Also in this issue, Karen's translations of

Naim Araidi

Shaul Carmel

Michel Haddad

Yehuda Amichai

Asher Reich


Other translations by Karen Alkalay-Gut in previous issues:

Yehuda Amichai
Miriam Baruch Chalfi
Raquel Chalfi
Yaffa Zins
Iris Le'al
Leah Rudnitsky
Ben Zion Tomer

Poems by Karen in Spring 2000


A previous feature on Karen's book
In My Skin


Karen's website

Recommended sites:




For more poetry



Karen Alkalay-GutKaren Alkalay-Gut


Remember her name
and you will know
what you long for

what desire
is hiding from you
in your silence


Do divine swans smoke
after visiting mortals?

After they've changed the world
with one orgasm

do they turn their backs
and sleep
for centuries

Emily and Walt Drink Tea

He crosses the ferry from Paumanok to Connecticut
then rides north by carriage, for three hours,
just to meet her in an inn south of Amherst
where no one knows her face.
She's wearing a deep red cloak
over her white dress and sits down
breathlessly at the table by the papered wall,
shakes off the red hood and whispers to the bearded man,
his boots dripping onto the flowered carpet
that only poetry could have called her
from her task of circumference. “I tell people
I've never read you,” she says, “But
have heard you're scandalous. Of course
that's just an artifice I use to be left
to my own devices.” She chatters on
unable after such a long silence to control
the flow, except when she is forced
to breathe. She knows his trains,
his spiders, his ardor for strangers. And he
knows her but not her words other than those
she sent him in her strange script, “Wild
Nights.” He does not refer to it because
she seems to be so shy and instead offers
her a drop of dandelion wine. “Inebriate of air
am I,” she lowers her eyes and makes to leave.
“Before we part,” he says, “Let me ask
that photographer in the courtyard
to make a study of us together. It will be
a moment of eternity.” She smiles, drops
her eyes. “I have another pressing destiny.
The carriage outside is kindly waiting, but has
kindly stopped for me.”

Milk and Honey

That was it.
The only flowing in a dry land

Milk as easy to attain as
rounding up one of the goats
skipping across the hills

The only trick
is to secure your head
against her butt
so she doesn't drop
turds into the pure liquid.

And the honey is everywhere too.

Just wear white
follow the bees

and hope not
to incur their ire

Minding the Infant

As soon as you begin to wheel the carriage
the baby inside stops crying
as if any where else
has got to be
better than here.

Usually his eyes
open wide in anticipation,
but very soon he falls fast asleep

from the very monotony
of that hope.

Plea for a Moratorium on Poems About Jerusalem

I could write about Jerusalem forever—
There is not a stone in that city
that doesn't breathe, inspire.

But that is what is so frightening.

People kill for inspiration like that
People die for poems like that

Apartment Hunting in Tel Aviv

The facade is always unfathomable,
a united front of blinds closed to the street,
at least at midday when we arrive to weigh
the possibility of living on the inside, to be
part of the scene

When you walk round the side
you can see it clearly—
rubbish and laundry—
rich information
of the life within.

Like a urologist
I try to gauge the neighbors
from their street productions.

Once inside, it is much easier.
From each window we can view
a different family, busy with their lives
and ours. Friday afternoon and the mother
of the soldier is hanging his weekend fatigues
to be ready for ironing in the morning. She leans
a bit further over the clothes lines than she needs to
so she can see us evaluating the empty bedroom.

Friday afternoon and the young man in the opposite living room
is playing at seducing a girl who says she's just come by to hang out.
We hear her giggles, amplified by the awareness of an audience.

Friday afternoon and it is the end of a long, hard week
for the school children whose kitchen is opposite.
Mother warns them to hush but they are thrilled
with our company, strangers
who may well become very
very intimate.

“And how do you like it,” the agent asks eagerly,
having given up his afternoon sleep for the chance
of a sale. “It's what you asked for, an old house
with character.”

“It's an interactive museum!”

“Yes, that's Tel Aviv, all right.”

II Another Infathomable House

Once inside
and your eyes slink through the darkness
down the long hall through the tall parlor doors
past the plush sofa the highboy
the generic Grandmother
brought with her from Hungary, or Father
traveled from Carlsbad to order:
too big, too pretentious
for the immigrant space in little Israel—

and out to the balcony,
where the bougainvillea kisses all your senses
at once. Forget the parched earth below, the
stained walls and rusted railing. Remember
the moment you emerged into the sun.


