Saturday, 17 December 2016

Why Islam Cannot Be Modernised

Amid warnings that the fall of Aleppo may be just the start of “a bloodier phase” in Syria’s continuing civil war, I’d like to take time out to look at the work of Adunis ‘Adonis’ Asbar, universally regarded as the greatest poet presently writing in Arabic.

Image result for adonis asbar

Although he champions Palestinian rights, Asbar - known by his pen-name ‘Adonis’ - has challenged Palestinian nationalism and hopes for a political solution that respects the aspirations of Palestinians and Jews alike.

“I am among those who seek the ills of the Arabs in their own history, not outside of it,” he says.

Indeed Adonis, Syrian-born and a long-time opponent of President Bashar al-Assad, hit the international headlines earlier this year when he claimed that Islam could not be modernised.

Respected for his particular understanding of the language of the Quran, he noted: “Arabs have no more creative force. Islam does not contribute to intellectual life, it suggests no discussion. It is no longer thought. It produces no thinking, no art, no science, no vision that could change the world. This repetition is the sign of its end. The Arabs will continue to exist, but they will not make the world better.”

Now aged 86 and a Nobel Prize nominee, Adonis divides his time between France and Lebanon. His personal friends include Israeli poets, Ronny Someck and Natan Zach. Adonis and Zach have even published a joint work together and when Adonis's work was published in Hebrew in Israel in 1989, Someck wrote a tribute poem that was added to the preface.

I conclude here with a piece that was translated into English by Shawkat M Toorawa whose notes may be read at:

The New Noah


We travel upon the Ark, in mud and rain, 
Our oars promises from God.   
We live—and the rest of Humanity dies.   
We travel upon the waves, fastening 
Our lives to the ropes of corpses filling the skies. 
But between Heaven and us is an opening, 
A porthole for a supplication. 

"Why, Lord, have you saved us alone 
From among all the people and creatures? 
And where are you casting us now? 
To your other Land, to our First Home? 
Into the leaves of Death, into the wind of Life? 
In us, in our arteries, flows a fear of the Sun. 
We despair of the Light, 
We despair, Lord, of a tomorrow 
In which to start Life anew. 

If only we were not that seedling of Creation, 
Of Earth and its generations, 
If only we had remained simple Clay or Ember, 
Or something in between, 
Then we would not have to see   
This World, its Lord, and its Hell, twice over."


If time started anew, 
and waters submerged the face of life, 
and the earth convulsed, and that god 
rushed to me, beseeching, "Noah, save the living!" 
I would not concern myself with his request. 
I would travel upon my ark, removing   
clay and pebbles from the eyes of the dead. 
I would open the depths of their being to the flood, 
and whisper in their veins   
that we have returned from the wilderness,   
that we have emerged from the cave, 
that we have changed the sky of years, 
that we sail without giving in to our fears— 
that we do not heed the word of that god. 
Our appointment is with death.   
Our shores are a familiar and pleasing despair, 
a gelid sea of iron water that we ford   
to its very ends, undeterred, 
heedless of that god and his word, 
longing for a different, a new, lord.

Source: Poetry (April 2007)

Natalie Wood (17 December 2016)

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Being Alone –Together!

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was abroad when his predecessor Shimon Peres died.

So  perhaps his visit and important speech to the Ukrainian Parliament marking the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre didn’t receive the international attention it deserved.

“We must not play a part in the sin of forgetting or denial … national leaders who support antisemitic, racist, or neo-Nazi ideas will not be welcomed as friends among the family of nations,” he warned.

Yevgeny.YevtushenkoMr Rivlin’s  words were a stern reminder of how the huge-scale atrocity was concealed by the Nazis and their Soviet collaborators for 21 years before being exposed by the renowned Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko in Babi Yar.  The translation below is by Benjamin Okopnik.



Babi Yar

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.

I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o’er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.

It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself.
The Philistines betrayed me – and now judge.
I’m in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I’m persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.

I see myself a boy in Belostok
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.

I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!”
My mother’s being beaten by a clerk.

O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.

I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The “Union of the Russian People!”

It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other’s eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed – very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.

-“They come!”

-“No, fear not – those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!”

-“They break the door!”

-“No, river ice is breaking…”

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.

