Singing in Dark Times – #2 in a Series – Aharon Shabtai – The Poet Sings


Israeli poet Aharon Shabtai (1939 – )

Epigraph from Motto

 In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.

Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913-1956, edited by John Willett and Ralph Manheim, Eyre Methuen, 1976

In the second blog post in my occasional series Singing in Dark Times I feature an Israeli poet, Aharon Shabtai. A poet who sings of love and war with equal ardour and frankness.  Here is a poet who is not silent.  A poet who in the dark times, sings! About the dark times.

I have kept as my epigraph , the poem by Brecht I featured in Part 1 of this series since it is a strong echo inside one of the Shabtai poems I feature today. A remarkable talking back to Brecht by Shabtai. And in the other Shabtai poem I  feature, we see  the poet of the spirit, the heart: poet as a prayer book; poet writing a prayer of thanks for  his life! What a reminder in dark times: the people and moments in our lives we can still thank.

Shabtai, especially in his provocative volume J’Accuse, is a vocal and critical witness to the situation of the Palestinians inside his country.  Some may vigorously disagree with his point of view but as a commentator on J’Accuse says: In dark times, when a state frightens its people into submission, it can be the hour of the poet who will not be silenced….He writes in Hebrew, but he speaks on behalf of the oppressed everywhere.

This is where Shabtai’s poems sing for me. They are rooted in the particular but speak to the general. Whether it is injustice declared against Palestinian or Jew, Christian or Muslim, Hutu or Tutsi, black or white, liberal or conservative, Shabtai speaks to that suffering. The great poets speak to that suffering. I am reminded, too, of Sharon Olds’ poem I Go Back to May 1937. She would not change the suffering she experienced at the hands of her parents, the price of her being alive, but as she says so firmly: I will tell about it. The poets will sing. Will write about it. And the hope I have is that, even though it might take much longer than it takes a gun to change a world, poets, their poems, will change our world, for the better.

Here is Shabtai’s poem Rosh Hashanah which so echoes Brecht and embodies the last line of the poem: and the poet sings.

Even after the murder
of the child Muhammad on Rosh Hashanah,
the paper didn’t go black.
In the same water in which the snipers
wash their uniforms,
I prepare my pasta,
and over it pour
olive oil in which I’ve browned
pine nuts,
which I cooked for two minutes with dried tomatoes,
crushed garlic, and a tablespoon of basil.
As I eat, the learned minister of foreign affairs
and public security
appears on the screen,
and when he’s done
I write this poem.
For that’s how it’s always been –
the murderers murder,
the intellectuals make it palatable,
and the poet sings.

Aharan Shabtai from J’Accuse, New Directions, 2003

A searing poem. How the poet calls out to us to remember that the abnormal is not normal. Even though it may be normalised. The paper with news of a child’s death doesn’t go black. The same water a sniper washes in, holds the poet’s pasta. How chilling. That at moments like these the world doesn’t somehow yell out!  That the paper doesn’t turn black, the water discolour. I appreciate how the poem surprises me. As it moves from a shooting to quotidian moments of a daily life and then back to trenchant social comment: For that’s how it’s always been – the murderers murder,/ the intellectuals make it palatable,/ and the poet sings. Oh, I pray we keep singing in a way the humanity of any person no matter their views, might be spoken to at a deep level. That they might be changed.

Deaths and suffering that occur on both sides of a political divide. This is a poem from one side of that divide. There are poems from the other side as well. May we hear them both. May we, on either side, be changed by poets who sing.

This next poem has a singing that takes a surprising twist. A lighter side of Shabtai. But how important, in dark times, to remember to say thank you, to make of our bodies a living prayer book!


 For years I’ve wanted to write a prayer book
Why?  Because I’ve learned
that the solid hangs upon nothingness
Because I’ve found that the sentence is a kind of petition
And because I’ve found that in all that I’ve said,
in all that I’ve said I’ve said only thank you
so, little by little,
in fact I’ve written that book
and today it weighs some two-hundred pounds
and soon it will celebrate its fiftieth birthday
and yesterday I bought it shoes.

Ahron Shabtai from Our Land, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2002


My wish today: that my 150 pound prayer book, almost sixty six years old, celebrates all he has to be thankful for. Even this day full of snow and cold!

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