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Lives of the Dead. A book of death poems by Hanoch Levin, an Israeli playwright. A review. Provocative. Frank. Uncomfortable Reading
I received an email from a Dharma friend in Israel recommending I read playwright/poet, Hanoch Levin (1943-1999), who lived in Tel Aviv. I checked out some of his writings on social media and then purchased his collected poems Lives of the Dead.
Fearless, frank and uncomfortable reading, Levin puts to the sword spiritual romanticism around life and death. He does not offer the truth of liberation from bondage to life and death but instead proclaims the truth of suffering about death. He wrote some of the poems while dying from bone cancer ravishing his body.
Click on photo of Hanoch Levin to enlarge
Born in Palestine, Levin’s Polish parents survived the Holocaust. His first play focussed on the reaction of much of Israel to the Six-Day War from 8 – 13 June 1967.
Feeling fearful of neighbours, the Israel government launched airstrikes against Egyptian airfields killing 15 international peacekeepers. The Israeli army also invaded and took over Gaza, West Bank, Golan Heights in Syria and East Jerusalem with decades of painful occupation for the Arab communities.
After the Six-Day War, Levin staged a play, You, Me and the Next War, the following year in Tel Aviv. A dark satire, the play offered sharp insights into the self-congratulatory tone in the country after the war; a tone of superiority he felt would lead into more wars in the years ahead. He proved right. The play caused an uproar in Israel.
Here are lines from the play.
“Whenever we go out walking, we’re three
You, Me, and the next war.
And when we’re sleeping, we’re three
You, Me, and the next war…
And whenever we smile in a moment of love
The next war is smiling with us
And when we wait in the delivery room
The next war is waiting with us.”
Two years later, he wrote another play The Queen of the Bathtub, a satire on Prime Minister Golda Meir. The play closed after 19 performances due to the public anger at the theatre company and actors. Actors quit in the face of the pressure. Israeli government banned his 1982 play, The Patriot. Levin stopped giving press interviews preferring to let his plays and poems do the talking. He revealed an integrity and independent spirit rather than pursue personal attention.
Provocative and uncompromising, Levin used satire in his plays to reveal Israel’s fantasy relationship with the IDF (Israeli army), the occupation of the mind with things /objects (Hebrew: hefetz) and submissive obedience to political authority.
Levin wrote 56 plays revealing areas of dark humour, dynamics of warped relationships with digs at hype and hypocrisy. He refused to give interviews and turned his back on awards as a playwright. He is in the tradition of Samuel Becket (1906-1989. Irish), Harold Pinter (1930-2008. English) and Bertol Brecht. (1898-1956. German).
Israel has come to regard Levin as their greatest playwright, despite his highly contentious plays challenging the self-importance and orthodoxy of political/religious/social views. He had no concerns about an after-life.
The Poetry in the Lives of the Dead
In this single volume of his collected works of poetry, Hanoch Levin offers a meditation on death – dark, satirical, grim, sideways humour with no interest whatsoever to romanticise death or give pleasure to the reader. He does not offer a crumb of comfort but reminds readers in an uncompromising manner of the stark difference between life and death that he perceives. It is not a perception shared by all of us.
While reading the poems, I recalled the many cremations we witnessed in the grounds of the Thai Buddhist monastery during my years as a monk. Bodies were brought for burning in vans and small trucks and placed on a pile of wood. Monks and nuns also lived, died and were cremated as well. Monks chanted while friends and family of the deceased witnessed the sight and sounds of the corpse of a loved one burning. Monks repeated the Buddha’s regular words that life includes birth, ageing, pain and death.
The Vipassana teacher took several monks and nuns to the basement of the nearby hospital to see and meditate on corpses on stone slabs – young and old alike. We saw those who died from murder, drowning, poison, sickness, accidents, disease, on the operating table and more. Most had died within the past 24 hours. Meditations on death put our life into perspective. Levin employs poetic utterances to make a similar point.