No fiber of my body will forget this.
May “Internationale” thunder and ring

When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.

There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!


MNissim Ezekieleanwhile, it is time to recall that poetry was among Mr Peres’s interests and soon after his passing, members of Voices Israel, the English language poetry society were reminded how he often quoted from  Acceptance by Bene Israel Indian poet, Nissim Ezekiel.


… I am all alone
and you are alone.
So why can’t we be
alone together …

Indeed, he quoted this fragment at the opening of the 2013 Maccabiah Games, whose words it has been observed, should resonate with every  citizen of Israel’s rainbow nation.

© Natalie Wood (03 December 2016)

Saturday, 26 November 2016

As Great Men Leave The World ….

Among the flood of tributes to the late Cuban leader, Fidel Castro has been one at The Guardian newspaper where historian Richard Gott noted:

Jos-Julin-Mart-Prez6Cuba under Fidel was a country where indigenous nationalism was at least as significant as imported socialism, and where the legend of José Martí, the patriot poet and organiser of the 19th-century struggle against Spain, was always more influential than the philosophy of Karl Marx.”

Regarded as the symbol of Cuba's bid for independence from Spain in the late 1800s, José Julián Martí Pérez may also be viewed as being in the tradition of the valiant soldier poet. One must wonder how he would have reacted on learning that whereas his work to unite the Cuban émigré community, particularly in Florida, was crucial to the success of the Cuban War of Independence, many 20th century Cubans fled back there once Castro gained power in 1959.

Although Marti is now best remembered for the poem that became the lyrics to the Cuban anthem, Guantanamera, I pause below with a few simple lines that may be more appropriate for the day of Castro’s passing.

I Wish To Leave The World

I wish to leave the world
By its natural door;
In my tomb of green leaves
They are to carry me to die.
Do not put me in the dark
To die like a traitor;
I am good, and like a good thing
I will die with my face to the sun


But the past half-week has also been one of more semi-mourning for Israel where, The Times of Israel reports, the mix of terrorist-triggered arson and wildfire blazes have caused thirty per cent more land devastation than the Carmel Forest fire of 2010.

Ordinary Israelis – Arabs along with Jews - have reacted as ever with gestures of love, sympathy and practical support for those who have had homes and businesses wrecked – and memories destroyed.

At times like these even the non-religious seek comfort in the bible and among items posted on social media has been this wonderful version of Psalm 121, attributed to King David, one of the world’s first acclaimed soldier poets. The singer is Shelly Markalov, who was aged only eight at the time of recording. You have my permission to weep. I did!

© Natalie Wood (26 November 2016)

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A Living Will

This poem was first written as part of a  story and has been published in its present form by Mark Ulyseas of Live Encounters Magazine at Live Encounters Poetry Feast December 2016.


A Living Will


After I’m gone, say

the God I barely recognised

was indivisible.

Just One.


After I’ve gone, don’t

recite Kaddish. The

dying is for me.

Not Him.


Make the funeral short.

Let my body burn.

Should these requests be

judged thoughtless, most

perverse, let it be known

that I deserve no prayers,

praise, lies or crocodile tears.


What I did was wrong.

You’ll know this -

after I’ve gone.


Buy less milk and butter.

Turn the heating low.

Feed the cat. Cut

the kids’ hair monthly,

check their homework’s done.

Remind them they are Jewish -

after I’m gone.


When you make

Jack’s barmitzvah,

do invite my mum.

It’ll be good for

her to see him

wear Dad’s prayer shawl.


After I’m gone, carry

on as normal. Have

Janie round for tea.

I find your loving


Let’s not pretend.

It’s clear. She’s

a better mother

than I’d ever be.


After I’m gone,

pin a notice on our door.

“This woman,”

it should read,

“seemed honourable,

kind, fair; steadfast,

generous, taught her

children well.


“But as the final drips

of life seeped from her,

measured by the agonised

ticking of the clock, the

truth poured out.


“In a dream she

killed her father,

made mad her daughter,

then watched agape

as oblivion snatched

her, too.”


© Natalie Wood (19 October 2016)



Thursday, 13 October 2016

This Nobel Prize Is No Joke!

As luck would have it,  I was reading an obituary of Italian Nobel literary laureate, Dario Fo when news broke about this year’s winner, Bob Dylan.

