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Music is the Meaning

VOICES FROM THE HILL

Abba Kovner

This is Hirbet Fatatah!

Who set the fire in Kharatiya and Hata?

A fire was set in Kharatiya and Hata.

The rising fire – is it from Kharatiya and Hata?

Fire rises from Kharatiya and Hata.

Is there anyone still in Kharatiya and Hata?

No soldier nor man in Kharatiya and Hata.

This is the commander:

And who ordered the fire in Kharatiya and Hata?

Those who set the fire in Kharatiya and Hata.

The enemy – in front of us.

And who walks behind

And chars our footsteps to Kharatiya and Hata?

The deserted clay huts are burning. And the fire opens wide

And the fire is wild.

The enemy walks in Kharatiya and Hata.*

To my mind, Abba Kovner’s poem, “Voices from the Hill,” is one of the most beautiful in all modern Hebrew poetry. It appears in Kovner’s second ode, Leaving the South, published first in 1949 during the War of Independence and then in all subsequent editions.I consider myself among those who consider this ode an example of Kovner’s finest poetry. I also stand with those who regard “Voices from the Hill” as the cream of the entire ode.

When I close my eyes and open myself to voices I have known, I hear the poem again in Kovner’s own voice, which, conveying tones and accents of another time and place, recalled the declamations of our greatest poets from Russia and Poland. From the depths of time, I again hear and see his bony legs knocking in rhythm to the words. I see his eyes soaring over the heads of his listeners, bound for sand hills far to the south, the low country along the coast where the Givati Brigade fought during the war.

Again, I see and hear the poet Hayim Guri reading the poem at some remote gathering in Kovner’s honor. Guri’s smoky voice merges with the sublime music of the poem. My skin quivers as it did the first time, my hands shake again in excitement. Guri knew just how to read the poem in his cracked voice. His Hebrew enunciation, lacking any Eastern European vestiges, made his reading more apt, more rousing. I have a recording of this recitation by Guri. I love listening to it now and then, when I resume reading Kovner’s poems.

In “Voices from the Hill,” Kovner (1918-1987) performed a unique poetic miracle, something that never again occurred in his verse, neither in his poems nor in the collections of his lyric poetry: He restored the poem to those ancient sonic roots that antedate the origins of verbal meaning. The poetry’s music has become its meaning, pure and supreme. The entrancing repetition of the names of the Arab villages burned during the fighting about Kibbutz Negba works like a hypnotic drumbeat on reader and listener alike. It no longer matters who is reciting, it no longer matters what the poet intended, it no longer matters whether he justified burning the villages or mourned them. The melody flows on and on, rolling forward, towards the fire, towards the smoke, towards the ashen villages, towards the south awash in blood, towards the sand hills and mounds of bitumen.

The melody of Kovner’s poem seizes both reader and listener,pulling them towards the most ancient sources of poetry – a splendid art, independent, unique, fleeting. From a time before the tongue became the clumsy beast of meaning, before the generations of readers and listeners who cannot help asking what the poet meant to say.

*Translated from the Hebrew by Shirley Kaufman. Reprinted by permission.

about the author

Elisha Porat was the 1996 winner of Israel’s Prime Minister’s Prize for Literature and has published 18 volumes of fiction and poetry in Hebrew since 1973. His works have appeared in translation in Israel, the United States, Canada, and England. Mr. Porat was born in 1938 to a “pioneer” family in Palestine-Eretz Yisrael (pre-Israel); his parents were among the founders of Ein Hahoresh, a kibbutz on the Sharon plain, near the city of Hadera. Today, Porat, devoted to the community ideal, still makes his home near the original tent erected by his parents in the early 1930s.