“Holy Land” originated in an invitation to submit an essay on writing poetry in English while living in Jerusalem. Being a poem rather than an essay, “Holy Land” does not directly address the question so much as dance around it, or dance with it. The important thinking happens not in a linear development of argument, but rather in its margins, enjambments, and caesurae; in its short phrasing, stammers, and elisions; and particularly in its juxtaposition and imbrication of fragmentary landscapes.
The poem takes its title from a feature of the contemporary south Jerusalem landscape, the notorious, scandal-ridden Holy Land luxury apartment complex that looms over my erstwhile working-class neighborhood of Katamon Tet. The complex does not explicitly figure in the poem so much at haunt it—most immediately in the Herodian arrogance of certain buildings (a Midwestern high-rise office building, the nuclear facility at Dimona), but also in the narrow north-south of certain national borders (Israel, the Chile of Neruda’s “Oda al Alambre”) and the gigantic updraft of nuclear blasts.
This verticality imposes an apocalyptic flattening of the surrounding landscapes: the nuclear test site at Alamogordo, New Mexico; the lines radiating out from the former experimental reactor on the South Side of Chicago; and more unthinkably, the threats encoded in our own verboten nuclear weapons program. If the poem’s landscapes are framed in language, however, they also are a figure for the poem’s use of language: on the vertical axis, the speaker’s fragile Olympian remove, and on the horizontal the poem’s succession of long, heavy lines, the broad horizontals of its stanzas, and in the final section, the speaker’s invocation of worlds ending in a flat “mutual unintelligibility.”
But the speaker also asserts (albeit in the subjunctive) a more intimate horizontality of yearning, hearing, and holding, “binding us, still, together.” This has been the heart—I would like to think not merely aspirational—of my experience of living in Jerusalem and writing poetry in English. On the one hand, the geographic (and increasingly, geopolitical) remove from a cosmopolitan readership, communal and personal estrangements, the complicated status of English in Israel, and my own halting efforts to express myself in a linguistic bricolage. On the other, a sense of deep, even primary connections, just beyond the threshold of language yet also taking life in words.
I first adopted the long, heavy line that I favor
Writing about my one year in Iowa, and the following
In Chicago, their strong horizontals my vernacular,
And lines and lines of birds riding a cold front south, their crying
Heard even through the well-sealed windows of a north-facing office,
Where I tried to work as light drained from the sky, evenings
Still fall hard, a keen grief, here too, in a country the shape of
Neruda’s alambre, unless the mountains purpling at dusk
Are not another world, or after dark, a light-thread cutting
The long upgrade to Amman, a bright stain on the horizon
Behind the black ridges, there are trucks shifting into low gear,
Cars with children in the back seats, limbs heavy with sun,
It has been a long day, they drowse, listen to adult murmur
From up front, carrying the old cadences, from year to year.
The strong horizontals in the old photos of Alamogordo,
Soldiers, outbuildings, and the more distant ridgelines
Reduced to black-on-white etches, and in Chicago,
Before new buildings came crowding in, there were clear lines
Out from Moore’s Nuclear Energy, an athletic field, a park,
South Side, West Side, almost-but-not-quite annihilated
Prairie, in old rights-of-way and uncultivated corners,
Which needs fire to restore itself, cycles of freeze and thaw,
I found myself there, once, in wild slant light of winter,
The polished stone cap like the verboten dome at Dimona,
But blacker, full of holes, with children climbing in and out,
Following the old usages, in brightly colored parkas,
I felt my heart cracking open, a seed in the deep-down,
Beginning the seasonal work, again, as I do now.
All the times when I wanted to call down fire, or did,
To no apparent effect, unless the utterances
Are accomplishing, still, some deeper, more subtle
Work of destruction, or are joined with all the other voices
At the threshold of articulate speech, the feedback loops
Of shrieks, whimpers, or mere soundlessness, all the world’s noise,
Or its absence, forming a background murmur of mutual
Unintelligibility, which is how worlds end,
Which is what I wanted, in the small hours, without you,
Unless I could feel myself held in an embrace, of a kind,
If yearning itself, mine, yours, is substantial, or the fire
We call down calling each other does not leave us blind
To each other, or otherwise insensate, the merest cry
Heard at a great distance, binding us, still, together.