But the coincidence does not end there. 

Bob.DylanJust as some people  like historian and Telegraph columnist, Tim Stanley opine  that Dylan “hasn’t written any literature”, when Fo received his award,  “the announcement rankled with many within the Italian literary and political establishment. Fo’s critics considered him to be a performer above all else  … (and) literary critic Geno Pampaloni wrote in the right-wing national press: “A Nobel Prize? It’s a joke.”

But here I want to confine myself to lauding both Dylan’s strong tribal bonds and his unswerving loyalty to Israel  even when harassed by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Indeed, like others, I’ve been surprised to learn of his almost irrational support for extremist right-wing Rabbi Meir Kahane and to discover his song, Neighborhood Bully. This was written after the 1982 Lebanon war and likens Israel to an 'exiled man' who is unjustly labelled as an aggressor for fending off constant attacks.



Neighborhood Bully

Well, the neighborhood bully, he’s just one man
His enemies say he’s on their land
They got him outnumbered about a million to one
He got no place to escape to, no place to run
He’s the neighborhood bully



The neighborhood bully just lives to survive
He’s criticized and condemned for being alive
He’s not supposed to fight back, he’s supposed to have thick skin
He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in
He’s the neighborhood bully

The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land
He’s wandered the earth an exiled man
Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn
He’s always on trial for just being born
He’s the neighborhood bully

Well, he knocked out a lynch mob, he was criticized
Old women condemned him, said he should apologize.
Then he destroyed a bomb factory, nobody was glad
The bombs were meant for him. He was supposed to feel bad
He’s the neighborhood bully

Well, the chances are against it and the odds are slim
That he’ll live by the rules that the world makes for him
’Cause there’s a noose at his neck and a gun at his back
And a license to kill him is given out to every maniac
He’s the neighborhood bully

He got no allies to really speak of
What he gets he must pay for, he don’t get it out of love
He buys obsolete weapons and he won’t be denied
But no one sends flesh and blood to fight by his side
He’s the neighborhood bully

Well, he’s surrounded by pacifists who all want peace
They pray for it nightly that the bloodshed must cease
Now, they wouldn’t hurt a fly. To hurt one they would weep
They lay and they wait for this bully to fall asleep
He’s the neighborhood bully

Every empire that’s enslaved him is gone
Egypt and Rome, even the great Babylon
He’s made a garden of paradise in the desert sand
In bed with nobody, under no one’s command
He’s the neighborhood bully

Now his holiest books have been trampled upon
No contract he signed was worth what it was written on
He took the crumbs of the world and he turned it into wealth
Took sickness and disease and he turned it into health
He’s the neighborhood bully

What’s anybody indebted to him for?
Nothin’, they say. He just likes to cause war
Pride and prejudice and superstition indeed
They wait for this bully like a dog waits to feed
He’s the neighborhood bully

What has he done to wear so many scars?
Does he change the course of rivers? Does he pollute the moon and stars?
Neighborhood bully, standing on the hill
Running out the clock, time standing still
Neighborhood bully

Copyright © 1983 by Special Rider Music

© Natalie Wood (13 October 2016)

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Celebrating ‘Jewtown’



Just in time for the Jewish New Year I’ve received  a sweet gift of poetry celebrating the story of the once vibrant Jewish community of Cork City, Ireland.

Jewtown**, a debut collection by Jewish-Irishman Simon Lewis, continues where academics leave off by offering us a fictionalised, whimsical account of the citizens’ private lives. We learn how, like other east European Jews fleeing persecution, they were duped into landing at the wrong port (Foot), initially disdained by the locals for appearing akin to aliens (The Zoo), then began to climb the economic ladder via menial labour (Creosote, Spit) sometimes having to resort even to bartering with food – and then themselves (Two Sisters).

There are nods to popular  Ashkenazi Jewish dishes like cholent (Sabbath stew) and chopped herring; references to times of mourning  (Shiva) and to end, a prose poem marking  the death of the entire community with The Last Sabbath at South Terrace Synagogue. The closure happened only in February this year.

