Sunday, 27 July 2014

Falling Through the Sky

The tradition from which I come insists that nothing is haphazard; that there’s no such thing as ‘co-incidence’.

Antony.OwensSo there must be a good reason which no-one may yet quite fathom as to why Antony Owen and Joseph Horgan chose Thursday night 17 July to launch their poetry collection, The Year I Loved England.

How else, a mystic may muse, could they possibly include a piece about people falling ‘in to the sky’ just as news broke about the Malaysia Airlines disaster in which almost 300 people plunged from a height of 33,000 feet to their deaths deep in the Ukrainian countryside?

But part of the poet’s job is to make sense of the senseless and to reason with the inexplicable just as the task of the visual artist is to interpret it anew.

So what is not surprising is that the poem to which I allude recalls the work of the Russian-Jewish pioneering surrealist, Marc Chagall,  whose  major output was based on his Jewish background but who was laid to rest via a Christian burial accompanied by the Kaddish – the Jewish  mourners’ prayer!


Before we  look at the poem, I’ll explain that the book is the result of a two year project that began after a twinning arrangement with other poets in Cork, Ireland. Quite extraordinarily for people in a world that teems with artistic jealousies,  the two refuse to say who penned which poem!

That aside, the blurb from their publisher, Pighog Press says the “anthology voices the experience of living in the rapidly changing urban landscape of 21st century Britain. The poems explore changing attitudes and identities attributed to immigration, conflict, loss, unemployment. Joseph.Horgan

“The pages of the book loosely represent the house numbers of a street where people of different ages and different backgrounds co-exist … (and) the poems range across a timespan from an industrial Britain in the shadow of the Second World War through to the modern day”.

After Marc Chagall

“All the houses on our street are upside down
and people fly above the chimneys.
They are falling
in to the sky.

“They are not from here anyway.
Not one of them is from here anyway.
Who is from here anyway?

“The people in the sky are falling up, Marc.Chagall
in to India, Pakistan, Ghana, Nigeria,
St. Kitts and Ireland.
They are landing on their heads.

“They are from here everyway.
Every one of them is from here someway.
Where is from here anyway?

“All the streets near our house are downside up
and chimneys fly above the people.
They are sky
and they are flying”.


© Natalie Wood (27July 2014)

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Israel’s Constant Lover

Julie.BurchillOne of the most touching displays of loving support for Israel during the current hostilities has surely come from feisty U.K. journalist, Julie Burchill.

Movingly effective because it is so simple, Burchill posted an edited version of Shakespeare’s  Sonnet 116 on her Facebook page and wrote below: “Me for Israel”.

Here is the full version, followed by an analysis in The Atlantic magazine by US scholar, actor and poet, Linda Gregerson:

“Sonnet 116:

            “Let me not to the marriage of true minds
            Admit impediments. Love is not love  
            Which alters when it alteration finds,
            Or bends with the remover to remove.
            O no, it is an ever-fixèd mark
            That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
            It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
            Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
            Love's not time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
            Within his bending sickle's compass come.
            Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
            But bears it out ev'n to the edge of doom.
            If this be error and upon me proved,Linda.Gregerson
            I never writ, nor no man ever loved”.




© Natalie Wood (26 July 2014)

Monday, 21 July 2014

Choose Life, Choose In Life

As Israel’s latest war with its neighbours in Gaza becomes markedly worse I’m bound to say that terrible situations invariably produce the best from the unlikeliest sources.

Here I’m pleased to re-share a prayer co-authored by a Palestinian woman peace activist and a Masorti woman rabbi, both of whom live in Israel.

Sheika.Ibtisam.MahameedSheika Ibtisam Mahameed who runs a peace organisation named Hagar and Sara  and  Rabba Tamar Elad-Appelbaum came together to write this moving prayer in Arabic and Hebrew. It has been translated into English by Amichai Lau-Lavie.

