Ana B’Koa’h / In Memory of the poet Amir Gilbo’a / By Elisha Porat
Ana B’Koa’h / In Memory of the poet Amir Gilbo’a
By Elisha Porat
My first collection of poetry, "Hushaniya The Mosque," came out after the Yom Kippur War. My poem "Ana B’Koa’h," which had appeared some months earlier in a newspaper literary supplement, was a peculiar poem whose words erupted from unknown origins and took form before my eyes.
During that post-war period, I finished writing several poems of lamentation hastily drafted on whatever army paper had been at hand at my border posts, including the Syrian enclave, up north. I believed in poems. I believed in lamentations. To me, they at times reflected a sense of hope, as if we possessed the power to restore the thousands of our fallen to life.
I clearly recall the moment when my poem "Ana B’Koa’h" was born. It was on a troop bus heading home via Kuneitra. The low, gray sky outside threatened snow. On the bus radio, a cantor was chanting the "Ana B’Koa’h" portion of the prayer book. He sang with such feeling and force that the flow of words captivated me immediately. A glorious oxymoron to which even Natan Altermann, the king of oxymorons among modern poets, would tip his hat.
From the contrasting fusion of tenderness and violence, the poem, eager to be born, found its voice. The subject was almost trite. A worn and weary soldier, hungering for a woman, goes home on a short leave. The threat of returning to the front hangs over him. The savage union of his carnal lust with the imminence of his death echoes through the poem.
One of the men told me, with some surprise, that he’d heard the poet Amos Gilbo’a reading the latest war poems to his classes. He’d been guest lecturing at Tel Aviv University to students not at the front during that miserable winter after the war. The poems, fruit of the war, were by unknown poets. And among the poems he read were some of mine. Gilbo’a, my friend added, had declared in his lectures that one could sniff the fire and smoke given off by the poems.
As a young, uncertain poet who’d written those brief verses simply to dispel the gloom that had gathered over me during the months of fighting, I rejoiced at his story. I wasn’t writing only for the trees and stones. Someone unseen, far across our stricken country - in bright halls at Tel Aviv University, on warm lawns among the buildings, in the deep "rear" of our nation - had read and been moved by my work.
I didn’t know Gilbo’a then and hardly had contact with him even later. But I sought to read his poems. I always cherished what he’d done that winter, for which I felt deep gratitude. The day would come, I knew, when I could speak to him and express my gratitude from the bottom of my heart. For it was so difficult for me at that time to talk to anyone about my poetry. There are no locks like those clamped on a poet’s soul.
Later, after the war, I went to Jerusalem, where I immersed myself for some years in the vast, living flesh of the Hebrew texts. I felt within me a gnawing hunger that had grown during the war. So earnestly did I fall upon the Hebrew texts that I forgot myself entirely.
And so I came again, by a strange circular route, to the prayer "Ana B’Koa’h." I studied the various interpretations and came to feel, like a disappointed lover, that not all of it was the linguistic pearl that I had imagined. There was that magnificent beginning and then it abruptly became vague and exhausting. Then one day, at a library in Jerusalem, I innocently opened Gilbo’a’s "Blues and Reds," where I read to my astonishment "Ana B’Koa’h," a poem of his by the same name, from the same prayer and with the same fabulous oxymoron.
Stirred by this discovery, I wavered for several days. Then I plucked up my courage and decided to write to him, the Tel Aviv poet, and inform him of the similarity of our poems. Such things have happened before. People widely separated by time and place have written remarkably similar things. I put off my letter to him week after week. An uneasiness, my status as an outsider, the feeling that I would invade a private realm, all stayed my hand, which was unsteady to begin with. Then I read in an old religious newspaper, which I’d come across in a bookstore, a moving account of the mourning for Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. Both in amazement and with a sense of seeing something I’d seen before, I read how the streets of Jerusalem around his small home had filled with people and how his forlorn followers had recited before him, "Ana B’Koa’h G’dulat Yaminha... [By the Great Power of Thy Right Hand."]
The wonderful description of Rabbi Kook’s final moments, written in the staccato journalistic style of the 1930s, which mingled praise of his grandeur and holiness with minute details of his life, bore me again to the burning basalt fields of the Golan Heights during the horrific war that began after Yom Kippur. I was raised once more with my living-dead soldier, in whose imagination burning lust for a woman merged with a sense of impending death: "I come straight from the Golan...."
Then I finally dared write to Amir Gilbo’a. I no longer recall exactly what I wrote in my impassioned, rambling letter. I remember only that I was aroused simply by realizing the astounding literary penetration of the formula "Ana ’Koa’h," first through the prayer into the poetry of Europe’s immolated Jewry as Gilbo’a, then a soldier in the British Army, found it at the end of the Second World War, thence into the poetry of the flaming Golan Heights that engulfed me in my own war. I also related to him the wonderful story of Rabbi Kook’s mournful passing and the sound of "Ana B’Koa’h" rising above Jerusalem’s lanes and alleys, a call through which the crowds thronging beneath his windows pleaded for the life of one they adored but to whom they’d been unable to say this before he left them.
Days later, I received his reply written in the most graceful handwriting I’ve ever seen. What did he write? About one language stimulating many others for poets various and sundry; about things that both unite and unbridgeably divide them; about his surprise at how I’d been pulled into this ancient verse. And he plainly saw the sharp, one-time combination of bodily desire and impending death, the great mystery that enmeshed one in the other.
At the same time, I also read Gilboa’s bitter protest poems, belated reactions to the dreadful days of the Yom Kippur War, published in "Moznayim." I understood then that not only Rabbi Kook’s soul harbored a great fear for this nation, nor only that of Natan Altermann, to whom the poetry was dedicated, which feared for our future in this land. Amir Gilbo’a, the distinguished poet of blessed memory, also agonized over our existence here and the life of the Hebrew language.
I wanted to write all this to him, to vault artificial barriers and tell him of my concerns. But I failed. He died leaving many matters unresolved, my own trivial ones among them. Now I very much regret that I didn’t tell him all this. May the few remarks I’ve recalled here be a light unto his memory. Perhaps some mysterious path to him will be found, as it is written in the prayer "Ana B’Koa’h," so I can tell him some of what I’d meant to say.
For this is the great power of a true poet’s right hand. Though he leaves us, his spirit and words, even those he was unable to utter, live on among us for years to come.
(Written on the 20th anniversary of the death of Amir Gilbo’a)
1. Ana Bekhoach - the first line from a wellknown pray, mistic and Kabbalistic, from the Siddur, the Jewish daily pray book.
2. Amir Gilboa, 1917 - 1984, a great Hebrew poet. He wrote also for childrens and was a brilliant translator. Few from his poems were composed and become into a very popular songs.
3. Yom Kippur war, the war of 1973, when Egypt and Syria armies were attacked suddenly Israel. It was the hardest war, the painful war, in the modern history of state of Israel.
4. Rabbi Kook, was a one of the greates Rabbies of the Zionist movement, and he served as the chief Rabbi in Eretz Yisrael-Palestine in the 30th years.
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