Lewis, the principal of a primary school in Carlow, Ireland, has taken an unusual and vivid approach to teaching the wider world about his Lithuanian Jewish roots, which he continues to explore with great charm and unflagging gusto. It is no surprise that he has already  been widely published and won awards for his work.

I am perhaps the first Jewish person to review Jewtown but others – far more distinguished! - are sure to follow soon. The video clip below was recorded at the Irish Jewish Museum for its archives.

I conclude with Tashlich, a seasonal and painfully sad look at the privations endured by many immigrant Jews after they fled west to escape the persecution they had suffered elsewhere. Tashlich is a New Year ceremony in which  bread is thrown symbolically on flowing waters to cast away a person’s sins.




I toss breadcrumbs in the river

and pray to God for forgiveness:

for the food I stole from the houses

in empty shtetls, the lies to the soldiers

at every checkpoint all the way

to the harbour at Riga, and the evenings

where I could barely breathe,

questioning my faith, broken from the day.

This year, I thank God for a mattress

on a dirt floor, a small knob of butter

melted in mashed potato, to be able

to walk without looking behind me.


** Jewtown is published by the Doire Press in paperback @ €12.00 ($13.65; £10.40 approx.)

© Natalie Wood (01 October 2016)

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Alwayswriteagain: 5777 כתיבה וחתימה טובה

Alwayswriteagain: 5777 כתיבה וחתימה טובה:   The first day of Rosh Hashana , the Jewish New Year, falls next week, Monday 03 October 2016. May everyone who is celebrating have a gr...

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

On Rachel’s Birthday …

Israelis love their writers so much that many  are lauded as latter-day seers and saints.

Rachel BluwsteinSo it is with Rachel Bluwstein whose 126th birthday is celebrated today by Google Israel. Indeed, so revered and renowned does she remain even 85 years after her death, that she is still referred to simply as ‘Rachel The Poetess’.

Earlier this summer during a visit to Tiberias, I attempted to make a pilgrimage to her gravesite at the old cemetery, overlooking Lake Kinneret. But despite spending more than hour there wandering among the many fading headstones  and poorly tended plots, I was unable to find it.  I would appreciate a word from anyone who can point me in the right direction for a future occasion.

I conclude here with Perhaps, taken from the Anthology of Modem Hebrew Poetry, translated from the Hebrew by A.C. Jacobs.

Rachel Bluwstein Google


Perhaps it was never so.
I never woke early and went to the fields
To labour in the sweat of my brow
Nor in the long blazing days
Of harvest
On top of the wagon laden with sheaves,
Made my voice ring with song
Nor bathed myself clean in the calm
Blue water
Of my Kinneret. O, my Kinneret,
Were you there or did I only dream?


© Natalie Wood (20 September 2016)

Friday, 16 September 2016

A Jewish Dadaist Without Borders

Jacob GlatshteynJacob Glatstein (Yankev Glatshteyn) was one of the great figures of mid-20th century American Yiddish literature.

I mention him now because Words Without Borders, which promotes cultural understanding through the translation and publication of contemporary international writing, features his work in its current newsletter.

I am intrigued by this piece, translated by Asya Vaisman Schulman, as on a first reading, I mistakenly assumed it to be a sly satire of Ladino  -  Judeo-Spanish and Sephardi Jewry’s linguistic counterpart to Ashkenazi Yiddish.

However, research tells me that Glatshteyn designed it as a ‘dadaist hymn to Yiddish’ and used it in a public reading in November 1966, during which he asked his audience not to applaud between each poem so they may “have the opportunity without distraction to immerse themselves fully in the sound, rhythm and texture of the poetry.”


Sing Ladino

Sing Ladino, you blond songer,
Our magicjargonino,
Multicolored chattering,
Multitongued languageing
Sundownino, nino-nino,
Finegolden radiating, bursting—
All the breads, all the deaths,
All the taigas, all the tundras,
All the wonders multicolored,
All the wicks, all the skins,
Yellowred and Falashino,
Palestino speakerino,
Ours, our universladino,
You, blond Alladino, sing.

From the deeps and the stilldeepers,
Slavic, Luvavich, Turkavic,
Pollackic, Kazakhic,
Greekish and Teutonic,
Caucasian, Ashkenazi,
Carpathian and Asatic –
Our languagenoiseration,
Our tragic multihyping,
Our bulkheap, our buzzing,
Our Latvic, our
Scrawny thoughtster,
You blond songer,
Sing Ladino.