“The Prayer of the Mothers

“God of Life:
You who heals the broken hearted, binding up our wounds.
Please hear this prayer of mothers.
You did not create us to kill each other
Nor to live in fear or rage or hatred in your world. You created us so that we allow each other to sustain Your Name in this world:  Rabbi.Tamar.Elad-Appelbaum
Your name is Life, your name is Peace.
For these I weep, my eye sheds water:
For our children crying in the night,
For parents holding infants, despair and darkness in their hearts.
For a gate that is closing – who will rise to open it before the day is gone?
With my tears and with my constant prayers, With the tears of all women deeply pained at these harsh times
I raise my hands to you in supplication: Please God have mercy on us.
Hear our voice that we not despair That we will witness life with each other, That we have mercy one for another, That we share sorrow one with the other, That we hope, together, one for another.
Inscribe our lives in the book of Life
For Your sake, our God of Life Let us choose Life.
For You are Peace, Your world is Peace and all that is Yours is Peace,
May this be your will
And let us say Amen”.

© Natalie Wood (21 July 2014)

Thursday, 17 July 2014

‘Grandfather Afrika’

Nadine.Gordimer.02The passing this week of Nadine Gordimer,  South Africa’s Nobel literary laureate,  reminds us that she confined herself largely to writing novels and short stories.

But I want to pay tribute to her here by sharing a poem by her contemporary and fellow anti-apartheid activist, Tatamkhulu Afrika (né Mogamed Fu'ad Nasif) who like her had his works banned by the apartheid regime.

Born in Egypt, ‘Afrika’ (a soubriquet later given to him in praise)spent most of his life in S.A. where he insisted on being registered as ‘non-white’.

After many travails he  joined the anti-apartheid movement and uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress. He was arrested, charged with terrorism and spent 11 years in the same prison as Nelson Mandela. He used his nom de plume (‘Grandfather Africa’) as an alias, allowing him to continue to write and publish while banned.

The Knifing

“Black workers pass
me carrying their tools.
I call to them for help:
the stone
masks of their faces turn
do not look my way again.
He flails the blade
across the top of my skull
(does he see it as a fruit,
splittable, spewing seed?),
slashes, then,  Tatamkhulu Afrika
the tender guardians of my wrists,
drives the knife-point in
below my left side’s bottom rib,
and runs.
I leave a spoor
like a wounded beast’s,
make it to the little Indian shop
that sells boiled eggs with mayonnaise,
falling about in my own blood,
eyes shouting “Help!”
They carry me to the ambulance.
The clouds sweep
me with their sad sides:
yet I hear someone speak
of the bright day
and what a shame it is that this should be done
to anyone on such a day.
A face stares
at me through the wire-mesh
of a police van.
It is his; he sees
my wretched body pass,
blood leaking at every seam:
blood that is also on his hands;
turns away, then with a suddenness that says
more than any tongue,
burrows his face into his hands.
What does he see?
They stitch and stitch,
let my head hang down
when the lights go round and I feel
sense slipping from me like a skin,
and I am the unadorned
genitals of my need.
She screams and screams,
like a cat on heat,
like a little girl drumming her heels.
But she is seventeen:
he beat her until she was all
broken up inside.
I stare at the fluorescent tube;
it shrinks
to a filament of fire in my brain.
Blood still sees
from the black Khayelitsha youth’s
black bruises prowl
over the old man opposite’s
Only I do not sleep.
Time is a pendulum that swings
unlinked to any clock:
only the black window’s scowling back
tell of night; pain writhes
through me like an eel.
I watch the glucose drip,
drop by dizzying drop,
into my veins, wake
to sunlight on the walls,
starlings flirting past the glass,
Khayelitsha mopping blood from his neck,
grinning, saying
I can borrow his pee-bottle if I want.
I sag on the bed,
glucose mellow-honey in my veins,
small pulse of reluctant life
kick-starting way back.
Khayelitsha takes my hand,
hopes I’ll soon be well;
goes out then,
moving slowly amongst the slow-
moving coterie of his friends.
Desultory Xhosa clicks
snap like trodden sticks,
fade down
an inner tribal trial.
I face him then:
his neck nuzzling my palm.
His face still hidden in his hands.
What does he see?
I think to set him free.
How shall he be free?
Or I?
Testicle to testicle, we are trussed
by the winding round
us, rambling plastic coils.
Roaring down each other’s throats,
bellowing of our need,
we are skewered on the sharp
white lightning of his blade”.

