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Love Poetry in the Time of Conflict

War & Love / Love & War
By Aharon Shabtai
Translated by Peter Cole
New Directions Books, 175 pages, $15.95

“Keats called it negative capability. I call it a capacity for sustenance — to sustain and be sustained, which is to say, to continue. And to continue means to always make and say something different.” Thus writes Israeli poet and academic Aharon Shabtai in the afterword to his recently published collection of poetry, “War & Love / Love & War,” translated by Peter Cole.

Almost 200 years ago, English poet John Keats coined the idea of “negative capability” — a poet’s capacity to function suspended in mystery and uncertainty. Shabtai revisits this concept with a new perspective. For him, being a poet is not a mere state of languishing in the unknown but a persistent friction against the unknown’s shaky borders, with a certain sense of poetic nourishment derived through this friction. For Shabtai, the essence of poetry is the movement toward new unknowns, a movement fraught with apocalypse and transformation.

Indeed, Shabtai’s book — spanning more than three and a half decades of writing, — is pure motion, an intense ride through styles, themes and voices. ”War & Love / Love & War” opens with a scorching selection of recent poems criticizing his countrymen’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It moves to Shabtai’s early works from the 1970s, with recollections of his kibbutz upbringing and interludes a biographical snippet of Menachem Begin’s life, written in modernist verse filled with Talmudic and Kabbalistic allusions. It continues with poems of love, sex, relationships and loneliness — explorations of human nature — before finally closing with a scintillating selection of his most recent works, in which he mourns the passing of his wife.

There are poems that are simple and lyrical, and there are complex experimental ones; some are raunchy and even downright crude; a few are gentle and quiet. Some recall the tone of ancient Hebrew prophets and yet others reference Greek bards — on whom Shabtai is a true expert, being Israel’s award-winning translator of Greek drama into Hebrew.

For all of the collection’s diversity, however, the poet is consistent in his recurring usage of shock treatment as a favored mode of engaging his readers. In the book’s afterword, which is also a sort of ars poetica, Shabtai describes how “…facing an audience grown accustomed to being obedient, one wants to say, of all things, something annoying and critical, to get under the skin of what’s respectable and, yes, enjoy the vulgarity of it and be a little wild.”

This tendency to be jarring works well in the context of author’s bawdy love poetry. Yet this shock treatment approach is at its most vulnerable when it comes to the “war” poems that open the collection. For when Shabtai writes, in the very first two lines of the book, “These creatures in helmets and khakis, / I say to myself, aren’t Jews,” it is easy to question whether he is writing these lines for the effect or out of sincere feeling. Is this the real pain, true and sincere rage against the system that he is describing, or is it merely subversion for the sake of being “annoying and critical”? Or worse yet: Could Shabtai be feeding his poetic inspiration, vulture-like, with the tragic facts of the conflict?

Such questions are inevitable for any poet who takes the risk of stepping past aesthetics and abstractions to delve into the realm of current political events. True motivation is bound to remain a haunting question mark in the reader’s mind, but what makes Shabtai’s war poems truly evocative is the ability to interject — between rants, accusations and all too explicit finger-pointing — certain deeply personal moments of visionary caliber. Thus, the poem “Sharon Resembles a Person” starts out trite and slogan-like:

Sharon resembles a person,
the imminent peace resembles peace
the paper reporting with fanfare
resembles a paper

But ends lyrically, and quietly visceral:

At the grocer,
with trembling fingers
I check the potatoes,
and they too, they too,
resemble potatoes.

It is as if the poet, in front of the reader’s eyes, goes from being an angry shouting protester, to a trembling and tired man who can’t get the mind off his country’s plight even while shopping for potatoes.

In “Our Land,” a tension increases from the title onward, culminating with an image grotesque and unsettling:

our land is being harrowed
with chains of steel,
and above your heads there is no sky
like a light-blue shirt –
but only broad buttocks of the murderer.

