Nearly 20 years ago, I wrote a poem called Why I Write Poetry, in which, spoiler alert, I offer a series of reasons why poetry writing appeals to me. And, in one line, I proclaim: I write poetry because I like the look of ink on a yellow pad. When I use a red pen, the words appear to be written in blood.
Recently, I tried to recall what I was thinking about when I wrote those words. To “write in blood,” is a metaphor, of course; one that implies a kind of existential importance to the words being written; a suggestion that, with the turn of a phrase, the poet can create or destroy. I think I must have been feeling very full of myself back then, to have written such a self-aggrandizing line.
This week’s parsha poem, in honor of Shavuoth and the recently commemorated Yom Hazikharon, is entitled, The Pain That Cuts Deep, and it comes from a different place, from a humbler poet; one who knows what it feels like to watch a son become a soldier; a poet who has reached a point in life where he understands, that ink is ink and blood is blood and the power to create and destroy, as if one were a god, is nothing but a self-aggrandizing illusion.
The Pain That Cuts Deep
…a youth and a lass slowly march toward the nation…dressed in battle gear, dirty…full of endless fatigue, yet the dew of youth is still seen on their head…then a nation, in tears and amazement will ask: “Who are you?” And they will answer quietly, “we are the silver platter on which the Jewish nation was given.”
–Natan Alterman, The Silver Platter
When my son was 10, he insisted we stay up all
night on Shavuoth studying, according to the ancient
tradition. Balancing the need for a good night’s sleep
against the pleasure of spending time with my boy,
it was an easy choice and when I asked him what he
wanted to learn, he said poems:
But Jewish poems, abba.
That night we read dozens of poems—Jewish poems—
until it was time for the morning prayer. He was the youngest
person in the room. When we walked home, I asked him which
poem he liked best and he said (almost too quickly):
Alterman, The Silver Platter.
When my son was 13, with a sweet jump-shot but 4 inches
too short and 30 pounds too light to make the team, he wailed
on the car ride home like the child he was. But the grief and loss
were real and deep. And though I understood why he’d been cut
(in more ways than one), I had to pull over, halfway home,
unable to see the road through my own sodden eyes. But I knew
what he did not; he would never be cut from a team again.
When my son was 16, he told me he needed to go to Poland
to see the death camps. Money, I told him, was tight and
he said he’d pay the $2,000 himself. I asked him why it was
so important and he answered with a question:
How can I pass up the privilege of being a witness?
And, as if I needed more convincing:
That generation is almost gone. The witnesses must tell their stories.
When my son was 18, he told me he was joining the Israeli army.
When I asked him why, he answered, again, with a question:
How can I pass up the privilege to serve in the first Jewish army since Bar Kokhba?
Afraid, knowing the now well-built point-guard with a killer jump-shot
would not have a desk job, I said, in a voice, too harsh:
This isn’t a novel; you’re not Ari Ben Canaan.
Instead of responding in kind and with a literary reference
better than mine, he disarmed me:
The Jewish nation, he said, wasn’t given on a silver platter.
When he was 24, my son, the lieutenant, came home on furlough.
He does not discuss his life as a soldier and this is probably best
for all concerned. And he has never spoken about the camps,
though I have asked. But that’s okay. When he is called,
the witness will take the stand.
Throughout the too-short visit, just to look at him leads me to tears.
But I make no effort to conceal my sodden eyes. Matt learned, long ago,
to appreciate the pain that cuts deep. And though he is now, forever,
beyond the dew of youth, I do not have to ask him who he is.
He is the boy who stayed up one night to read poems with his abba.
He is the silver platter on which my life was given.