This Translation an Epitaph
The Hour of the Dead Poem
This poem is an epitaph
on a tombstone
and underneath it
this poem is buried.[i]
שעת השיר המת
הַשִּׁיר הַזֶּה הוּא כְּתֹבֶת
קָבוּר הַשִׁיר הַזֶּה.
The poem above was written by the Israeli poet Hezy Leskly and published in his 1992 collection The Mice and Leah Goldberg (Ha-akhbarim ve-Leah Goldberg), part of a series titled “The Additional Hours” (Ha-sha‘ot ha-nosafot). It is the eighth poem in the sequence, nestled between “The Hour of the Sparkle That Drives Someone Crazy” and “The Hour of Complete Forgetting.” It shares the page with the first poem, resting on the bottom of the page. Both poems are four lines long, five if you include their titles, so between them there is a generous amount of white space. By placing the translation at the beginning of this essay, I have inverted this order, as if the act of translation were an act of exhumation, of bringing “this poem” to the surface. The dead poem, Leskly contends, is both epitaph and corpse. If we take Leskly’s claim at face value, how do we, the readers and translators of this poem, engage with it in these two simultaneous conditions? I begin with its opening claim.
“This Poem Is an Epitaph”
An epitaph is a written composition that memorializes the dead and is typically inscribed on a tombstone. This relation is preserved in the word’s etymology, a combination of the Greek epi (at, over) with taphos (funeral, burial, tomb). The Hebrew loanword אפיטף (epitaf) is still in circulation today, but Leskly uses here the word כתובת (ketovet), which makes a notable appearance in Leviticus 19:28, in the following commandment:
וְשֶׂ֣רֶט לָנֶ֗פֶשׁ לֹ֤א תִתְּנוּ֙ בִּבְשַׂרְכֶ֔ם וּכְתֹ֣בֶת קַֽעֲקַ֔ע לֹ֥א תִתְּנ֖וּ בָּכֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה
Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print [ketovet] any marks upon you: I am the Lord. (KJV)
While this injunction forms the basis, in traditional Judaism, for a prohibition against tattoos, it also preserves the memory of a long-standing practice of using our living bodies to memorialize our dead. As I translate this poem, and other poems by Leskly, I remain attentive to these relations between the living and the dead and how the poem itself becomes a zone where they come into contact. We can understand this zone as a figurative space, but in modern Hebrew, ketovet is also the word for “address,” which among its many designations includes the place where one lives.
As is the case for other languages, Hebrew and English are full of expressions that underscore this link between burial and residency. In “Essays upon Epitaphs,” Wordsworth refers to the deceased as the “tenant of the grave.” In English, we refer to the grave through euphemisms like “final abode” or “resting place.” In Hebrew, graves and houses are linked in the various phrases used to refer to cemeteries, like בית קברות (beit kevarot), “house of graves,” and בית עולם (beit ‘olam), “house of eternity.” When God promises Abraham “all the land of Canaan” for his descendants, he calls it an אחוזת עולם (achuzat ‘olam), “an everlasting possession” according to the King James translation (Gen. 17:8). Years later, when it comes time to bury Sarah, Abraham asks the Hittites if he may purchase land for her burial (Gen. 23:4). The expression he uses, אחוזת קבר (achuzat kever), appears in the King James translation as “buryingplace.” But achuza is part of a root network that gives us the verbs “to seize,” “hold,” “possess.” It is not just any place but a place that you own. Robert Alter’s translation “burial-holding” pulls us closer to that understanding. “[A]chuza clearly indicates permanent legal possession,” he adds in a note to his translation. His translation of achuzat ‘olam, “everlasting holding,” further highlights this relation.
I am thinking about this relation between graves and houses, between death and settlement, and how Tel Aviv’s oldest cemetery, Trumpledor Cemetery, was founded in 1902 in what was then an unpopulated area outside Jaffa. In 1906, Jewish residents of Jaffa formed the housing society Achuzat bayit (homestead), which raised the funds to purchase the land that would later form part of the city of Tel Aviv, including the now centrally located Trumpledor Cemetery. Over the years, the growing population of Tel Aviv’s dead has necessitated the acquisition of more burial space farther from the city. And so, even though he lived and died in Tel Aviv, Leskly is buried in Petach Tikvah, in Yarkon Cemetery, which opened its gates in 1991, three years before Leskly died of AIDS.
