Requiem for a Storm

Adam Matan/Creative Commons

Israeli poet Haim Gouri

He was our national poet, Israel's poet laureate, so everyone said the day that he surprised us by dying, because by age 94 it seemed that Haim Gouri had decided to outlive not only his own generation but the ones after, to yellow and dry and live forever like a manuscript surviving from a lost era. The president eulogized him, voice cracking, quoting lines Gouri wrote 70 years ago about fallen soldiers. Even the adolescently cynical TV critic who wanted to mock the mourning decried Gouri for founding “the national religion of grief,” citing the same poem.

Gouri was indeed the unofficial national poet. But not in the very narrow way that people have described him since he died last week, mostly quoting the same canonical poems and lyrics he wrote as a very young man about Israel's war of independence in 1948—about legendary battles, the camaraderie of the living with the dead, and the corpses strewn in the fields who would return in spring as cyclamens and anemones.

No, he was more than that. He didn't die back then in a foxhole, leaving a notebook of young man's rhymes. Gouri lived, and became someone whose personal memory was national memory—or rather, what national memory should have been if other people weren't so good at forgetting hard parts. His tortured inner life was tangled with that of the country. If you paid attention, he became a model, for anyone involved in politics, of a rare and necessary inner honesty.

Gouri was born in the then-small town of Tel Aviv in 1923. The socialist ideal of the time was for city kids to become farmers, as kibbutz members. He went to agricultural high school as a classmate of future Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin

He belonged to a far-left Zionist youth movement that supported Moscow and looked forward to a giant Jewish commune in the “Whole Land of Israel,” which stretched well beyond the borders of mandatory Palestine. The borders, after all, were the invention of European imperialists. This, Gouri explained to me, is the inconvenient, forgotten past that explains what happened after 1967 Six-Day War, when governments of the left started building settlements in occupied territory.

In 1941, Gouri joined the Palmah, the semi-underground military force of Jews in Palestine, which drew mainly on the socialist left. In its ranks, the dreamy kid who said little at campfires became a poet. He fought in 1948, the first Arab-Israeli war. By its end, he'd written those sad ballads and become famous, the young friend of older writers.

He also had a girlfriend, Aliza, later his wife of 65 years. He took her to hear a lecture by Avraham Shlonsky, a leading poet and fervent Stalinist. Shlonsky, as Gouri recounted to me, declared, “The revolution is like a surgeon! It has to get its hands bloody.” When they left, he recalled, she said to him, “These are your friends?!”

This story contains three hints to what made Gouri the most remarkable person I ever met. The first is that he seemed to remember every word he'd ever said, heard, or read. In his very old age, he could recite a poem from a wall poster he'd read in 1943, or a conversation with another poet from the early 1950s. He told me about a tense meeting in 1975 that included then-Defense Minister Shimon Peres, who afterward gave a self-serving, warped account of what took place. Years later, when I found the minutes in Peres's formerly classified files, they virtually matched what Gouri had recounted, as if he'd been reading from Peres's aide's handwriting.

This is preternatural. When Gouri died, so did all the history he remembered, as if an irreplaceable archives suddenly burst into flames and was gone.

Most people, nearly all, will recall a conversation ending with their own great line. To the question, “and then what did she say?” they'll draw a blank. Gouri remembered the hard questions put to him. He remembered what he'd failed to say. He had no internal Ministry of Truth tidying up his past.

He recalled the beliefs he'd painfully shed, such as what he termed the “false vision” of the Whole Land of Israel. He recalled the ones he still held even though they conflicted. The writer of those famous 1948 poems later wrote a lament for Palestinian villages,

I am filled with abandoned villages, abandoned objects
gaping shoes, ripped blankets, punctured bundles…
an anklet longing till now for its ankle

“There were friends who wouldn’t speak to me” after that poem, he said. For his part, he still believed that “we had no choice” but to fight in 1948. Yet those villages “were also part of my world.” 

And so he was constantly, hourly, calling both himself and the country to account. Near the banks of the Suez Canal, three days after the Egyptian attack of October 1973, he wrote a poem already foreshadowing the investigations of why Israel had let itself be taken by surprise. But this became a metaphor,

In the expanses of my body, inquiry commissions
day and night
open hearings, within me taking testimony

And so he was conflicted. “Conflicted”—what a weak word. One of his early poems was, “I am a Civil War.” Thirty or so years later, after Lebanon collapsed into a war of all against all, Gouri came back the theme in “Like Beirut”:

I was the combat in the built-up zones ...
divided into no-man's lands, watchful as a perennial high alert.

The usual poetry of war paints the poet within war. Gouri portrayed the war within the poet. But in the same poem he continues:

And so I’ve heard that from extremes in living souls
rises the hidden force
that mainly makes for beauty.

For most people, a combination of embarrassment and seeing the past through the lens of the present works to blur uncomfortable views we once held. As for the present, we'd like our commitments to fit together nicely, our causes to line up. Philosophically, a pursuit of truth as old as Socrates says that if two beliefs contradict, at least one is false. 

Against the philosopher's consistent truth, Gouri demonstrate what could be called poetic integrity: knowing that lived truth may be in the contradiction. As one small example, you can love your country, and also know it is doing terrible things.

The first time I interviewed Gouri about Israeli history he quoted an aphorism written by his mother, “We are divided between those with meager spirits and those with torn souls.” In one of the last interviews, he said, “This is the sentence I want to tell you: Live in a set of contradictions. Because you have no choice. … Don’t castrate elements of your identity. You don’t know what the cost will be.”

Now Gouri has gone. The usual polite Hebrew phrase for the moment is, “May his memory be a blessing.” For Gouri, that's much too soft. May his memory be a hurricane in our dreams.

Note: The translation of lines from “Like Beirut” are by Stanley Chyet, from his collection of Gouri's work, Words in My Lovesick Blood.”

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