- "A Cage of Order":Recent Issues in Natan Alterman Scholarship
Natan Alterman (1910-1970), one of Israel's leading poets, was also a translator, dramatist, songwriter, and commentator on contemporary events. His multifaceted career has elicited a rich critical response, with scholars as well as politicians vilifying or praising Alterman while he grappled with aesthetic, historical, and political circumstances. Whether drawing attention (and fire) as a "paragon of the moderna" (poetic Modernism of the pre-Statehood period)1 or as a proponent of the "Greater Israel" movement in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war, Alterman has always stood at the epicenter of major cultural issues.
His stature as a compelling literary and cultural figure is reflected in the recent documentary film Altermania,2 which brings to the fore, as Meir Shnitser notes, the "entangled conflict that lived within the soul of the person who was viewed as Bialik's heir."3 The title of my essay, "A Cage of Order" (keluv shel seder), is taken from Yorum Kaniuk's vivid description in this film of Alterman's writing. Kaniuk [End Page 217] refers to the poem "Shir mishmar" (Song of safekeeping), which Alterman wrote in response to his daughter Tirza Atar's suicide attempt. As Kaniuk recounts in Altermania:
He was trembling all over . . . and then he took out . . . a small Hermes [typewriter]. . . . He began to write Shir mishmar, shimri nafshekh [keep yourself safe]. He began to say shimri nafshekh, and it was like staccato, and he brought out the poem already tight, from within all this pain, the poem came out with commas and periods, and I thought about how he succeeds at putting in commas and periods when his eyes are shedding tears. He built this drama within a cage of order.
Kaniuk's description emphasizes what seems to be a conflict between Alterman's pain and his poetics; between what Natan Zach so mistakenly conceives of in regard to Alterman's poetry as a "basic poverty of feeling" and his "musicality 'liberated' from its content . . . [which does not] quench the modern reader's thirst for expressive rhythms."4 Both Kaniuk's astonishment and Zach's attack, however, belie the cumulative force of Alterman's poem, as can be seen in the opening stanza:5
Keep yourself safe, your strength keep safe, keep yourself safe,Keep your life safe, your wisdom, keep your life safe, [End Page 218] From falling wall, from fiery roof, from darkened shadow,From thrown stone, from knife, from fingernails.Keep yourself safe from one who burns, from one who cuts,From one close by like dust and like heaven,From one who is silent, from one who waits and one who seduces,And one who kills like well water and stove fire.Yourself keep safe and your wisdom, the hair on your head,Your skin keep safe, keep yourself safe, keep your life safe.
One can well argue that the power of this poem is to be found in the unremitting series of apostrophic addresses (which serve as "images of invested passion")6 and the detailed list of dangers, which together strain against the strictures of the ab rhyme scheme and Alexandrine line. Indeed, these very structural constraints—imitating the staccato of Alterman's typing—can well impress upon us the poet's need for order as protection against...