, the many kinds of spiritual characters: the tragic prophets, the founders of the Jewish religion, the rebels against the Roman Empire, the Jewish poets. All of them comprise the gallery of deceased eccentrics who inhabit this city. I was a young boy then, several years after the war of 1948. Jerusalem was the life-symbol of the hard war of independence. There, so many heroes from ancient history joined the latest heroes: those who broke the blockade of the city, the young fighters from the Palmach battalions, the defenders of the old city, and the loyal civilians who never abandoned the hungry and thirsty city.
From my first meeting with the city, from my first visit, I had the feeling - a strong, strange feeling - that there was much more than just history and memories in Jerusalem. There is something in her atmosphere that is very difficult to define. You could call it demons, you could call it the "Jerusalem Syndrome", or you could call it holy fever. There is something there that brings men and women to the completion of their religious dreams...sometimes a tragic end of their religious dreams. And not only Jews, but the religious and faithful from all religions.
When I, myself, later reached Jerusalem for my first long stay, it was when i was doing my service in the IDF. [editor's note: Israeli Defense Army. In Hebrew the army is called Zahal.] The year was 1957. I had only been there a short while before I met the messianic demon elements of Jerusalem. One of my first tasks as a young soldier in the city was to persuade another young recruit to come down from one of the city's high towers. He had fortified himself at the top and threatened to open fire on the citizens. Well, dear Ward, I don't know if you remember similar cases that happened in the USA after the Korean war, but this case was exactly the same. When the military police finally took him down from the tower, he spewed out a very strange monologue concerning the messiah and the apocalypse; the way he spoke disturbed me. Many years later I wrote a series of short stories about the messianic, tragic elements of the city.
But back in 1957, Jerusalem was a small, neglected town on the edge of the Israeli-Jordanian border. We called the city 'The Appendix because there was no way from it to any other place.
For a young Israeli soldier, like myself, it was the real end of the world. This was when I met, for the first time, the many faces of Jerusalem: the desert face, the stony, rocky face )in this period the city had been built only from stones and limestone rocks, and there was no green, no parks or boulevards(, and the drying face, the one full of religions tension. I remember her face deep my heart. I couldn't have known back then that someday I would write so much fiction and poetry about my youthful visions of the city.
I also remember several suicide attempts and several actual suicides where students killed themselves by jumping from the high towers to the stony squares. As a precaution, the authorities decided to close the towers. Around this time my girlfriend visited me in the city, and for some reason she had a great desire to go to the top of one of the towers. I wanted to show her all of my Jerusalem, so we attempted to enter a tower, but we were immediately stopped by a guard. Since I was in uniform, he at last decided to allow us entry, but in his own cynical way he tried to protect our souls against the compulsions to leap. He confiscated our identity papers, saying, "It will be much more convenient to identify your bodies after you jump." I knew what he was doing - it was his rough way of telling us that life is good, and how we, a nice young couple, should know that love is a great thing.

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Ward Kelley:  It appears Jerusalem extracts a payment from all she nurtures. With you, did it go beyond a debt of blood - all the way to a debt of poetry?

Elisha Porat:  For many years I was a captive, a total captive, of Jerusalem. I was fascinated by the spiritual tensions of the city. I was a lover of her, and as much an active lover as any other type of love. I loved all her faces: the topographical face, the geological face, and her spiritual face.
Her spiritual face shows us the religious tensions in her air. And once you view her this way, you come to understand she returns your attention by creating spiritual inspirations in your own heart. In my early prose I wrote about my complicated ties to her. These stories were later collected in my first book of fiction, "Desolate Land" in 1973. In particular I considered these complexities in my story "Kamatz Alef."
After the war of 1967, I began to be rehabilitated from my mystical attraction to this cruel city. I started to pass through a process of painful sobering. The spiritual influence, the spiritual magic, that pressed on me and my work began to change into memories. I understood this magic could not be reality but only a great yearning for a spiritual city, a yearning that began in me as a young soldier. A few years later, my close relations with her were almost concluded. We took a pause from each other - I took a pause from Jerusalem, and she took a pause from me.
I felt my love for her dissipate with the wind. It evaporated with my youth, gone with my memories. It was a hard disappointment for me. I can still find some pieces of my old Jerusalem, the divited city, in the far suburbs or I sometimes come upon them suddenly in forgotten yards off the main streets. Then I remember some of her passion. But there is little left of the spiritual town that I knew.