© Natalie Wood (17 July 2014)

Friday, 11 July 2014

The Poetry of Pistols

I’d been living in Israel for barely weeks when I spotted a young soldier chuck his machine gun on a car rear-seat like it was a bag of laundry. Some months later, on a crowded bus to Jerusalem, I was packed in so tightly next to a security guard wearing a pistol that I could feel its hand grip pressing against my hip.

Such is the reality of Israeli life and could explain why there are few celebrated modern Israeli soldier poets: Being called up is no fuss when everyone’s part of the citizens’ army.

But for religious soldiers,  time for devotion is everything and I bet there’ll be many among them reciting Tehillim – Psalms -  as they leave home and prepare to join their units for the current IDF Operation Protective Edge.

It’s said that the biblical King David wrote the psalms and as he’s probably the world’s most famous soldier poet,  I’ve decided to share Psalm 144:

1. Of David. Blessed is the Lord, my Rock, Who trains my hands for battle, my fingers for war.

א. לְדָוִד | בָּרוּךְ יְהֹוָה | צוּרִי הַמְלַמֵּד יָדַי לַקְרָב אֶצְבְּעוֹתַי לַמִּלְחָמָה:

2. My kindness and my fortress, my high tower and my deliverer, my shield in Whom I take refuge, Who flattens peoples beneath me.

ב. חַסְדִּי וּמְצוּדָתִי מִשְׂגַּבִּי וּמְפַלְטִי לִי מָגִנִּי וּבוֹ חָסִיתִי הָרֹדֵד עַמִּי תַחְתָּי:

3. O Lord, what is man that You should know him, the son of man, that You should consider him?

ג. יְהֹוָה מָה אָדָם וַתֵּדָעֵהוּ בֶּן אֱנוֹשׁ וַתְּחַשְּׁבֵהוּ:

4. Man is like a breath; his days are as a fleeting shadow.

ד. אָדָם לַהֶבֶל דָּמָה יָמָיו כְּצֵל עוֹבֵר:

5. O Lord, bend Your heavens and descend; touch the mountains and they will smoke.

ה. יְהֹוָה הַט שָׁמֶיךָ וְתֵרֵד גַּע בֶּהָרִים וְיֶעֱשָׁנוּ:

6. Flash lightning and scatter them; send forth Your arrows and confound them.

ו. בְּרֹק בָּרָק וּתְפִיצֵם שְׁלַח חִצֶּיךָ וּתְהֻמֵּם:

7. Stretch forth hands from above; deliver me and rescue me from great waters, from the hands of foreigners.

ז. שְׁלַח יָדֶיךָ מִמָּרוֹם פְּצֵנִי וְהַצִּילֵנִי מִמַּיִם רַבִּים מִיַּד בְּנֵי נֵכָר:

8. Whose mouth speaks vanity, and whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood.

ח. אֲשֶׁר פִּיהֶם דִּבֶּר שָׁוְא וִימִינָם יְמִין שָׁקֶר:

9. O God, I shall sing a new song for You; with a psaltery and a ten-stringed harp, I shall play music for You.

ט. אֱלֹהִים שִׁיר חָדָשׁ אָשִׁירָה לָּךְ בְּנֵבֶל עָשׂוֹר אֲזַמְּרָה לָּךְ:

10. Who gives salvation to kings, Who delivers David His servant from an evil sword.

י. הַנּוֹתֵן תְּשׁוּעָה לַמְּלָכִים הַפּוֹצֶה אֶת דָּוִד עַבְדּוֹ מֵחֶרֶב רָעָה:

11. Deliver me and rescue me from the hands of foreigners, whose mouth speaks vanity and whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood.

יא. פְּצֵנִי וְהַצִּילֵנִי מִיַּד בְּנֵי נֵכָר אֲשֶׁר פִּיהֶם דִּבֶּר שָׁוְא וִימִינָם יְמִין שָׁקֶר:

12. For our sons are like saplings, grown up in their youth; our daughters are like cornerstones, praised as the form of the Temple.

יב. אֲשֶׁר בָּנֵינוּ | כִּנְטִעִים מְגֻדָּלִים בִּנְעוּרֵיהֶם בְּנוֹתֵינוּ כְזָוִיֹּת מְחֻטָּבוֹת תַּבְנִית הֵיכָל:

13. Our corners are full, supplying from harvest to harvest; our flocks produce thousands, yea, ten thousands in our streets.

