Ignorant Armies

by Karen Alkalay-Gut. [Cross-Cultural Communications, Merrick, NY., 1994], $5.00

The title of Karen Alkalay-Gut’s earthy and poignant book of poems comes from Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” and the poet’s plea is “Ah, love, let us be true/ to one another” in a world where “ignorant armies clash by night.” It is an appropriate motto for a poet who was born during the London blitz of emigre parents barely escaped from Danzig, who grew up, studied in America, and who has lived and taught American Literature at Tel Aviv University since 1977. Love and war are two of her chief subjects, though she romanticizes neither and tends to be rueful about both. “Ah, love,” she writes in “Herzlia Beach: December 1988,” lying on the sand licking the lover’s salty skin, “I feel the whole of paradise on my tongue.” At the same time, as she well knows.

Further inland the earth is heaving Overturned by entire generations dying For the taste of this sand.

To live as a normal woman in the land of Israel sometimes means cooking for a dinner party while listening to radio news of a suicide bomber (“Domestic Dinner”). Sometimes (“Mabrouk”) it means watching a TV documentary of an Arab wedding, “and when Azziza and Jamil look at each other—slowly, shyly—I begin to cry.” Or it might mean helping your daughter, the night before her mobilization, pack socks, underwear, “and a funny doll / God knows / where she will hide” (“Mobilization”). Or checking out laundry on neighboring balconies and knowing by how “White squares flap / on the lines above the heavy green shirts” that a boy is home from the wars and a baby’s been born (“Home From the Wars”). And then again, there are the sensuous pleasures of “these streets of white light,” where “old men napping on boulevard benches / smell of the sea,” and street, cats stare at you imperiously (“Returning to Tel Aviv”).

Not all the poems in this book take place in Israel. Several are tributes to the poet’s parents, and memories of her father dying— “in exile / again”—and her mother’s exhaustion: ‘”Is he breathing?’ she asked me. ‘Go check.'” In “Keepers of My Youth,” the poet visits a Jewish Old Age Home where her old neighbors and teachers—”those who can speak and whose minds are clear”—reminisce, while she sees them in Jonathan Swift’s words, as “the barriers between me and death:”

Her I am in my flower. With a gentle hand I smooth the shawls around her shoulders, tuck the bright wool blankets into their chairs,

and whisper encouraging farewells to the troops at the front.”

For a poet like Alkalay-Gut, a little humor is a survival strategy, but it never erases tenderness. One of my favorite poems in this book remembers the Rebbe in the folkshule of her youth, to whom, in Yiddish, she explained Darwin and asked his opinion. She was eleven; it was eleven years after the Holocaust. The rabbi rocks gently and produces his decision: “Bobbe-mysehs.” he says—old-wives-tales. “You learn what you must for school,” he explains, “but of course no one can really / believe in such stories.” As in this poem, belief and unbelief go hand in hand for Alkalay-Gut, like love and loss, or despair and hope, or guilt and happiness.

Ignorant Armies is Alkalay-Gut’s fifth book of poems, and the second published by Cross-Cultural Communications. The first, Mechitza, appeared in 1986; others have been published in Israel. Stanley Barkan, the publisher of Cross-Cultural Communications, has a whole series of poetry books by women writers, many of them Jewish. For a catalogue: 239 Wynsum Avenue, Merrick NY 11566-4725.