Ward Kelley:  Where did she go?

Elisha Porat:  In the painful period that came to Israel after the terrible war of 1973, I returned to Jerusalem. I spent two full seasons in the Hebrew University, the Department of Jewish thought. I was surprised to meet a completely strange city. Now it was the real capital of the state, not an aspiring center but the real center of Israel.
In this period the political situation was complicated, and the resulting influence was decisive for every field of the national life. The struggle between the left wing and the right wing of the political map grew very hard. I was there to see the birthing pains of two new political movements - Gush Emunim of the right, and Shalom Achsav of the left.
I remember my young, brilliant, empathetic Rabbi who during his Torah lessons told us, his students, that every Saturday evening he goes into the naked fields of Judea and Samaria. he was an enthusiastic Mitnachel, a settler, and he was a great believer that the day of the messiah was upon us. So on Saturday nights he and his friends would find an unoccupied hill and start to build a Hitnachalut, a new settlement. Of course this was illegal - to take a hill from the Palestinians. So every Sunday the police or the army would appear and remove these settlements. He was a mystery to me, and I felt bewildered when i considered how this same, nice man, my Rabbi - who gave me such pleasure when I heard him discuss the holy studies - became a colonialist during the weekend nights.
When I, myself, drew the duty of night patrols along the border line, walking between our positions and those of the Jordanian Legion army, I would meet another Jerusalem during those summer nights. I observed the orthodoxies, the Zealots, playing cards on their small balconies. In a way this shocked me and left a great impression on me, a young, innocent boy from a small kibbutz. here were the same religious men who had, only a hour before, instructed me to leave my rifle outside the synagogue if I wanted to enter; then here they were engrossed in their little card games! For many years, in the puritanical society of Israel, it was a sin, an ugly thing, to play cards. And here the Zealots sat! I was shocked. How could these same men, who had been praying so enthusiastically only a hour before, be sitting here playing cards?

Ward Kelley:  So if I were making my own poem about your Jerusalem experience I would start with these ideas: Where did she go? Her religious passions have always, throughout the ages, been subjugated by her politics and her secular temptations. Perhaps this is always her tragic fate. And perhaps this is why you love her so. But you once wrote that you learned to read Hebrew by reading tombstones. What did you mean?

Elisha Porat:  All my old Hebrew, all my knowledge of the language and my insights - this was all converted by the cruel and sad wars. In the world of my childhood, in my blessed innocence, I learned a certain Hebrew. But this was before the wars, before my best friends fell in battle, and before Jerusalem changed into its present incarnation. So you see, all these events 'unalphabetized my old language and injected a foreign sadness into my Hebrew. There were far too many tombstones now for me to retain my original Hebrew.
I learned my mother tongue as a child; now with all these new Hebrew graves, I forced myself to go back to the child - approach it innocently - to learn the meaning of this great sadness.

Ward Kelley:  Recently I viewed a documentary on Northern Ireland, and in it a resident makes the remark that it's possible for both sides to come together, for a few moments, by singing the song "Danny Boy". I thought the point was made how their love for this song was so great that both sides would willingly suspend their hatred. It led me to wonder if there was anything in the Mideast so greatly loved by all parties as to momentarily suspent the bitterness? Is there such a song or poem for Jerusalem?

