Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"Palestine: A Sestina" by Peter Cole/Shoe-Horning Land into Form

On a website called "Jewcy," Peter Cole--a recent MacArthur Fellow whose translations from Hebrew and Arabic make him one of my literary/intellectual heroes--has some new poems up, among them, "Palestine: A Sestina." There is something dangerous in trying to "sum up" "Palestine" in anything, let alone a sestina--is there another geography (Palestine/Israel) that has been so written and unwritten in the longings and fantasies of the peoples of the Book?

"Palestine: A Sestina" by Peter Cole

Hackles are raised at the mere mention of Palestine,
let alone The Question of-who owns the pain?
Often it seems the real victims here are the hills-
those pulsing ridges, whose folds and tender fuzz of green
kill with softness. On earth, it's true, we're only guests,
but people live in places, and stake out claims to land.

From Moab Moses saw, long ago-a land
far off, and once I stood there facing Palestine
with Hassan, whose family lives in Amman. (We were his guests
in the Wahdat refugee camp.) Wonder shot with pain
came into his eyes as he gazed across the green
valley between NĂ©bo and Lydda beyond the hills.

Help would come, says the Psalmist, from one of those hills,
though scholars still don't know for certain whether the land
in question was Zion, or the high places of Baal. The green
olives ripened, and ripen, either way in Palestine,
and the memory of groves cut down brings on pain
for those whose people worked them, for themselves or guests.

"I have been made a stranger in my home by guests,"
says Job, in a Hebrew that evolved along these hills,
though he himself was foreign to them. His famous pain
is also that of those who call the Promised Land
home in another tongue. Could what was pledged be Palestine?
Is Scripture's fence intended to guard this mountain's green?

Many have roamed its slopes and fields, dressed in green
fatigues, unable to fathom what they mean, as guests.
And armies patrol still, throughout Palestine,
as ministers mandate women and men to carve up its hills
to keep them from ever again becoming enemy land.
The search, meanwhile, goes on- for a balm to end the pain,

though it seems only to widen the rippling circles of pain,
as though the land itself became the ripples, and its green
a kind of sigh. So spring comes round again to the land,
as echoes cry: "It's mine!"-and the planes will bring in guests,
so long as water and longing run through these hills,
which some (and coins) call Israel, and others Palestine.

The pundits' talk of Palestine doesn't account for the pain-
or the bone-white hills, breaking the heart as they go green
before the souls of guests-on-earth who've known this land.


Chaerephon said...

I like "which some (and coins) call Israel." Poignant and pointed. And "mountain's green," a clever allusion to Blake's "Jerusalem," right?

Philip Metres said...

Good sussing out on the Blake--how many have fantasized that space/place!