Sitting down with Israeli poet Admiel Kosman and his translator Lisa Katz (who is a poet in her own right) in the Forward’s podcast studio felt less like a formal interview than a conversation in a dimly lit cafe, extending for hours into the night. And it likely would have extended — if the producer didn’t start waving frantically after the allotted half-hour was up. Indeed, Kosman’s new book, “Addressing You In English,” is so layered and multidimensional that it is prone to a vast number of discussions — not merely about poetry, but about language, love, Jewishness, prayer and more.
Spiritual seekers and philosophers who have grown up in a religious environment but who have chosen to transcend it are forever in a league of their own. While rituals peel away with time, what remains is a sense of addiction to meaning and purpose. And so Kosman, who grew up in a traditional Jewish environment, continues his intense spiritual and intellectual search, an internal debate characterized by his wonderful power of observation. As he explains in the interview, poetry as such is never his goal. Rather, it is something that erupts out of his contemplations — and thus is more organic, conflicted and emotionally rich.
Kosman now lives in Berlin where he is a professor of Religious and Jewish Studies at Potsdam University and the academic director of the Abraham Geiger rabbinical seminary. His poems and columns appear regularly in the Friday literary supplement of Israel’s leading newspaper, Haaretz.
Listen to an interview with Admiel Kosman, and read the six poems that he discusses:
Approaching You in English
Please, I’m encroaching on Your generosity in English this time. I say
“help” instead of ah-zor, “save” instead of ho-she-ya. Because I’ve forgotten
how to unlock the words at the heart of ancient Hebrew.
Please, won’t You be so kind and understand me this once
in a broken foreign tongue.
I’m breaking up the words for You. Slicing the sentence as if it were a communion wafer.
Large slices, for two.
Can You hear me this time? In the language of non-Jews? Can You understand
me, tongue-tied, stammering in obscure speech to a foreign audience?
Officially You may refuse. I know. I’m
approaching You in English this once.
But, please, be kind,
be attentive to the heart.
Even if it’s pointless,
tasteless. Please accept an offering
from me this time.
I’m pleading with You,
don’t be offended,
when I approach
I seem to You
to cross myself.
Poem for Mohammed
Mohammed, oh Mohammed, are you still awake?
The soldiers are sleeping while the wind blows
over the curled-up village, and I am the messenger
Something like that.
Strange. Am I a blind watchman?
Someone up there needs to check.
Perhaps there’s been an oversight.
Perhaps my file’s been switched
with someone else’s?
Ridiculous. After all I’ve been duly appointed, and I am a representative
of my party and also a guard, a soldier on horseback, a policeman,
a faithful envoy, the one and only, oh watch out, my Mohammed,
don’t tell the party my secret.
And don’t wake anyone up.
Who knows? Listen,
listen to me:
if tomorrow by mistake because of me, you awaken
those dead-and-buried in the village land,
digging up yesterday’s sands,
It wasn’t an honest lie and it wasn’t what I wanted.
Threaded in isolation along the seam, tenderly polite
and well-mannered. Now and then when he passes, I ask where did he get this
tool, such a straight and logical line. Like this? And he never
broke the door down? To see the other side?
Honest? I ask.
Didn’t I want to impregnate the whole cloth
with my love for him
like this. With all my potency. Strange are the ways of a slave,
one day I gave him a look, and he turned pale, rolled
up his sleeves and disappeared, leaving behind my wandering hand
to absorb the insult alone.
It wasn’t an honest lie. A creepy unimaginative
I thought that the way of the Hebrew slave
was a grave sin this time.
Every day his soul crossed the threshold, measuring
my sorrow with a cold and distant glance.
But I saw a stump. A hand trembling. As if paralyzed.
And whether it was my desire or his,
wasn’t Joseph so introspective, his spirit so fine,
that objectively, he should have acted differently?
But he turned suddenly.
Changed his mind,
strayed, cut loose and left. Rapist, I shouted
at him, rapist, when will you show up?
And all my screams, the piercing cries,
just came and went,
and many slaves arrived from a distance.
Calling by Name
On the other side of the scratched plastic window
in the central bus station, I saw a young couple. Ancient Adam
and Eve his wife standing next to him by a wall.
On the other side of the scratched plastic window in the first
rain pounding humbly on the windows,
I saw a young couple. I saw the man,
a distant relative of mine and his wife
a relative too. His gentle beak lightly grazed
hers and so I named this
man Good Bird and his wife I called
Orthodox me now, my darling,
orthodox me now, around you,
orthodox me tight, my darling,
orthodox me tightly now.
Orthodox me, oh
my love, Jeruzalem!
Orthodox me tightly now,
orthodox me, step by step.
Orthodox me, rope around you,
orthodox me around your neck.
Orthodox me, yeah! Oh
my love Jeruzalem! Oh
my darling! Orthodox me
strong and tightly.
Orthodox me forth and
back. Orthodox me, just
around you. Orthodox me
right and hang. Oh my love,
Jeruzalem! Orthodox me!
Heavy load around my neck.
Delete me please,
delete me absolutely
from da list,
no more Iz-rah-el, no more
Jewish blood, no
delete me, just delete,
I beg you, please,
Poems from Approaching You in English, by Admiel Kosman. Translated by Lisa Katz with Shlomit Naim-Naor. Hebrew copyright copyright 2011 by Admiel Kosman. English translations copyright 2011 by Lisa Katz and Shlomit Naim-Naor. Published by Zephyr Press, 2011.