Elisha Porat:  I think this question about the power of poetry to improve relations between the two sides - the Palestinians and the Israelis - is a bit too optimistic and too unrealistic.
There are fundamental differences between the two sides. First, the two religions; We are Jews, from the ancient, Jewish faith, and they are Moslems, as are most of the Arab nations. In Northern Ireland both sides have the same basic religion - Christianity. I think the theological differences between Jews and Moslems is many times deeper that the difference between two trends of Christianity. So, it is much too wide a chasm to bridge quickly.
Second, there is the language. We have the Hebrew language, and the Palestinians have the Arab language. Even though these two languages are Semitic and have a common origin, the difference between them is enormous. The Arab language is a living language that hasn't stopped developing, not for a single day, since the medieval period. Hebrew was, for many, many years, only a writing and reading language. It wasn't daily, living language. So you can see for yourself how much they are different. Both sides in Northern Ireland have a common language, and this completely changes the condition. A common language is a giant, potential bridge for co-existence.
Third, consider our feeling concerning nationality - they make up an important feature of our modern poetry. Both sides, Jews and Arabs, have magnificent traditions behind their poetry. And as you know, dear Ward, our Hebrew poetry reached one of her high points during the Arab occupation of Spain in the Middle Ages. This perfected Arab/Spanish poetry is a period in our poetic history that we call 'The Golden Age'. Perhaps this was our best chance for a commonality. But modern Hebrew poetry has a large component of national fervour. And the Hebrew national movement began a long time before the nationality movement of the Palestinian people. Our feelings of nationality, our yearnings for independence - these were the main undercurrents of Hebrew poetry from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th. After this, nationality gave way to a real, personalized lyric poetry. Taking a look at Palestinian/Arab poetry, you don't find the nationality vein until recent times. So I would have to say there's too big difference between the two systems of poetry to allow poetry to become a bridge. In our case it's too hard, as opposed to the poetry or songs of Northern Ireland.
All in all our political situation, here in the Mideast, is absolutely different from that of Northern Ireland. Here, in Israel, we will talk together as much as it takes concerning non-violent coexistence, but our generation can go no farther. We will incessantly pursue trying to live side by side, but our generation cannot live together. And we will have everlasting hopes for a permanent agreement, but we will not be able to share the creation of a common poetry as part of a common culture.
Modern Hebrew poetry is very much influenced by western poetry: modern English poetry, both American and the UK, French, German, and so on. But we're not influenced from Arabic poetry, not from eastern poetry. I know that what I am saying is not a happy thing, not a glad tiding, but I believe it's better to see the real, painful situation. For now there are very few points of common ground between the two cultures. Perhaps time will repair this.

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Ward Kelley:  If one could say the Golden Age period was the best chance at commonality, how close did Jewish and Arabs come?

Elisha Porat:  There were two great movements of poetry during the Golden Age - the Spanish/Arab poetry and the Jewish/Hebrew/Spanish poetry. I would say the Arab poetry was the best, the leader. The historical name of the Arabs in Spain is Maoris. The Jewish poets in Spain, who lived under Moslem rule, envied and admired the perfection of the Arab poem. These Jewish poets tried to prove to both the Arab sultans and the Arab poets that the old Hebrew language didn't die, that their national language was still alive. All in all the influence of Arab culture on Jewish culture, in that period, was unlimited.
Even the language was influenced: the Arab poets wrote their great poetry in the Arab language, of course, and in Arab script. But the great Jewish poets of the time wrote their poems in two ways. First the Hebrew language, in the Hebrew script, and this is what we call the peaks of the Golden Age; then second, they wrote an Arab secular poetry - with Arab words written in Hebrew script! Yes, dear ward, it's very interesting, for here we have a Jewish poetry written in what we call the Jewish/Arab language. This hybrid, unique language became extinct after the Christians re-conquered the Iberian peninsula and all the Moslem were expelled. Still it had flourished, at least in poetry, for almost 300 years.

Ward Kelley:  You're a member of the first Israeli generation to be raised completely on a kibbutz; and even now, in your 60s, you continue living there. has your life in the kibbutz made you more powerful poet?