Epitaphs mark an absence, but their composition and legibility require proximity—“in close connection with the bodily remains of the deceased,” Wordsworth prescribes. When Wordsworth wrote these words, in 1810, he was nostalgic for the days when tombstones lined roads and lamented that the living and the dead resided increasingly further apart. And yet, Wordsworth himself displaces the epitaph from the grave site in the act of transcribing it into a published essay; in so doing he draws his reader closer to a text that otherwise would have required that one stand by or over a grave to read it. But Wordsworth’s “close connection” also accounts for other intimacies. Like the English epitaph poem, the nineteenth-century Hebrew version was notable for its biographical details, sometimes written in the voice of the departed. “In keeping with the thirst for information prevalent in those decades, the inscriptions are long and offer an abundance of information about the lives as well as the deaths of the deceased,” writes David Malkiel. “The reader is granted a clear portrait of the individual, in all his or her individuality.” Nevertheless, familiar clichés and biblical quotations found their way into many an epitaph, as they still do, constituting a common language of mourning and remembrance. But phrases like “beloved mother” and allusions to comforting psalms mean something more when we approach the grave as a relation, when it is someone we know lying under the tombstone.
Even though I have a map that tells me exactly where I can locate Leskly’s grave, the Google Earth view of Yarkon Cemetery is a blur of cream granite. It’s as close as I will get for now, but when Leskly writes in line two, על מצבה (‘al matseva), “on a tombstone,” a picture forms in my mind of a granite slab with his name written in large letters. Along with the name of his parents, the stone will note his date of birth and of death and include the abbreviation תנצב״ה, which stands for תהיה נפשו/נפשה צרורה בצרור החיים, “may his/her soul be bound in the bundle of life.” This abbreviation evokes the word matseva (pillar, monument) itself, which derives from the root נ.צ.ב, “to be upright and firm,” like granite. The phrase comes from 1 Samuel 25:29, where it is spoken by Abigail to David, here in Alter’s translation: “And when a person rises to pursue you, to seek your life, my lord’s life will be bound in the bundle of the living with the LORD your God, and the lives of your enemies He will sling from the hollow of the sling.” In his notes, Alter draws a connection between the word for “bundle,” צרור (tsror), and its appearance elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible as “stone.” I am reminded of the Jewish practice of leaving a stone on a grave to mark one’s visit, and I’m thinking how Leskly’s compact poem itself resembles a stone and how (in its Hebrew version) it lies at the bottom of the printed page, like a matseva against the ground.
Alter’s translation also draws our attention to David’s living body, whereas the King James version offers the eschatological translation “the soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life with the Lord thy God.” But Alter’s translation acknowledges that the Hebrew נפש (nefesh), “spirit” and “soul,” also refers to living bodies, beings endowed with breath and vitality. Of course, the Hebrew חיים (chayim) designates both “life” and “the living,” a distinction with meaningful implications for the status of Leskly’s “dead” poem. In Judaism, it is customary to erect—or “unveil”—the tombstone after the thirty days of mourning (shloshim) and before the first anniversary (yahrzeit) of someone’s death. In so doing, the living not only mark the site of their dead but also create a physical space for their continued encounter, that is, until their souls may be “bundled” together in העולם הבא (ha-‘olam ha-ba’), “the world to come.” In this respect, Leskly’s dead poem is a kind of undead “species,” suspended between this afterlife and the world of the living—“this poem” rising like one of those decomposing hands from a zombie-movie grave.
Although it does not rhyme, Leskly’s quatrain situates this poem in the tradition of Hebrew epitaphic poetry. As Malkiel notes, in the early modern period in Italy, Hebrew tombstones often included rhyming epigraph poems that were four to eight lines long (and typically followed the prosodic conventions of medieval Hebrew poetry). And it is in this period, according to Yehosheva Samet Shinberg, that “a rich tradition of Hebrew epitaphs developed via poetry.” She further challenges the tendency to dismiss the aesthetic value of this genre and relegate it to the category of שירי ההזדמנות (shirei ha-hizdamnut), “occasional poems.” Rather, through her reading of a rich compendium of maskilic epitaphic poems, Samet Shinberg shows how nineteenth-century Hebrew poets not only embraced the “old-new” epitaphic genre but also gave it a central, and vital, place in their own oeuvres. But in contrast to the maskilic penchant for length and excess, the conditions of the epitaph—“lack of space, cost of engraving, and urgent timing”—informed the formal and thematic constraints of the genre. And while these conditions could yield conventional texts, they also could give way to inventive wordplay and intertextuality.
