Anthology of Class-Conscious Poetry
Editor’s note: Published in May 2007, this timely anthology has been all bought up and is now going into its second printing. The contributions, by Arab and Jewish poets in both languages, have sent new vibrations through the Israeli cultural fabric.
The book made its début at the May First Celebration of the Workers Advice Center (WAC-Ma’an) in Tel Aviv, in the plaza of the Cinematheque, when poet Yehoshua Simon took the stage and read his Hebrew version of the Almanac Singers’ “Talking Union.” The poem mesmerized the crowd with the new lights from an old song for the youth of Israel in 2007. Simon varied Pete Seeger’s lines:
They’ll call every one of you a parasite,
Anti-Zionists, Syrian spies, sabotaging national defense,
But in the seamen’s revolt, here’s what they found,
And up at Haifa Chemicals, here’s what they found,
And down at Ashdod harbor, here’s what they found…
That if you don’t let red-baiting break you up,
If you don’t let stoolpigeons break you up…
If you don’t let race hatred break you up,
you’ll win. What I mean, take it easy, but take it!
Aduma (Hebrew for Red, in the feminine form) has since traveled about the country. It is read aloud before workers and poets in the Arab villages and the Jewish cities.
In the preface, poet and editor Ya’ara Shehori says: “It is many years since class-conscious poetry has been written in Israel, or at least since it’s been defined as such. But today the situation has changed…. The times we live in are leading toward a social awakening, with new activities in organizing workers. Aduma offers poetry that combines the political with the aesthetic.”
The anthology was produced by three organizations: Challenge’s Hebrew sister Etgar, a political and cultural journal; Ma’ayan (Wellspring) , a poetry journal; and ha-Kivun Mizrah (Direction East) , a journal for literature, culture and art, which discusses Mizrahi-Israeli identity from a radical viewpoint. The book costs 20 shekels ($5). Not coincidentally, this is the minimum hourly wage.
Aduma was timed to appear on May Day at a demonstration for workers’ rights in Tel Aviv. The anthology contains more than a hundred pieces by poets old and young, Arab and Jewish, famous and not yet famous. All turn to face the same harsh Israeli reality, in which workers are exploited and their rights (to unionize, to strike, to earn a fair wage under good conditions, to ensure a steady source of livelihood) are eroded.
The book’s editors proclaim that, taken together, the poems constitute proof that their makers do not keep silent, do not escape into aesthetic abstraction, do not write from an illusion of security, but articulate, rather, the cry of the exploited, the forgotten, the invisible.
The writing of poetry is generally taken to be a distanced activity by self-involved persons who spin things out of their imaginations. Poets are thought of as special types, above the people, offshoots of the bourgeoisie, who don’t concern themselves with hardships beyond the pale of the ego. The poems in Aduma teach otherwise. They are composed by human beings looking outward at hardship and injustice, at the construction workers and cleaning staff, the migrants and the temporaries, the people sent by personnel companies, those who fill the buses and transport vans, people who don’t have the luxury of dreaming. (See “Pill Against Dreams” by Turki Amer, p. 15.)
This is a poetry that accompanies those who “go out to the bread”— the phrase occurs in poems by Turki Amer and Nida’a Khouri. Khouri compares the workers to ants, whom the earth teaches “the secret of crawling”: to live in a predetermined line, in a one-dimensional identity that permits no differences. Other poets, though, react against the notion that the worker’s identity is blurred or erased. Identity, they hold, can be forged precisely through hardship. It is a duty, imply these poets, to make it clear to themselves and the world that they will always carry their exploitation within. In “The Vegetable Crate,” for instance, Moshe Ochaion presents himself as ever writing from among the machines that his parents operated:
I’m the son of two kids from the textile plant,
popped out of the machines, colored like sand,
and was led by the hand to the vegetable crate
to sing songs.