The bed is still there, but the mattress
is gone. You know what that means.
The old lady, they say
has just moved to a Home. Look
how sweet she keeps this apartment.

She must have been a fine woman,
I think, but I am sure she died,
right here, in this shelter she created
from the storm of Europe,
with as much travail as childbirth.

IV Home

Some people don't even bother to dress
when we come to inspect their flat, sure,
after years of living in Tel Aviv,
they are invisible.

Even on the street they wear slippers,
so when they sell their home, underwear is fine.

And if you have a problem with it,
go live somewhere else

V The Customer and the Bathroom

We all have our roles —
mine is to look and not
form any connection with the property
until I take out my wallet.

And really what can I say—
a lady who has not peed all day,
but does not dare pretend
even for a moment she is a friend
who's only stopped by to say hello
and incidentally would appreciate
powdering her nose

VI The House on Sholom Aleichem Street

No matter how many flats we see
my heart keeps going back
to the house on Sholom Aleichem Street.

It doesn't belong in this country, the old
noble building on a hill
with a round balcony fit
for a princess waiting
to be rescued. I see her long wheat braids

calling his name into the sea breeze.

So what if the walls have holes so big
a man could walk through. So what
if the plumbing precedes the Mandate.
So what if the gangsters selling the place
will renege on all their promises to renovate.

“Go back and make them another offer,”
a voice calls, waking me at night from a deep sleep,
“When does convenience come
before character? I thought
you were a zionist not
a venture capitalist…”

VII Buying Property

It hits me that we're seeing all of Tel Aviv
from within. The family portraits on the dresser,
neglected by the children, show the history
of a people—staged portraits of new immigrants
in 1905 for the folks back in Cracow—
seated by a nargilah and wearing tarbush or kaffiyeh.
Look, Ma, I fit in here in Palestine. Next to these men,
a seated suited husband and standing wife
in starched shirtwaist and posed posture. The man
appears in another photo on the other dresser,
this time with a different woman but
the same suit.

Then the next generation — the children
now in the elaborate costumes of glittering weddings
— the same faces as the seated man and one
of the standing women —
but this time laughing and tanned.

And then their children first in Purim costumes and then in fatigues...

Sketches on the wall
by this dead woman's bed
are dedicated to her by artists
I've seen in museums.

The scenes are local, three women
selling produce in the Carmel Market,
The old water tower from Maze Street,
children waving from the train that used to stop
on Herzl Street, families exiled during the first world war.

VIII Buyer's Market

No one wants to sell
except the desperate. Prices
must go up sometime. For now,
everyone in this business pretends
all is as it was.

“Fools!” The man in the Tel Aviv land auction
of 1909 screamed out to the crowd
aching to be part of the new city.
“There's no water here!”

This picture, framed in narrow dark wood,
stands behind an mahogany desk, pushed to the wall,
in what was once someone's office on Rothschild Boulevard.

We decide to keep looking, sure
we will find an apartment that fulfills
our limited funds and our enormous dream.

IX No Relief

A Palestinian and an Israeli are talking.
The Palestinian complains: “Oy
I've got so many problems coming up—
we're going to have a state soon so we have to start
paying taxes, fines, all those burdens we've managed to escape.”

“You've got problems? We've been facing them for years!”

“Yes, but with you the end is in sight!”

x Tabula Rasa

Even a truly empty flat is not tabula rasa.

Even if the furnishing and photos have been cleared,
The windows and shades drawn
from the Tel Aviv hum, and the cats are asleep
for the day, under the jasmine, under the bougainvillea,
on the other side of the date tree,

                               there is still
something of the sand of the beach, the red clay
from beneath the sidewalks, the earth

that first created the human form.

XI The Agent

Even the ceilings look like they've been beaten down.
The dust of plaster long gone stills fills the air,
and everything metal has been gnawed green by the sea.

We glide gingerly through the rooms
careful not to touch the knobs, the jams,
the window hanging on one creaky hinge

to the booming voice of the Indian-accented Agent.
“Look how much you can do here, knock down this wall,
close that balcony, replacing the lighting, change the door
and you've got a palace!”

It's his usual shtik, but today I listen.
For some reason it seems possible.

Maybe because he's fasting
in memory of the destruction of the Temple
and the exile of the Jews and his voice is clear
and I want to hear.