Translators often note how Hebrew expands in English translation. This can be an issue when translating spare, fragmentary texts. It has been an issue for me in translating the third line of Leskly’s poem. The Hebrew שמתחתיה (she-mitachteya) is one lexical unit that combines the prefix שׁ (the letter shin), serving here as a relative pronoun (which, that); the prepositional מִתַחַת, “under” (itself a combination of the prefix מִ [mi, a shortened form of מִן (min)], “from,” and תַחַת [tachat], “underneath”); and the pronominal third-person feminine suffix הָ (ha [feminine because it is referring to matseva, a feminine word in Hebrew]). Translating this into English, I can’t find a solution that allows me to compact all of these elements into one word.
While I write this, I am reading a history of the infamous Donner party and how westward migrant caravans would drive their wagons over the gravesites of the recently deceased to compress the earth so that their bodies would not be desecrated. If this line is compact like the dirt that has settled on a grave over time, translating it into English feels like I am breaking apart, decomposing, this order.
“This Poem Is Buried”
The epitaph is apostrophic. In addressing, and even giving voice to, the dead, the epitaph doesn’t just narrow the gap between life and death, presence and absence—it negates it entirely. Writing about the Greek lyric poet Simonides (ca. 556–468 BCE), Anne Carson describes the epitaph as a kind of double negative:
Certainly death gives most of us our elemental experience of absent presence, and an epitaph might be thought of as a vanishing point—or a sort of concrete double negative—where the absence of life disappears into the presence of death and nullifies it. Certainly the poet’s power to negate the negating action of death derives from his special view of reality, a view which sees death everywhere and finds life within it, a view which perceives presence as absence and finds a way to turn that relation inside out.
Like many poets, Leskly’s oeuvre includes a number of ars poetic texts, poems that address poetry itself—what it does and does not do, what it can and cannot be, and how a poem, like the human body, lives and dies. The title “The Hour of the Dead Poem” calls attention to the “dead” state of the poem but also raises the question of what it means for a poem to be “alive.” For Leskly, death is not where the poem ends but rather a state where renewal, transformation, and translation are made possible.
Consider the opening lines of Leskly’s “Dead Poetry” (Shira meta), also from The Mice and Leah Goldberg:
הַמַּדָּף בּוֹלֵם אֶת הַסֵּפֶר
נְפִילָה אֶל הַתְּהוֹם.
The shelf holds back the book
whose intention is
to fall into the void.
I could also translate “intention” as “goal,” “aim,” “purpose.” I could translate “hold back” as “stop,” “brake,” “restrain.” But I go with “intention” because it carries “tension” with it, as if the book and the shelf are in a tug-of-war, as if the shelf is trying to save the book from falling off a cliff. But the book seeks the void, and not just any void, but תהום (tehom), a “gulf,” an “abyss.” Gesenius notes a relation to הוּם, “to put into motion, to disturb,” like the sound of waves or a restless sea. In a later interview, Carson will invoke the void when she describes translation as a “bottomless pit.” She’ll reject the tropes of loss that plague translation discourse and offer in their place a generative model of translation. “Something there is learned about human possibilities, in that space.” For the book, and the dead poem in it, the void does not signify erasure, loss, or closure. For Leskly, as for Simonides, the void is possibility. A space of disturbance, movement, and noise. I translate this line and give the book a tug—to let it go into the void like a rock leaving a sling.
In his essay “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin famously offered a formulation of translation as both Überleben, “survival,” and Fortleben, “living on.” Maybe it is a condition of being human, maybe it is because I am writing this essay in a time of pandemic, but these days I am preoccupied with thinking about how and in what forms we survive and live on, and I project this thinking, as poets have done for centuries, onto poetry itself. In “Acharei moti” (After my death), a poem by Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873–1934), the speaker imagines that his premature death which will cut short “the poetry of his life.” His mourners lament this loss but also acknowledge that “one mute melody remains” (nima achat ilma nishara), quietly trembling and moving in time, seeking in vain to reach her song, “like a heart grieving for its intended.” The poem dates to 1903/4, almost thirty years before the poet’s own death, and yet here we encounter (as we often do in poems of this kind) the void of death as possibility. In Bialik’s poem, the melody remains “forever” unclaimed in this void, and yet the poem we are reading takes shape around this “loss.” I see such ironies at play in Leskly’s own work (this poem included), where anxieties about (one’s own) mortality are bound up with questions about poetry’s future and the possibility of its “living on.” The poem we are reading is the epitaph, but it is also קבור (kavur), “buried.”
