The warrior in old age: his shaggy golden mane gone gray, his splendid muscular body weak. He has throat cancer. After two wars no Achaean champion should have survived, he enters a dark way. In his last year on earth, the Mediterranean sun, the hills with their olive and almond trees and smell of thyme, the flowering sea are taken away from him. He lies in a room off a white corridor, with the sooty, alien winter sky of New York City outside the window. No bird song, just the din of traffic. Other patients cough and groan. He cannot get up. His body is punctured by needles, fed by tubes. The operation deprives him of his voice. This is healing? It is insane. But he can still write: "the visiting hour he yearned for/ has passed,/ the night he dreads/ has come." Life, said the Rabbis, is a prozdor (a word from Homer's language), a corridor: But the white hall of the New York cancer hospital severs life's flow, imprisons the living who are already numbered amongst the dead. This third battle of Achilles feels as though it was fought in Hades itself. Kovner's final book is burnt about the edges, dim, something smuggled out of hell -- not out of the metaphorical hells of human killing fields, but out of the mists and fires of gray Acheron itself.
Abba Kovner was released from the hospital and made it home: He describes the window of the plane, the landing, a veranda in Israel, plants in flowerpots, his sons. I had not expected that final sequence of poems and was absurdly glad: He had an Ithaka, after all. Shortly after his return, in 1987, he died. Leon Wieseltier, whose Kaddish is itself a monument of the American Jewish intellect, has written an elegant, aphoristic Preface beginning with a meditation on the place of death amongst the living which is as fine a thing as any philosophical tragedian ever wrote.
Comparison to lives lost in wars of the epic past highlights the strangeness and savagery of the familiar century that encompassed the poet's life. Kovner blends images of the hospital and memories of the War in a way that Wieseltier rightly insists would be outrageous in the writing of anyone who had not actually fought the Nazis as a Jewish partisan. That makes this an epic document: Kovner entitled it a poema, using the loan-word from Russian for a verse cycle of epic proportions and seriousness. These considerations place the book in something of an elite and heroic category, since historical context and the author's role become more significant than literary criteria. In the democracy of death, though, whose throng most everyone will join, Philip Larkin's "The Old Fools" remains still the best poem of our age. In wandering, in battle, in the waves, in a cancer ward -- well, we shall find out.
A bereaved mother, a rabbi, and a therapist look at dark emotions
Bernard Henri-Levy on the death of Daniel Pearl
Let them Eat Myth
Jennifer Blowdryer and Alvin Orloff
To Ohio and Back
Abba Kovner: The Warrior in Old Age
Men who Laughed
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