This land, the poet elucidates, belongs to both nations, as “…we belong / to a single body – / Arabs and Jews. / Tel Aviv and Tulkarem, / Haifa and Ramallah – / what are they / if not a single pair of shoulders, / twin breasts?”

Shabtai has long been an outspoken political activist and critic — as was his wife, Tanya Reinhart. Once a professor of linguistics and literary theory at Tel Aviv University (her doctoral adviser was Noam Chomsky), she left Israel, unable to withstand its politics, and settled in New York in 2006. She passed away a few months later. The final — and the most moving — chapter of Shabtai’s collection, “Tanya,” is about her.

Here Shabtai’s lyricism, experimentation, diversity and propensity for shock merge into a single tender voice, struggling to survive the loss, to break through communication barriers imposed on this all too physical world:

You’d like to know
how it feels to live without you
Like a man falling
from the hundredth floor
who sees, in a window,
a beautiful woman undressing

This is not exactly what one expects to hear from the mourner. The image is raw, sexual. The darkness edges on humor. It is as if the poet, so set on transformations, can’t mourn in a traditional, approved way, but has to find new and more poignant means of expressing himself. The poem’s beauty is in the physical sensation of plummeting, with a second’s flash of fatal yearning that the reader, too, experiences. In the essay, the poet explains that he places the weight of the poem on its syntax — compositional flow — which to him is more important than the actual words used. To his great merit, Cole has been able not only to capture the terse and poignant imagery, but also to preserve and intensify the poetry’s fiery syntactic energy.

In another poem from the “Tanya” cycle, it is again the composition, rather than the diction that represents the depth of feeling with heart-breaking potency:

Tanya is no more
Tanya is no more

and so I wander
and so I wander

with a sack full of cash
with a sack full of cash

with a huge hole in my heart
with a huge hole in my heart

with 15 pipes
with 15 pipes

from woman to woman
from woman to woman

from apartment to apartment
from apartment to apartment

with black Prada shoes
with black Prada shoes

with brown Prada shoes
with brown Prada shoes

tonight I’ll read Zadig
tonight I’ll read Zadig

The repetitions establish a musical, dirge-like rhythm that stays current throughout the poem. But each repetition means something different. The first lines sound like a pained mourner’s mumbling. In the third and fourth verses, the sack gets heavier, and the hole in the heart gets bigger with the repetition. Pipes — most likely smoking pipes, as the cover photo of the book implies — also evoke the image of music, as if one orchestral row joins in after the other. By the sixth and seventh, the verses are all a single strand of movement between relationships and apartments experienced as a single indistinguishable breath. Next, the shoes take on almost physical presence, standing side by side, identical like the lines that represent them. Black or brown, it’s hard to remember — but in them, the reader stumbles into poem’s finale. The decision to read something at the day’s end seems to promise a temporary relief but what gets pulled off the bookshelf is, ironically, Voltaire’s “Zadig” — the pessimistic tale of a philosopher’s struggle with Fate, treacherous and questionably significant turns of destiny.

Invoking Voltaire as a nightcap is significant. The French thinker of the Enlightenment era used literature and satire to package his political and philosophical views. It is to this writer that Shabtai turns seeking comfort, and it is a surprising conclusion for this non-Voltairian, intensely personal and artfully beautiful poem. Yet, so things go in Shabtai’s poetry — as the poems unfold in constant surprises, leaps between irreconcilable worlds, philosophies and passions. Appropriately, in the “Begin” poem, Shabtai recalls two Talmudic stories — one about Rabbi Akiva, who followed Rabbi Joshua to observe the older sage’s bathroom habits, and one about Cahana, who went so far as to hide under Rav’s bed to observe the man’s marital rituals — both concluding “that’s torah / (teaching) – / and I need to learn.” Following their example, Shabtai proclaims:

To be a Jew
(as I
understand the notion)
means to throw yourself
into the mud
(in order to learn)

to enter,
really to go
your own ass
in order to learn
(to be a person).

Jake Marmer is the poetry editor for the Forward.


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