Leskly’s buried poem calls to mind other buried poems, like the last poems of the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti (1909–44), which were recovered when his corpse was exhumed from a mass grave. Or those Sapphic lyrics, buried in a landfill, resurfacing in the late nineteenth century to live another day. Recalling the language of the Hebrew epitaph, Avot Yeshurun (1904–92) described his mother’s Yiddish letters as a “tsror”—bundle—which remained for years “buried” in a drawer of the desk where he wrote Hebrew poems. In later poems, he recorded fragments of these letters, where they appear in Yiddish or Hebrew translation. He described them as “paper scrap,” frayed and faded, like the remains of ancient texts found in a cave, like poems partially entombed in a quotation or footnote. “During the act of writing, every artist becomes, momentarily, a carver of gravestones,” writes Karen Mills Campbell. “Poetry has everything to do with a struggle between the word and the apparent nothingness of death.” “Apparent” because “so it seems” or “not necessarily” but also because the nothingness of death is “visible” and “present.” Just as the attempts to restore and translate Sappho’s broken lines have led to the emergence of “many Sapphos,” so the retrieval of “this poem”—through acts of reading, composition, translation—not only brings it to the surface but also stirs up other poems. The placement of Leskly’s poem further suggests this possibility—after “the dead poem” other poems follow, including the poem we reach at the end of the sequence, “The Hour of Decomposition.”
The Hebrew word for decomposition, ריקבון (rikavon), also “rot” or “decay,” appears in this form only once in the Hebrew Bible, in a description of the mythic Leviathan: “Iron he deems as straw, / and bronze as rotten wood [‘ets rikavon]” (Job 41:19; trans. Alter). Decomposition may be an organic process, but the book of Numbers enumerates strict prohibitions against contact with decomposing flesh: “He who touches a dead body of any human person shall be unclean seven days” (Num. 19:11; trans. Alter); “And whosoever in the open field touches a corpse slain by sword or a dead body or a human bone or a grave will be unclean seven days” (Num. 19:16; trans. Alter). One who is טמא (tamé), “unclean” or “impure,” can spread this status to others: “And whatever the unclean person touches will be unclean, and the person who touches it will be unclean until evening” (Num. 19:22). The buried poem is a corpse—and if not a corpse, then buried with the dead, a “source of contamination.” This proximity to death could render the poem unclean, along with anything or anyone who comes into contact with it. If translation is one way by which we retrieve “this poem,” then my translation into English is also unclean—original and translation mixing in the way that the dust we stir up when we exhume and rebury our dead mixes with the dust of their remains.
My translation of מרקיבים (markivim) as “decomposing” underscores decomposition as an ongoing process in the present, but it also highlights the relation between dead bodies and texts that I have observed in Leskly’s work. Leskly himself participates in this act through the decompositional modes of quotation and translation that bring Niski’s text into this poem, which Niski’s self-referential “And even I’m not really alive” acknowledges. But Niski is “not really alive” in another sense: he is one of several imaginary poets that Leskly cites and translates throughout his work. Nor is it incidental that Niski is a Czech poet. Leskly’s parents were Czech Holocaust survivors who had immigrated to Israel after the war. The buried “masses” in Niski’s poem arguably alludes to this personal and collective trauma, but they also bring us back to the buried “dead poem” encountered in the earlier hour and the possibility that Niski’s poem is the buried poem, decomposing in Leskly’s poem.
Paul de Man described death as “a displaced name for a linguistic predicament,” a predicament that Leskly’s “dead poem” encapsulates. This poem is here—we are reading it—but it is also “privative”—this poem is buried. While the poem remains buried, out of sight, we can imagine it whole, intact, incorruptible. But if Leskly’s poem ends with “ha-shir ha-ze,” it’s not to bring us back to the beginning, and therefore delay the process of decomposition. Instead, Leskly decomposes the poem, lets it break down, revealing “[t]hings buried, doing / for a lifetime,” but deforming them in the process—to then be converted, recycled, translated. “The end is where we start from.” And now I’m thinking about how my translation of “The Hour of the Dead Poem” ends with “buried,” and how someone will point this out and say that I got it wrong. But I always knew that the translation should end here, decomposing.