יג. מְזָוֵינוּ מְלֵאִים מְפִיקִים מִזַּן אֶל זַן צֹאונֵנוּ מַאֲלִיפוֹת מְרֻבָּבוֹת בְּחוּצוֹתֵינוּ:

14. Our princes are borne; there is no breach nor rumour going out, nor is there a cry in our squares.

יד. אַלּוּפֵינוּ מְסֻבָּלִים אֵין פֶּרֶץ וְאֵין יוֹצֵאת וְאֵין צְוָחָה בִּרְחֹבֹתֵינוּ:

15. Praiseworthy is the people that has this; praiseworthy is the people whose God is the Lord.

טו. אַשְׁרֵי הָעָם שֶׁכָּכָה לּוֹ אַשְׁרֵי הָעָם שֶׁיְהֹוָה אֱלֹהָיו

But to return to modern Israel, I would like to look at the work of Aryeh Sivan (né Bomstein) which is said to  “evoke a sense of shared public experience at the same time that it expresses provocation and protest”.  This, it may be argued, is the essence of army life: hierarchal but somehow still an equaliser because of that mutual knowledge.

Tel-Aviv-born, Sivan served in the Palmach Unit during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, later becoming a high school teacher of literature. He has published 16 collections of poetry and a novel and has won many prizes.

Asked for whom he writes his poems, he told the Haaretz newspaper: “"Whoever comes across my poems. I write out of inner pressure to write something. I don't think about whom it will reach and whom it will please, or with whom it will curry favour. Writing is an inner act of the writer ... The writing itself is what gives me satisfaction”.

So, pleasing everyone or no-one, I conclude here with Sivan’s To Live in the Land of Israel which was written in 1984. The translation is by M Salomon.

* Zvi Hurvitz, the poem’s dedicatee, was a member of the "Bilu" group, a movement whose goal was the agricultural settlement of the Land of Israel. Its members were known as Bilu'im.

“To Live in the Land of Israel

To the memory of Zvi Hurvitz:
Pioneer, commander and bereaved father.Aryeh.Sivan

“To be cocked like a rifle, the hand
clutching a pistol, to walk
in a closed, harsh line, even after
the cheeks are filled with dust,
and the seared flesh is fallen away, and the eyes can no longer focus on a target.

“There is a saying: a loaded gun is bound to fire.
Not true.
In the Land of Israel, anything can happen:
a broken pin, a spring rusted through,

or, the sudden cancellation of your orders, without explanation,

as it once happened to Abraham on Mount Moriah”.

© Natalie Wood (11 July 2014)

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Spreading the Love

I anticipate  a lot of criticism for daring to invoke the shade of the late and inordinately great Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook in reference to the dreadful events unfolding in Israel even as I write.

But nothing daunted!

Rav Kook’, as he became generally known, was the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine. He was primarily a scholar, mystic and poet but his many interests included “outreach and cooperation between different groups and types of Jews, seeing both the good and bad in each of them”.

I’d like to think, in view of the  flashes of quiet heroism that some Jewish Israelis and their Arab counterparts are displaying in trying to leap the divide between us, that Rabbi Kook’s poetic and prayerful emphasis on universalism is worth highlighting here.

I had been tempted to republish his oft quoted The Fourfold Song of the Soul but have decided instead to use - Rabb Abraham Iaac Kook

“The Glory of All

“I love all;
I cannot but love all:
All the nations.
From my very depth, I want the glory of all,
The perfection of all.
My love to Israel burns more greatly
And is deeper,
But this inner desire spreads out in the force of its love
To all.
I have no need at all to force this feeling of love--
It wells directly from the holy depth of Wisdom
Of the Godly soul”.

(Arpelei Tohar 22, quoted in Mishnato Shel Harav Kook, p. 307 – with acknowledgements to the translator, Yaacov David Shulman).

© Natalie Wood (08 July 2014)

Monday, 7 July 2014

Clasping Mystery in Your Palm!

As Twitter becomes an increasingly important platform for micro-mini creative writing, it’s  no surprise that publishers are  willing – no, anxious! – to publish quite ridiculously tiny books.

