Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 1, 2010

Isaiah at the Wall

Filed under: literature,middle east — louisproyect @ 6:17 pm

Daniel Marlin is a poet, artist and scholar of the Yiddish language who lives in Berkeley for whom I have the greatest admiration. He has just published his latest work, a collection of poems titled Isaiah at the Wall: Palestine Poems that according to the acknowledgments is the result of a trip to the Middle East in 2008 and of decades of thought and activism which preceded it. He singles out some people who have deepened his understanding of the occupation: the poet Mahmoud Darwish, the human rights activist Israel Shahak, the lawyer and writer Raja Shehadeh, and the scholar Sarah Roy. On the book’s back cover, he describes how his thinking has evolved on the Middle East, reminding me of my own experience and just about every other Jewish anti-Zionist, whose numbers are growing by the day:

As a child, I absorbed idealistic narratives of American and Jewish history. I learned about the Holocaust at an early age but knew nothing of the Palestinian Nakba. Understanding history, like understanding ourselves, requires a peeling away of myths, habits, fears, the sacred masks of self-image, and their furious defenses. The ideals of freedom and justice led me to oppose the Israeli Occupation of Palestine and to travel to Palestine and Israel in the summer of 2008. These poems grew out of that journey.

I have to confess that my poetry (and novel) reading days are mostly behind me but Daniel’s latest book reminds me of the value of political poetry, especially when it is written by a master of language and imagery. When I was involved with the Vietnam antiwar movement, I looked to Denise Levertov, Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg for the artistic corollary of the demonstrations I helped to organize. And when I was involved with Central American solidarity, I got the same kind of lift from Carolyn Forché. And when it comes to the Middle East, we have another such voice in Daniel Marlin.

Here are a couple of poems from Isaiah at the Wall that will surely convince you to buy this wonderfully inspired book without delay.

Checkpoint Fantasy

“Where are you going?” the soldier asks.

“To Jerusalem,
with black dates
for the angel’s courtyard.”

“The angel of dance,
or of atonement?”

“The blind angel
who sees with her fingers.”

“The angel of judgment
or of condolence?”

“The black angel
whose brow turns silver at dawn.”

“The angel of rivers
or of mist?”

“The seamstress angel
who threads the dream with desire.”

“The angel of dogs
or of wanderers?”

“She who invents
the language of pity.”

“Then go in Peace”
the soldier says,

“but first, look into my eyes.
What do you see?”

“I see gallows in one eye,
a candle in the other.”

Instructions for Isaiah at the Wall
Qalandia Checkpoint

You must remove the bracelets from your wrist,
rings from your fingers,
the furious tongue from your mouth,
and place them on the
table for inspection.

Erase impatience from your gaze,
the visions behind your eyes.
Silence the omens in your throat
before facing the camera.

Do not step forward until directed.

If you find this demeaning
go outside and
traverse the wall by other means.

Become the rich, bitter
tea of field fire smoke
drifting over the rampart
on the breath of the western wind.

Grow a pair of grasshopper legs
and leap its height
in a high-jumper’s arc.

Glide above its twisted wire on the
hawk’s amber wings

Make the passage
underground—as a black
silken mole,
or in a caravan of ants.

If all else fails
find a ram’s horn
like Joshua used.
Blow into it until the wall
comes crashing down.

When you reach the other side,

O prophet,
they will be waiting
with shackles and
burning air to make you weep.

Daniel’s book can be ordered through Paypal, as well as another collection called Heart of Ardor that I reviewed here. You can now purchase that book as well, now that Dan has entered the brave new world of electronic commerce!

Isaiah at the Wall costs twelve dollars, including postage and handling.


  1. What Is Not Allowed (Richard Tillinghast)

    No tinned meat is allowed, no tomato paste,
    no clothing, no shoes, no notebooks.
    These will be stored in our warehouses at Kerem Shalom
    until further notice.

    Bananas, apples, and persimmons are allowed into Gaza,
    peaches and dates, and now macaroni
    (after the American Senator’s visit).
    These are vital for daily sustenance.
    But no apricots, no plums, no grapes, no avocados, no jam.
    These are luxuries and are not allowed.

    Paper for textbooks is not allowed.
    The terrorists could use it to print seditious material.
    And why do you need textbooks
    now that your schools are rubble?
    No steel is allowed, no building supplies, no plastic pipe.
    These the terrorists could use to launch rockets
    against us.

    Pumpkins and carrots you may have,
    but no delicacies,
    no cherries, no pomegranates, no watermelon, no onions,
    no chocolate.
    We have a list of three dozen items that are allowed,
    but we are not obliged to disclose its contents.
    This is the decision arrived at
    by Colonel Levi, Colonel Rosenzweig, and Colonel Segal.
    Our motto:
    ‘No prosperity, no development, no humanitarian crisis.’

    You may fish in the Mediterranean,
    but only as far as three km from shore.
    Beyond that and we open fire.
    It is a great pity the waters are polluted –
    twenty million gallons of raw sewage dumped into the sea every day
    is the figure given.
    Our rockets struck the sewage treatments plants,
    and at this point spare parts to repair them are not allowed.

    As long as Hamas threatens us,
    no cement is allowed, no glass, no medical equipment.
    We are watching you from our pilotless drones
    as you cook your sparse meals over open fires
    and bed down
    in the ruins of houses destroyed by tank shells.

    And if your children can’t sleep,
    missing the ones who were killed in our incursion,
    or cry out in the night, or wet their beds
    in your makeshift refugee tents,
    or scream, feeling pain in their amputated limbs –
    that’s the price you pay for harbouring terrorists.
    God gave us this land.
    A land without a people for a people without a land.

    Comment by John Halle — August 1, 2010 @ 11:46 pm

  2. From Mahmoud Darwishe’s poem “They Would Love to See me dead”:

    Comment by Peter Byrne — August 2, 2010 @ 10:36 am

  3. That’s:

    The earth is wickedly dark, so why is your poem so white?

    Because my heart is teeming with thirty seas, I answered.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — August 2, 2010 @ 10:41 am

  4. wonderful stuff – i hope he gets around and reads it….it deserves an audience

    Comment by Marc — August 2, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

  5. Yes. These are all really wonderful.

    But-to inject a note of minor cynicism-let’s hope this is not an instance of the lines from Thom Lehrer’s Folk Song Army:

    Remember the war against Franco.
    That’s the kind where each of us belongs.
    Though he may have won all the battles.
    We had all the good songs.

    One would hope that genocidal conditions are not required for poets to do good work. Though recent history would seem to offer confimation of the principle.

    Comment by John Halle — August 2, 2010 @ 2:09 pm

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