Here are a few extracts from his poems. Hebrew on the left hand side of the page and English on the right side.
Levin writes as if the dead, including himself, were alive – lying in their coffin in the cemetery while facing up to the stars with open eyes. Hence the title of the book, Lives of the Dead.
After Mr. Zilberstein put out the light
The night rose like a deep voice
Hoarse with stars.
Towards dawn, when Mr Shrevrevsky wanted to rise
his hand would not obey
His feet would not obey.
The morning pours into the night, the milk into the coffee
Early rises and rheumatoid sufferers
Found in the sun a remedy.
The fried eggs whispered, the Spanish buttocks
Sank deep in the flowered cushion.
And all the dead will wonder
How tall the trees have grown and how grey the grave,
And still they’ll look and wonder at themselves
And Messiah pass among them and laugh
Handing out to each of them a minty cough drop
Here comes the end
And it is worse than we anticipated
And there is no way it could be worse than this.
Who is the man who built a new house?
Let him go and return to his end.
Who is the man who planted his vine?
Let him go and return to his end.
Who is the man who betrothed him a wife
Let him go and returned to his end.
Who is the man who’s fearful and soft at heart?
Let him go back to his end
And all the fixtures will be as fittings in a great wind
And, the man said what has been left
If not to be philosophical
I’ve plenty of time here at my disposal
To solve the deep meaning of it all.
The man peeked in himself and knew
In this life there is no riddle.
And the dead man takes to heart the fact that you will not
soon rise from this hole
and a long time more he’ll pass in torturous lying on his
back without a stir.
So he says, How shall a man spend his death,
What remains? If not to ponder steady, and resolve the riddle of his days
and the dead man cried a desperate cry for his base life that
was lost and no one heard the dead man’s awful groan, for it was choked in the hollow of his mouth. That was stuffed with earth.
A dedicated student of the nature of decomposition, and the kidney,
innocent and untouched by any contact with the life over his head,
A retired righteous man, silent monk,
purifying in the silence of his death.
And is proud raised a little in an expression of spiritual uplift.
And the dead man continually shrank and continually shrivelled
bit by bit of him was lost. The leg detached from the body and went its way and became a separate entity. The hands lift one another and became estranged.
What are you to me? We were sisters.
We clapped together, now we’ve grown old
We kept together now we’ve grown old alone.
Two grey spinsters.Hard bitten,
Falling apart is something we can manage to do alone.
Goodbye, legs, goodbye, hands. Goodbye. hip sockets and spare ribs.
Goodbye. spine and collarbone. Goodbye all of you.
We knew together a kind of rickety ensemble, good for taking pains
that bore on it with a sigh, a sack full of hanks of meat
for Christmas. Christmas is past, the meat consumed.
It’s time to part even from the bone that bears
So now is our parting season.
The tree’s leaves
fall in autumn, so our body loses its leaves
I’m below. You’re above
You’re active. I’m acted on
your flesh. I’m image.
I’m gone. You’re still there
The Buddha pointed out that desire, clinging and possessiveness generates suffering through clinging to existence This clinging brings fear of death, of non-existence. The poems expose this hard-hitting duality of life and death.
Lives of the Dead makes an important contribution to the wisdom of meditating on death, not as something morbid but an inspiration towards addressing one’s relationship to life and death, presence and absence, existence and non-existence.
I would not recommend this book for everybody. It could tap into fear and despair for those who believe in one life and then face eternal extinction or those who cannot bear the thought of separation from their loved ones, even if they believe in an after-life. A few such people might find the poems in refreshing. Might….
The book might leave you with the impression the dying poet engages with intense struggles around his coming death. It might be an accurate perception. His family will know. It occurs regularly that in the last hours or days for a dying person, he or she surrenders to the unfolding event and dies in peace.
Death remains a few breaths away regardless of our views around extinction or a form of continuity. In the depth, death has no sting, no power to elicit projections onto life and death.
Lives of Others
Arc Publications, UK
ISBN 9781908376 64 O