Elisha Porat:  The Kibbutzim movement is a unique social creation; not only for the Jewish people, and not only for the Zionist movement and the state of Israel, but the movements is unique to the whole world. The Kibbutz revolution is one of insight, a revolution in the relations between an individual and the community. Truly it is one of the most important innovations of our times.
The movement had a definite commitment to the modern, secular trends of the new Jewish/Israeli culture. I can remember how the best modern poets, writers, playwrights, actors, etc. would all look foreword to visiting the kibbutzim in order to bring the fruits of their work before what they considered to be their best audiences. I can remember my father and mother hosting many of these guest-artists, bringing them home and talking late into the night. Many of those nights produced burning arguments concerning the right way to build the modern Hebrew culture. I was only a child, but I will never forget this magical, dream-laden, optimistic period.
The regular kibbutz members, the common Halutzim, were equal partners with the famous names of the period - mainly artists from Tel Aviv, the new capital - in creating the new spirit of modernism. I wrote an early short story, "Scar of Pride," )included in my Hebrew fiction collection, "Private Providence"( which describes a painful childhood memory. The story is set in Tel Aviv where a meeting occurs between my father - the kibbutznik who is a great admire of poetry - and a famous poet from the city. Emotions run very high at the meeting, resulting in an accidental injury to myself, but I mentioned this story to point out how a member of a kibbutz could meet a great poet and be equal footing.
In the Zionist revolution, and in ideological, zealot movement like the Kibbutzim, there was heavy emphasis placed on the verbal world. I remember very well Abba Kovner, the Hebrew poet from my own kibbutz, who went on to become one of modern Hebrew's greatest poets. I was a little child when he arrived with his group from the burnt remains of Europe. They came from the ghetto in Vilna, Lithuania, where Abba Kovner had been a partisan, fighting the Nazi troops. To hear him read his poetry! To listen to him speak about poetry! This fundamentally changed my life and the lives of my friend. We were all impacted - this first generation of children who were born in a kibbutz.
Abba published his poems in all the national literary publications, but he also placed his poems in the small, weekly bulletin of our kibbutz. And we avidly read them all, we, the small children, and I can tell you they were a great influence on us. So you can understand why so many of this first generation grew up accustomed to dealing with words, comfortable with the verbal world. From our small kibbutz were to come five prominent poets, among the many poets we produced - women poets mostly, but there were also few of us men.
The community interest in new publications of Hebrew poetry was very great. In our small library you could find all the important Hebrew poets and writers. The adults of our kibbutz would always talk about well known poets, and quote their lines, poets from the "Bohemma" and poets from Tel Aviv. So I was raised with a clear idea that poetry is a very important element in a person's life, and poets are very important people. Even as a child I knew that poetry was a very honourable part of the world.
Today I think there are several kinds of poets. There are 'bohemian' poets, who need an urban environment and can't write poetry unless they're living inside the rushed and crowded metropolitan world. There are vagabond poets who permanently need the life of the nomad - instability in their lives is an important ingredient for their creativity. I think travelling from place to place throughout their whole lives is a creative process, with the travel turned fruitful by their poetry.
But I'm a poet of another kind entirely. I belong to those solitary poets whose whole life passes within a 400 meter quadrant. My little patch, the little patch God has given me, includes the old tent and old shack of my parents who were among the founders of my kibbutz. Included too are the baby's house and the children's house where I grew up and where I spent my happy childhood. Then there's my elementary school, and my little high school where I spent my complicated teenage years. Also here are my own home - my family's home - and not to be forgotten, our little cherished cemetery which at times winks at me and invites me to come enjoy the company. All around the buildings of my life are the open fields and dark orchards where I worked and spilled my sweat.
Now I don't mean to say it's all idyllic. I spend some very hard hours here. There are hours where i feel an enormous emotional load. I find myself living in two or even three worlds at the same time: the world of my childhood, the world of my memories, and the real world my body occupies. You see, it's a permanent confrontation with the past - it lives all around me - and such a large part of me belongs to those I remember and to those I can never forget.
Mostly though, this is a special situation, an inspiring situation. so you could say i live in permanent inspiration. This is very important for my creativity, and thus for my poetry. After I became an adult, I discovered the background of a few excellent American poets who spent their entire lives in the villages of their births. It was not very difficult for me to imagine their circumstances - their entire lives encompassed the whole of what it meant to be the, their poetry, their dreams, hopes, creativity, fears, families, and life.
Who knows? I might be one of the last kibbutz members in the country who is prepared to confess clearly and openly that my little kibbutz is a unique way of existence, and one that created who I am and the poetry I write. My physical existence has been unfilled with my spiritual existence.

Ward Kelley:  You once said each character in you book, "The Messiah of LaGuardia", contained a messianic base in that the dark world surrounding them arouses in these characters a desire to redeem and improve. Later in the same interview you say there is no salvage of things predestines. Could this, then, be a source of your poetry? The contradiction between messianic base and predestination?

