A POET'S EVENING
by Elisha Porat
Natan Yonatan: Poems Cloaked in Evening, (Selected Poetry),
Yedi'ot Aharonot Publishing, Hemed Books, 2004, 429 pp.
In February, 1984, I sat in the heated operations room of the South Lebanese Army's headquarters in Marj-ayun, listening that long tour of Shabbat duty to programs beamed north from Israel. I felt terrible pangs of longing. The base was deserted, a sabbath serenity had fallen over the surrounding snow-capped peaks and I was far from my home on the coastal plain of Israel. Suddenly, I heard Natan Yonatan's mournful, rasping voice burst from the radio as he read his poem "And the Rotem (Broom) would whiten":
"Yesterday a beautiful photographer was shot in the heart,
she who desired the gold of dunes and the noble ascent
of pelicans from the nature preserve of Maagan Michael,
how it chases away clouds in its flights and scatters…"
(translated from the Hebrew by Karen Alkalay-Gut.)
My heart went out to the words, to the reader's voice, to the bewitching rhythm of the verse. I forgot all else, the stinking ops room, the tranquil silence outside, the cruel war dozing through Shabbat. Only the poet's soft intonation filled the air. The melancholy enchantment of the poetry briefly transported me from the SLA command post in Marj-ayun and the endless war in Lebanon.
When I later looked back on those precious moments during the war, I asked myself more than once: What, in truth, was the secret of Yonatan's beguiling poetry? I cannot in this space lay bare all the elements that made Yonatan's poems so magnetic, but I'll focus on several of them.
Oh so quietly, far from the eyes of critics and literary scholars, Yonatan through his poetry built a majestic palace of what I call "our Mediterranean Sea," a rich, intricate world still awaiting discovery. Is that the secret behind the allure of his poems? The awesome physical existence of the sea, along which the poet composed, and its metaphysical being form an almost permanent presence in his work. The sea for him was an entity, an abiding epiphany, not only in the simple, corporeal sense but in both a cultural and a symbolic sense. It is this sea that links the culture of the land of Israel, in which Yonatan thrived and which he fertilized, to the cultures of the other peoples living on its shores: the Spanish, the Greeks, the islanders and the poets of
Alexandria. Did he consider himself a member of this splendid Mediterranean fellowship, of the company of poets such as Konstantin Kawafis, to give just one example?
And after the sea comes the shore. The seacoasts also constitute a fixed presence in his poems. The perpetual tension between the sea and shore is a central theme in his work. Yonatan strives to make use of it. He expands and enriches it, he hurls it at our maritime neighbors, at their love and their ever-receding youth forever seeking its end, its death, on the shore.
And after the shore comes the living zone with the lush flora and fauna that inhabit almost all his poetry. The desert flowers of Israel, such as the broom, which unite beauty with sheer terror in the poem that I mentioned earlier. The migrant desert fowls, its stands of trees (a common backdrop to his works), the country's atmosphere, the air, the change of seasons; all these complete the grand, bewitching edifice of "our Mediterranean Sea," the unique, novel world that Yonatan created in his poems. This is the cherished, coveted locale, the one-time arena of his life, the locus of his existence into which everything has been compressed: his Hebrew character, his Jewishness, his attraction to biblical heroes, the dreadful anxiety arising from our existence on the point of the sword and the necessity of this place – as a point of
departure to the world but, above all, as a final station for journeys to distant lands and the poet's life course.
Or perhaps the secret of his poems' charm lies in the original unity that he forged between the cult of beauty on the one hand and elegy on the other. Elegy is a constant visitor in his poems. It is elegy that casts a refined patina on his deeply acerbic outlook and on the transitory nature of time. At times it becomes a palpable lamentation, a dirge first of all for the death of his son but also for the death of time, the decay of beauty and the loss of youth and innocence. This is a remarkable fusion in modern Hebrew poetry, Yonatan's original, innovative compound. The persistence
of sorrow joined to the mutability of beauty and of the icons of beauty. The enduring tension between incessant grief and the eternally ephemeral subjects and objects of beauty is one of the central themes of his poetry.
I am unable here to elaborate further. Before us is a selection of original poetry, surprisingly different from what we are accustomed to see in it. The time has come for Yonatan's poetry to break free of the exclusive control of popularity, as it were, to become the inheritance of serious literary criticism, of a sophisticated reading public and of academic literary research.
His poems have a timeless appeal and unexpected depths that now stand out, illuminated and clarified through their length and breadth, in this excellent collection.