[i] Hezy Leskly, “She‘at ha-shir ha-met” [The hour of the dead poem], in Be’er chalav be-emts‘a ‘ir: Shirim 1968–1992 [A milkwell in the middle of a city: Collected poems, 1968–1992] (Tel Aviv: ‘Am ‘oved, 2009), 215. An earlier version of this translation appeared in Poetry International (https://www.poetryinternational.org/pi/poem/22818/auto/0/0/Hezy-Leskly//en/tile).
 William Wordsworth, “Essays upon Epitaphs” (1810), Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/16550/16550-h/16550-h.htm (accessed April 10, 2020).
 Robert Alter, trans., Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), 113.
 Ibid., 113–14.
 Wordsworth, “Essays upon Epitaphs.”
 David Malkiel, “Modernity in the Graveyard: Jewish Tombstones from Padua, 1830–1862,” Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, Society 19, no. 3 (Spring/Summer 2013): 89.
 Robert Alter, trans., The David Story: A Translation and Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 158 (my emphasis).
 From Wordsworth’s formulation “species of composition” (“Essays upon Epitaphs”).
 Malkiel, “Modernity in the Graveyard,” 79.
 Yehosheva Samet Shinberg, “Shirat ha-epitafim—mivchar mitokh zhaner nishkach be-shirat ha-haskala ha-‘ivrit” [Epitaphic poetry—a selection from a forgotten genre of the Hebrew Haskala], Dechak 8 (July 2017): 72.
 Samet Shinberg (ibid.) specifically calls attention to the influence that Joseph Klausner, Fischel Lachover, and Dan Miron—all prominent Hebrew literary critics—had on relegating the epitaph to the dubious category of “shirei ha-hizdamnut.”
 Ibid., 74.
 Michael Wallis, The Best Land under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny (New York: W. W. Norton / Liveright, 2017).
 Anne Carson, “Simonides Negative,” Arethusa 21, no. 2 (Fall 1988): 152.
 H. W. F. Gesenius, Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures, 7th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 1990), 220.
 Anne Carson, “Conversation with Brighde Mullins,” Lannan Foundation Readings and Conversations Series, Santa Fe, New Mexico, March 21, 2001, https://lannan.org/events/anne-carson-with-brighde-mullins.
 Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator” [Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers], in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol. 1, 1913– 1926, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004), 253–63.
 Chaim Nachman Bialik, “Acharei moti” [After my death], Project Ben Yehuda, https://benyehuda.org/read/4771.
 For a comprehensive reading of these poems, see Adriana X. Jacobs, Strange Cocktail: Translation and the Making of Modern Hebrew Poetry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018), 135–66.
 Karen Mills Campbell, “Poetry as Epitaph,” Journal of Popular Culture 14, no. 4 (Spring 1981): 659.
 Yopie Prins, Victorian Sappho (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 74.
 Hezy Leskly, “She‘at ha-rikavon” [The hour of decomposition], in Be’er chalav be-emts‘a ‘ir, 226 (my translation).
 Robert Alter, trans., The Wisdom Books: Jobs, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 174.
 Alter, Five Books of Moses, 779–80.
 Ibid., 781.
 Ibid., 779. In his note for Numbers 19:22, Alter explains that such prohibitions may have been put in place to discourage the worship of the dead.
 I have written about translation as decomposition in my work on contemporary US poetry and translation. See “Extreme Translation,” in Prismatic Translation, ed. Matthew Reynolds (Oxford: Legenda, 2019), 154–70.
 Paul de Man, “Autobiography as De-Facement,” in The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 81.
 Ibid., 80.
 Marianne Boruch, Cadaver, Speak (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2014), 59. In her research for Cadaver, Speak, Boruch attended a gross human anatomy course and had the opportunity to observe medical students perform autopsies.
 T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” in Collected Poems, 1909–1962 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963), 207. The title of this essay, as well as the first line of Leskly’s “The Hour of the Dead Poem,” reworks Eliot’s declaration “every poem an epitaph.”