Elisha Porat:  Yes, I think that the basic tension between the unlimited boundaries of the human soul and the very limited capabilities of the physical body, and of life itself, is one of the main sources for my literary creations. In two of my fiction collections, "The Messiah of LaGuardia" and "Absolutions", I tried to examine this tension in a few extreme cases. In these collections, all my protagonists - and even in my other works we find a few great souls - have a tremendous impulse to be messianic persons. They seem to dedicate their lives to the salvation of humanity. Every one of them, in his own way, tries to find salvation for both themselves and for others. They have a great faith in the goodness of people, perhaps a naive belief in the goodness of our world. Yet belief alone does not save them, for they all fail.
My protagonists fight against harsh reality, and they all loose the battle, then end up exiting the world in various cruel ways. I think now, after many years pondering this, that there cannot be a coexistence between the faith in goodness that I held in my youth, and the power of evil that surrounds our adult lives. We all must live in the reality of the world, and this is also true for the characters of my books. So time after time, I am forced to ask myself, and to ask my characters, why is it inescapable that we are eternal losers? Why do our lives, everyone's life, open with so many hopes that are coupled with a belief in goodness, yet end up overcome with such evil, lies and suffering?
Then later in life when I began to write poetry, I adopted another position. Privately I called it - for myself and several close friends - the position of witness. I changed my basic reference point to the world and to the eternal struggle of the people in it. No more the dichotomy of bad and good; no more messianic hopes to change the world; instead I adopted the humble position of witness. I decided i would write only about my immediate world, only about my own point of view of the world, the one I witnessed, only about my own immediate sense of life.
Back to the contradiction you mentioned, I think it also depends on the biological cycle of the poet - what is the period of the writer's life? When you are a young poet, one not yet satiated with the world, you assimilate this stance into your poetry. You are always ready to fight for you own point of view. But when you become older, you come to understand your own narrow corner of the world. In fact you actually develop your own, safe, little corner. And from this shelter, this literary shelter, this defensible shelter, you send your poetry out into the unruly world.
Maybe it spouts from this whale of disappointment: our world is really not the right place for dreaming messiahs. And could one say that literature - both poetry and fiction - are not really the best tools to fashion a better world? Or maybe it spouts from the realization that all artists, and all their muses, have only a very brief time to improve the world. Then again, maybe it spouts from my own life's experience that leads me to see that life is one great struggle against the oblivion.
So then, I think the basic tension between what we call 'the messianic base outlook' and predestination can be fertile ground for the beginning poet or writer. And this same tension, this same contradiction, might bring an elder poet and writer to be more modest in his relationship with the world. And maybe this is the birth of wisdom, where one comes to see humility as the proper stance for the poet in the extremely complicated relationship between art and the world.

Ward Kelley:  We have seen many sources of your poetry: your parents, your country, your kibbutz, your Jerusalem, your fallen comrades, your loves; but there is another ingredient too, is there not? can you name it?

Elisha Porat:  Yes, I think there is indeed another ingredient behind my writing. I would call it 'passion for the Hebrew words'. I have an unlimited passion for the Hebrew language. From the earliest days of my childhood, my parents identified in me a great interest for words, first speaking words, then playing word games, and as I grew up, they saw a passion for reading and writing. Words! Words are the basic building block for literature, for art, and the poet or the writer has a blessed gift. And that gift is one of passion - a passion for words, foe paragraphs and the lines that form them,  for the language. For a poet and writer such as myself, the universe, the world I live in, can be exposed by medium of words, and made legible.
As a little child living in my parents' austere tent, I had no toys. I can recall times when I fell ill, and I had to stay in the tent, alone with my mind. We were very poor in the first years of our kibbutz. It was very hard work, with very few benefits. So I had to find substitutes; and the best substitutes for toys, in my estimation, were words. And when the limited language of a small child wasn't enough for my games, I invented new words. I came up with new Hebrew names for my loving world; I was quite innovative, a little geologist, creating new words for my immediate needs.
So then from these games, it's not such a very long way, you know, to my early attempts at writing, to my first tales, or to my first attempts as rhythms.
After many years, when I was now an 'old' poet and writer, I found myself often reading Hebrew dictionaries. heavy reading, perhaps, but not for someone with a passion for words. I often laughed out loud, finding great fun in these dancing words. Yes, dear Ward, still today I can simply sit for hours and read Hebrew dictionaries. Is this not a continuation of my boyhood games? I can draw great pleasure from scrutinizing workbooks, as much pleasure as one can draw from a masterpiece in music or art.
I think artists are born with a different framework for their soul...perhaps some alluring beauty sometimes comes by deviating from the norm...for artists grow up different from their friends and their peer group. In so intimate a society as a child's groupings, as was my own group of friends, it was really painful to be 'strange', to be different from the others.
Children who refuse to consent to certain peer characteristic - power, domination, control or even sports addiction - as a necessity become different. The real question for this boy is how long can he feel 'estranged' or 'another kind of child'? How long does he go on struggling to be 'normal'? Or when does he simply give up this childish struggle and accept his 'uniqueness?
So I can say until I was the age of sixteen, i tried with all my heart and senses and conscience to be the same as everyone else, one of the crowd, a normal boy. But after sixteen I realized I really had no choice. I must form my own, distinct, personality. And believe me, my dear Ward, this was a very painful step because the young men of our kibbutz knew that absolute priority is given to community needs. So how does one proclaim a different?

