Many years ago
I was sent
to spy out the land
beyond the age of thirty.
I stayed there
and I did not return to those who sent me,
so that I would not have to tell them
about that land
and would not have to lie.
I Waited for My Girl and Her Steps Were Not There
I waited for my girl and her steps were not there.
But I heard a shot—soldiers
training for war.
Soldiers are always training for some war.
Then I opened the collar of my shirt
and the two lapel-edges pointed
in two directions.
And my neck rose between them—
on it the crest of my quiet head
bearing the fruit of my eyes.
And below, in my warm pocket, the clinking keys
gave me the small sense of security
of those things that could still
be locked and kept.
But my girl yet walks through the streets
adorned in the jewels of the end-time
and the beads of the terrible danger
round her neck.
A Corpse in the Field
His blood was flung hastily and carelessly
like the clothes
of someone much too tired.
How the night has grown!
The windows had it right
like my parents, when I was a child.
passed over the hills, serious, heads bent.
Mayors, U.N. army officials
measured the distance from the living
to the dead,
with right angles and compasses and little rulers,
with cigar boxes, with hard emotions,
with sharpened hopes
and with bloodhounds.
Poem in the Orange Grove
I am godforsaken. “You are
godforsaken,” said my father.
God forsook me. Afterward, he, too.
The fragrance of blossoming orange groves
lingered in me for a time. The hands were sticky
with juice and desire. You screamed loud,
committed two of your last thighs
to battle. Afterward, silence. You, who studied
history with your lovely head, know that only what's past
is quiet; even battles, even the fragrance
of orange groves. Fruit and flower were in a single tree
in that double season, in the spring.
And already then we spoke in the strange foreign accent
of those who will die or be parted.
God's fate now
is like the fate
of trees and stones, sun and moon,
when people stopped believing in them
and began to believe in Him.
But He has to stay with us:
at least like the trees, at least like the stones
and the sun and the moon and the stars.
My mother's first yahrzeit far from Jerusalem
among the green islands of western Canada.
Forgetful water and remembering water
mingle at the shore,
high tide and ebb tide are also a continuous flow,
continuous and eternal life.
An eagle circles above, like a lonely soul,
and my mother never saw an eagle.
Here beneath myriads of trees and myriads of clouds
that have joined me for a minyan I say kaddish.
One can say kaddish in any place and one can say kaddish
even after the resurrection of the dead.
Even should my mother sit opposite me at the table,
little and bent, I would still mourn her death
before her eyes and say kaddish to her ears.
The Synagogue in Florence
Spring's softness in the courtyard,
tree blooming, four girls playing
between lessons in the Holy Tongue
in front of the marble memorial wall:
Levi, Sonnino, Cassuto and others
in straight lines as in a newspaper
or in a Torah scroll.
And the tree stands in memory of nothing,
just the memory of this spring,
arrivederci, our Father,
buona notte, our King.
Tears in the eyes
like dry crumbs in the pocket
of a cake that once was.
Buona notte, Sonnino,
arrivederci, six million,
the girls and the tree and the crumbs.
With a Suitcase in My Hand in a Foreign Land
The suitcase in my hand is full of things. I want
to bring happiness, to be a horn of plenty,
at least to bring luck like a coin tossed
into a fountain, to be a superstition.
I sit in a restaurant, on the table
flowers that perhaps wanted to be a bride's garland
or to adorn a grave in memoriam.
The waiter turns away from me,
the newspaper vendor goes by me,
even the beggar doesn't come to my table
and the security man at the airport didn't check me,
didn't frisk me, I'm not even suspect.
I remember my father's prophecy, “When you grow up,
you'll be able to travel alone,” and I fulfill it.
I remember, in my childhood in a foreign land
my mother and I were knocked down by a bicycle.
Since then, I've grown up and learned to sing the proud song,
“Though we were knocked down, we were not dismayed.”
I sang with
them all, for I was them-alled, very them-alled, with them all.
And now I'm alone in a foreign land. And what's happened
to them all?
Some were dismayed, some were knocked down and got up,
remained fallen. My mother is dead. The witnesses are gone.
I remember only one wheel of the bike still spinning a little,
spinning freed from the hard earth.
But We Must Praise
We must praise the Lord of all.
But we must praise
a familiar night. Gold borrowed from the abyss.
Cypresses rising forever. Far away,
long hair still flows, Lord of the loss of all.
What are you doing to me, far-away woman?
As on branches you hung me with weeping thoughts.
From far away your hand touches me as if testing
my bridges. They bear the weight and tremble.
Yours is the kingdom.
Behind my words dark as a moon
come to me, make me tired.
But we must praise the loins of all: your lap.
The rousing cheer
that bore you to me on the night of overturning,
stars of forgetful man above us.
Your body's style, sky's manner here in the hollow
of this narrow world. But we must.
from Songs of Zion the Beautiful
The photos of divided Jerusalem
you burn, and the so beautiful
love letters of a quiet beloved.
The undivided noisy matron has returned
with her gold and bronze and precious stones
to her fat legitimate life.
But I don't love her.
I sometimes remember the quiet one.
The light of passing cars
sorted my thoughts in black and white.
I, who cross the street
only in the places permitted,
was suddenly called among roses.
And like a dark branch that is white
where it is broken, I too am bright in my love.
Robert Alter is the author, most recently, of The Wisdom Books: A Translation With Commentary (Norton). These poems appeared in the December 20, 2012 issue of the magazine