Mordechai Geldman

Translator’s Note:

Mordechai Geldman came of age as a poet in the seventies, a heady and auspicious time in the development of Modern Hebrew poetry. Young poets, such as Yair Hurwitz and Yona Wallach—friends and contemporaries of Geldman, with whom he shared a strong kinship—were publishing their first books, inspired by the freedoms their elders had established as a matter of course. These poets—David Avidan, Natan Zach, Yehuda Amichai, and Dahlia Ravikovitch—who began publishing two decades earlier, had turned away from the poetic conventions of their immediate predecessors, notably Natan Alterman and Avraham Shlonsky, who were still very dominant in the fifties and sixties. Avidan, Zach, and their contemporaries vehemently rejected the flowery, the hyperbolic, and the sentimental, along with rhyme and formal verse. They advocated for and embraced the modernism of Pound, Eliot, Auden, and Wallace Stevens, to name a few, and so paved the way for Geldman and his generation of poets.

Geldman’s poetic journey is transformative, and he seems to exhort us to pay attention, to be mindful, and perhaps share in the kabbalists’ vision that “There can be no perfecting above without the perfecting influence of humans when they are righteous and act from love.” (Zohar 2:155a). For Geldman, the determination to seek and to understand through the act of writing is equated with the determination to live. To feel and to formulate becomes not only his way of life, but his survival strategy. The devotion to the written word is sacramental and binding, impelling him toward precision, on the one hand, and toward humility, on the other.

Mordechai Geldman
’s poems, in my translation, have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Absinthe Literary Review, Cider Press Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, and in Poets on the Edge: An Anthology of Contemporary Hebrew Poetry (SUNY Press). Years I Walked at Your Side, spanning thirty years of Geldman’s work, is now under consideration with a publisher in the United States.

Tsipi Keller
(the translator) was born in Prague, raised in Israel, and has been living in the United States since 1974. The author of nine books, she is the recipient of several literary prizes, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fiction Award. Her short stories and poetry translations have appeared in journals and anthologies in the United States and in Europe. Her novels include Retelling, Jackpot, and, most recently, The Prophet of Tenth Street (2012). Her translation collections include: Poets on the Edge: An Anthology of Contemporary Hebrew Poetry; and The Hymns of Job & Other Poems.



What is his true voice?

Have words wrapped him
in murmurs
in forms
in worn-out constructs that came before him?
“Person” described him
better than “frog”
but the croaking of frogs in the night’s ponds
or the whistle of birds at dusk
or the sound of fruit dropping to the ground
drew him out better than Hebrew
as Being revealed itself to him in its fullness

And at moments of imposed openness
when fatigue dissolved his inhibitions
Yiddish melodies floated up in his mind
songs of mournful wisdoms
of a cursed chosen people of God
tunes of an exiled truth
and suffering and the rolling of the dead[1]

And at times other voices
voices of others
snuck surreptitiously into his secret cave
echoed in his voice and from within
infecting his voice with alienation
alien voices echoed in his voice, simulating his voice
his voice at times getting lost in simulation

But was it really simulation
was there really a voice that was not his voice
as it used his mouth, his palate, his tongue, his teeth
in order to set forth in the world
out into a vastness of odd-looking funnels

And wasn’t his voice muddled up
when adjusted to the auditory frequency of listeners
who had no intention to listen
and certainly never made the effort
and in fact never could

A suspicion played in him
annulling any pure sound
true like the roar of a river
virginal like the note of a reed
that has just been pulled from the edge of the swamp
or cruel and desirous like the wail of prairie wolves

But always an intense pain
an absolute final truth
whose voice was a scream or a shout
a voice distilled of dross
a voice of pure pain
pure voice of pain
four final words
and the chorusing of wasps
in landfills


In the end I couldn’t save her 

I who was appointed by her to save her
I who had saved her since childhood again and again
from the death that hummed in her
from the Poles, the Germans, from the neighbors, from Father
even from myself—
in the end I couldn’t save her
all my efforts fell short
for in the end her time had come

In the end she knew nothing
except her death
that surged from within her like a conquering killer
and she, as if yearning for him without alarm
placed herself in his hands

In the end she could only say—
“Shabbat is here”
as if all of time had been lost
and only Shabbat remained
a white dress she wore for her Shabbat
and all the days all day
she lit more and more Shabbat candles
and a Shabbat fire she lit on the stove
and eternal light she lit in the bulbs
and set the table for the Friday meal
as if waiting for me
as if waiting for him
lecha dodi likrat kallah[2]

In the end the candles dimmed
and the white dress perished as well
for it was stained with food urine and excrement
and I who had been appointed to be her grace and glory
could not in the end save her
for all my efforts fell short



          A monk asked Chao-Chu:
          Is the nature of Buddha in the dog?
          Ehhhh, said Chao-Chu



A car ran over the cat Chu
and I wept for my cat Chu
(affectionately I called him Chu-Chu)
as if he were my son or my friend-beloved

But my weeping distressed me—
how can you, I said, cry for a cat
while death consumes people in its thousand mouths
the land is filled with widows and orphans
and many parents lost their sons
and he who didn’t die in the war died in a terrorist attack
and he who didn’t die in a terrorist attack
died in a car crash, floods, fires

And he who didn’t die in those died from old age or illness
and he who didn’t vanish in death
is now blind and lame or scarred with burns
and all are awaiting the next war
that will destroy even the birds and cats



The cat Chu like most of the cats in our land
was a fourth-world citizen
living at the bottom of society’s ladder
below the beer guzzling foreign workers
below the shaking drug-addicted whores
together with the litter-nibbling hobos

But I raised him from the gutter
to be a domestic noble tiger
a green-eyed striped tiger
daintily stepping on pillows and armchairs
feeding on Italian preserves
and preferring to catnap with his head in my palm
Am I an orphic poet who seeks
his beloveds in the lower worlds
who favors a stone the builders refused[3]
who imports his poems from the lands of death?



At night Chu came to me in his spirit
and said in the language of humans:
“Now that you’ve written two poems
you want to forget me
but I’m a cat of three poems
if not more”

[1] Refers to the belief that when the Messiah arrives, Jews who had died in the Diaspora would roll under their graves, through tunnels and caves, to Israel for the Resurrection

[2] From the liturgy, a song recited in synagogue Friday evening to welcome the Shabbat, referred to as a bride and queen: “Come my beloved to greet the bride”

[3] From Psalms, CXVIII, 22: “The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.”

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