© Natalie Wood (13 September 2016)

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Disinheritance and Continuation

John Sibley WilliamsIn less than a month this past summer American writer John Sibley Williams has become the father of twins and produced a new collection of hauntingly beautiful verse.



Even so, the title of this latest book is Disinheritance **.

But unlike other readers who have offered it unstinting praise, I find the volume deeply disquieting. At a time when many fathers would write joyously of the new lives they have helped to create, Sibley devotes himself to death and mourning. Disinheritance

Further, as one poem in the collection is titled A Dead Boy Speaks to His Parents, it is followed by another, Things Start at Their Names. The latter refers to ‘Gabriel’ – also the name of his new-born son and means “God is my strength”.  Enough said!

Williams also writes fiction, is a free-lance literary agent, publicist and presently the marketing director of Inkwater Press, a self-publishing company. So I was surprised to note printing errors in the final poem, Denouement.


Can I say that a child died inside us
when all we have conceived is a name
for what could be?

We’ve built a cradle of nails and wood
to house a body too busy dying
to rest, a trophy of grief
we polish in case of tomorrow.

Yet still he cannot see through
the eyes I tried to give him.

My mother has woven a shroud
to warm the son, blue for the sky
and gold for its promise, black
around the edges to resemble
the distances between them.

Our friends have their mantra
the world will wait for you
and we have our reply
spelled out in silence.


** Disinheritance is published by Apprentice House @ $6.99 (Kindle) and $11.99 (Paperback).

© Natalie Wood (13 September 2016)

Sunday, 11 September 2016

What Black Poets Know By Heart

A 20-year-old US black poet has won the prestigious ‘Most Promising Young Poet Award’ from the Academy of American Poets. Donte-Collins_thumb17

Donte Collins scooped the prize for a poem dashed off in only 15 minutes and which was triggered by yet another shooting of a fellow black man by a white police officer.

Collins is a young man who may well be suffused by an uncomprehending, unrelenting rage.

After all, he could demand, as he was born in Chicago why were he and a brother summarily despatched to be adopted by a total stranger in Minneapolis-St Paul, Minnesota when he was aged only two? Didn’t they have a say in the arrangement? Why weren’t they allowed to be raised and loved by their natural mother – like other kids?

“My childhood was filled with both beauty and struggle … I was so angry. I didn’t understand what adoption meant. I had so much grief,” he says. It was only later that he began to understand that he could best express himself by using words instead of fists.

Amy-King_thumb13Below I repost Donte’s poem, what the dead know by heart along with Perspective by Amy King, who was co-winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize.


what the dead know by heart

by Donte Collins


lately, when asked how are you, i

respond with a name no longer living

Rekia, Jamar, Sandra

i am alive by luck at this point. i wonder

often:  if the gun that will unmake me

is yet made, what white birth

will bury me, how many bullets, like a

flock of blue jays, will come carry my black

to its final bed, which photo will be used

to water down my blood. today i did

not die and there is no god or law to

thank. the bullet missed my head

and landed in another. today, i passed

a mirror and did not see a body, instead

a suggestion, a debate, a blank

post-it note there looking back. i

haven’t enough room to both rage and

weep. i go to cry and each tear turns

to steam. I say I matter and a ghost

white hand appears over my mouth.



by Amy King

When I see the two cops laughing

after one of them gets shot

because this is TV and one says

while putting pressure on the wound,

Haha, you're going to be fine,

and the other says, I know, haha!,

as the ambulance arrives—

I know the men are white.

I think of a clip from the hours

of amateur footage I've seen

when another man at an intersection

gets shot, falls, and bleeds from a hole

the viewer knows exists only by the way

the dark red pools by the standing cop's feet,

gun now holstered, who

yells the audience back to the sidewalk.

I know which one is dying

while black and which one stands by white.

I think this morning about the student

in my class who wrote a free write line

on the video I played

that showed a man pouring water

on his own chest, "...the homoerotic

scene against a white sky" with no other men

present. Who gets to see and who follows

what script? I ask my students.

Whose lines are these and by what hand

are they written?

© Natalie Wood (11 September 2016)