Other Aduma poets show capitalism changing human beings into creatures for making profits. Here is the beginning of a poem by Yudit Shachar, largely a monologue of a “human answering machine,” a telemarketer who knows all the right things to say: “Customer Service it’s me speaking/ Yes, how may I help you /sorry ma’am I know you’ve waited for some time.” The telemarketer is a disembodied voice, not a person possessed of free will, able to choose what to say and when. Obliged to sell a “pack of lies” (a play on “package of special offers”):
Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week
We are here, tightly bound, underground
From the crack of dawn till we’re good as gone
Likewise, Rami Sa’ari’s “Welfare State” finds imaginary connections between current economic policy and the lives of animals and plants as seen on TV’s Nature Channel. Both worlds contain the unseen tiger, irresistible, casting terror over all. Both contain the doe who is a candidate for the tiger’s attack and can only rely on her swift feet to escape. Both worlds have a hornet that destroys the hive for the honey. Both are equally cruel. The poem ends with a reminder of those on whose backs occur profit and loss:
The state has profits and welfare benefits
even if your heart is broken
and your knee hurts.
Aduma displays a solidarity that exists among workers from all walks of life in Israel; these are people who are subject to a reality that exploits and disinherits them. The book presents voices that were thought, perhaps, not to exist: the voices of the “invisible” and of those who nonetheless see them. It presents the beauty, the longing and the hope that persist wherever there are human beings.
Four Poems from Aduma
I look for sweets in his pockets
and find nails.
My mother bandages the wounds in his palms
(cuts of the soul),
while hammer blows
land on my heart
and crumbs of red bread
lead me to the scaffoldings.
The father rises
day by day
to raise houses from masterplans
the daughter rises
hungry for sweet days
and the Holy Spirit rises
to scatter bitter herbs
on the way to the Paradise
Fear of clear blue sky builds my father
blue rituals unbuild me.
In the fifth dimension
my father secrets himself with the Holy Spirit,
while I gnaw the glass in the windows of our house
and prepare the days
for wanderings that will crack us in two
to an ocean of belief
and a lake of suspicion.
Wave after wave
cuts a channel between us,
by way of which
I hatch through the seal of my heart
and go to his heart
and he abandons his wooden beams
and finds my heart.
My father teaches me building rituals
I teach him rites of destruction.
—Translated by Vivian Eden and Salman Masalha
The Milk Underground
The kids coming out of the empty fridge
Will roll trash cans and poke light
Out of the streetlamps’ eyes.
In the great darkness, the most rotten tooth
Will gleam biting into overstuffed cats,
Will suck leftover cream from their tongues.
And the cream— fancy lady— has long since forgotten
The teats of the cow that dripped
Her into this world.
In the morning, the sun will rise, birds
Will announce the fall, and there’s nobody there to bring
These lines closer to the nose
To smell the milk underground.
—Translated by Robert Manaster and Hana Inbar
Pill against Dreams
He retreats from the dream.
A quick glass of tea.
Goes out to the bread.
Holding his hope.
A kafiya that does not flutter in the wind
drapes his head
eyes blind to the path
a coat no coat
that does not defend against cold or bullets
is covered with dust.
A filterless cigarette
the lighter’s last spark
wind plays with the flame.
two hard-boiled eggs
and a little salt.
She forgot the cumin.
When he gets home he’ll give her a piece of his mind
he reaches the checkpoint.
The skies send no rain.
An old bullet sticks in his chest
hunger pinches him
eats the bread and the two eggs
down to the last grain of salt
The checkpoint gives a slow yawn
those who were waiting disperse
he goes home
a last cigarette
hampers his breathing,
takes a pill
goes to sleep.
—Translated by Stephen Langfur
It’s me speaking
Customer Service it’s me speaking
yes, how may I help you,
sorry ma’am I know you’ve waited for some time
no, I can’t pass you on to my supervisor,
that’s the system, ma’am, a service agreement, regular feedback,
bonuses to outstanding human resources
and at the first of the month a check that doesn’t even cover
the hair roots going white.
(Ma’am, can’t you hear your baby’s crying?)
It’s me, Human Voice Response speaking with you
twenty four hours a day, seven days a week
we are here, tightly bound, underground
from the crack of dawn till we’re good as gone
in a place called Open Space, bathed in fluorescent,
windowless, toilets at the end, with a super listenin’ in
and deducting if I stagger in a disrespectful manner
as I sell the pack of lies that is good for every size
no ma’am, it doesn’t matter what you say
(your baby keeps crying away)
each man has his price and a glowing lie
that lights his way from above.
How may I help?
—Translated by Ronen Altman Kaydar