Ward Kelley:  I suspect most poets, looking back on their childhood, would now say the framework of their souls came first; it preceded their difference. But where did this framework come from, that has both afflicted and blessed the poet?

Elisha Porat:  I think the true artists is born with it. Many artists don't know they were born as artists. Others don't want to be artist, perhaps because society doesn't encourage the development of artists. Those artists who don't know they were born as artists are probably the happiest; they are surly happier that those who know they were born as an artists. Because to be an artists is - among all the other attributes - to live knowing the imperfection of the world. Artists have the ability to recognize the world's imperfection, the imperfection of mankind, and ultimately their own, the imperfection of the self.
To declare to the world that you are an artist, that you are a real poet, essentially is forbidden. It's similar to an unwanted pregnancy, because it is opposite of the way to a stable life. So, I think, many artists deep within their souls are frightened to make their art the main trend of their life. In our own times, in the mores of society, to be an artist is to take a severe risk. And how many people like this do you really meet in life?
I think if you devote you life to art, it's a very dangerous step in that it can influence you whole life. It's a very untraditional step. most of us, as readers and writers of poetry, prefer to sit well inside our safe lives, to make a little art every now and then, but to always be able to peer out and watch the real poets as they kill themselves for their art. Within our safe shelters of some secure profession, we sit and watch how others, the real poets, the lost poets, give all of their lives to poetry.
Some of us prefer to hide behind the safe walls of universities, some of us prefer to hide within respectable jobs, others prefer to simply use the cliché', "I wish I had the guts to dedicate my entire life to those damn poets..." But nearly all of us don't make that silly mistake...we keep our regular lives, and from time to time long for this other, impossible life.
Sometimes I think that hose people who don't know they're artist are truly the happiest of all. The heartworms of pride, of strange selection, never nibble at their hearts. And they never suffer for their difference from the rest of their society.
Yet, from the other hand, I see there are a few moments in an artist's life that might compensate, moments of supreme happiness. Very rare moments, very expensive moments, but there are times when the poet steps where no one else has ever dared. I mean those moments when you have one more small but vital step toward the completion of you vision, your poetic vision, you dream of the perfect poem, the one you have been seeking you entire life.

Well, dear Ward, I don't know if this is the right answers to your question, but it's the right
answer to my question, and now we must finish. I hope all is well with you.


Elisha Porat

Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh


April - August 1999. Elisha Porat © Copyright 2006

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Poem from Curtis Bennett, USA


REVISING HISTORY, (Beirut, Lebanon)

On the History Channel, *
The pictures are rough and grainy,
Variegated grays, faded blacks and whites,
Of smoking rubble from broken buildings,
Where fleeing women stumble, clutching children,
Dodging debris strewn streets
Cluttered with war's destruction
From a once proud, peaceful city
Reduced to shattered ruins.
The vintage metal airplanes
With heavy, fat wings drip bombs
Adorned with black swastikas
In Teutonic military precision,
Nose over heading down
Releasing the graceful finned death
To explode among the innocents,
The children of Israel, the "Chosen ones,"
Now but common, unwilling participants
Victims of a failed, political process
Innocent casualties of mindless war.

Tonight's Network's News,
Broadcast's live, crisp, color pictures,
Brilliant tapestry scenes of billowing fires
Raging from smashed building's gaping holes
Spawning heavy acrid smoke
Engulfing frightened young mothers
Desperately clutching crying children
Stumbling, weaving, confused with panic
From the ruins of their once peaceful homes
The slick, silver F-18s glint the sun,
Adorned with pale blue stars of David
Armed with sleek, smart bombs
That release, and float noiselessly free,
Nose over and head to earth.
The faceless pilot, guides his death cruelly down
To coldly and wantonly kill innocent victims...
Fleeing, unwilling participants
Victims of a failed, political process
Innocent casualties of a mindless war.

As now, a new generation
Of the "Chosen Ones"
Birthed by the Holocaust...

Comes of age.

Curtis D. Bennett
© Copyright 2006

* History channel in America shows vintage films from World War 2


See The Vietnam poems by Curtiss Bennett


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