Such an outfit is the online The Origami Poems Project which produces  ‘Origami Micro-Chapbooks’ with poems so arranged that readers may print  them on a single sheet of paper, then fold them, origami-style, into  palm-sized books ready to read and share. 

Andrew.NicholsonThe project boasts more than a hundred participating poets including Mancunian, Andy Nicholson (‘Andy N’), who appeared recently as a guest contributor on this site.

I’m sure any Mancunian reading his piece below will recognise the mysterious aura of  divine damp that ever pervades our favourite city. But perhaps I’ve now left myself open to derision ..!

“Mystery Story

“Covered in slight fog

Faces blur over the sunset


“Stretching round the back of

The shut down bus station


“ Leading to the deserted dockyard

And blown out streetlights


“Breathing in and out slowly

Like a deer frozen in the headlights


“And a mystery unsolved

Dripping off the side of the bridge”.

© Natalie Wood (07 July 2014)

Friday, 4 July 2014

Where Ireland and Israel May Meet

The day the Irish literary world plunged into deep mourning on the passing of a favourite son, Israel cheered an honorary degree from Trinity College, Dublin awarded to its own best known living novelist.

What’s more, the honour bestowed on Amos Oz was given by former Irish president Mary Robinson, who as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights became known for her harsh criticism of Israel.

Oz told Ynet News during a telephone interview: "Dublin is not an easy place for Israelis. The criticism towards Israel and its policy in the territories is even harsher than anywhere else in Europe. But the cultural Dublin, the one that loves poetry and literature received us with open arms. My wife Nili and I spent only a few days here, but they will always be remembered with great affection”.

However this piece is not about Oz, but about novelist and poet, Dermot Healy, who was hugely loved and respected as much by his neighbours in Ballyconnell, County Sligo as by his literary peers.

But rather than give a potted biography of Healy who was not well-known outside Ireland, I’m reposting this video clip of  a fiction and poetry reading he delivered in December 2012.

Still, I cannot conclude without giving us something to read, so here is The No Tree – courtesy of Poem

“The No-TreeDermot.Healy

“Sometimes the moon
gets caught in the high branches
of the No-tree,
and you have to shake                   
and shake the No-tree
to set it free.
Even this may never be enough”.

© Natalie Wood (04 July 2014)

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

They Were Here But Yesterday

Three sets of parents are in mourning following the abduction and murder of Israeli Jewish students, Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach.

So it should have been no surprise that a poem by one of the country’s most revered writers was included among the conventional funeral prayers during yesterday’s eulogies and funerals.   Three.Mothers

After all, Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion had called Natan Alterman ‘the conscience of the people’ and his poem, The Third Mother positively screamed to be somehow included on this most tragic of occasions.

 Natan.AltermanAlterman (1910-1970) was born in Warsaw and moved to Tel Aviv in 1935 where he attended the Herzl Gymnasia (high school). He studied agronomy in France but when he returned to Palestine he concentrated on his writing.

Although Alterman is known best as a lyricist, he also wrote plays, short sketches, children’s books, newspaper columns and made prize-winning translations of Shakespeare, Moliere and Racine into Hebrew. He received the Israel Prize for his contribution to Israeli literature in 1968.

“The Third Mother
”Mothers are singing. Mothers are singing.
A fist of thunder bangs down. Strong silence.
Red-bearded lamps are marching
in the empty streets in rows.

“Autumn mortally ill, weary,
inconsolable autumn,
rain without beginning or end.
No candle in the window, now light in the world,
three mothers sing.

“I hear one of them say:
’He was here but yesterday.
I shall kiss his every fingernail and finger.
I see a tall ship in a calm bay,
and my son from the topmast hanging’.

“And the second one says:
’My son is tall and quiet.
I am sewing a holiday shirt for my dear.
He's walking in the fields. He will soon be here.
And he holds in his heart a lead bullet’.

“And the third mother says with her wandering eyes:
’No one was dearer or kinder...
Who shall weep when he comes if I cannot see?
I do not know where to find him’.

“And she bathes her eyelashes with weeping.
Perhaps he is only resting. Perhaps
in foreign places he measures
the paths of Your world, O God,
(Like a wandering monk) with kisses’”.

© Natalie Wood (02 July 2014)