Many years ago

I was sent

to spy out the land

beyond the age of thirty.

I stayed there

and I did not return to those who sent me,

so that I would not have to tell them

about that land

and would not have to lie.


I Waited for My Girl and Her Steps Were Not There

I waited for my girl and her steps were not there.

But I heard a shot—soldiers

training for war.

Soldiers are always training for some war.

Then I opened the collar of my shirt

and the two lapel-edges pointed

in two directions.

And my neck rose between them—

on it the crest of my quiet head

bearing the fruit of my eyes.

And below, in my warm pocket, the clinking keys

gave me the small sense of security

of those things that could still

be locked and kept.

But my girl yet walks through the streets

adorned in the jewels of the end-time

and the beads of the terrible danger

round her neck.

A Corpse in the Field

His blood was flung hastily and carelessly

like the clothes

of someone much too tired.

How the night has grown!

The windows had it right

like my parents, when I was a child.

Monastic winds

passed over the hills, serious, heads bent.

Mayors, U.N. army officials

measured the distance from the living

to the dead,

with right angles and compasses and little rulers,

with cigar boxes, with hard emotions,

with sharpened hopes

and with bloodhounds.


Poem in the Orange Grove

I am godforsaken. “You are

godforsaken,” said my father.

God forsook me. Afterward, he, too.

The fragrance of blossoming orange groves

lingered in me for a time. The hands were sticky

with juice and desire. You screamed loud,

committed two of your last thighs

to battle. Afterward, silence. You, who studied

history with your lovely head, know that only what's past

is quiet; even battles, even the fragrance

of orange groves. Fruit and flower were in a single tree

in that double season, in the spring.

And already then we spoke in the strange foreign accent

of those who will die or be parted.

God's Fate

God's fate now

is like the fate

of trees and stones, sun and moon,

when people stopped believing in them

and began to believe in Him.

But He has to stay with us:

at least like the trees, at least like the stones

and the sun and the moon and the stars.


First Yahrzeit

My mother's first yahrzeit far from Jerusalem

among the green islands of western Canada.

Forgetful water and remembering water

mingle at the shore,

high tide and ebb tide are also a continuous flow,

continuous and eternal life.

An eagle circles above, like a lonely soul,

and my mother never saw an eagle.

Here beneath myriads of trees and myriads of clouds

that have joined me for a minyan I say kaddish.

One can say kaddish in any place and one can say kaddish

even after the resurrection of the dead.

Even should my mother sit opposite me at the table,

little and bent, I would still mourn her death

before her eyes and say kaddish to her ears.

The Synagogue in Florence

Spring's softness in the courtyard,

tree blooming, four girls playing

between lessons in the Holy Tongue

in front of the marble memorial wall:

Levi, Sonnino, Cassuto and others

in straight lines as in a newspaper

or in a Torah scroll.

And the tree stands in memory of nothing,

just the memory of this spring,

arrivederci, our Father,

buona notte, our King.

Tears in the eyes

like dry crumbs in the pocket

of a cake that once was.

Buona notte, Sonnino,

arrivederci, six million,

the girls and the tree and the crumbs.

With a Suitcase in My Hand in a Foreign Land

The suitcase in my hand is full of things. I want

to bring happiness, to be a horn of plenty,

at least to bring luck like a coin tossed

into a fountain, to be a superstition.

I sit in a restaurant, on the table

flowers that perhaps wanted to be a bride's garland

or to adorn a grave in memoriam.

The waiter turns away from me,

the newspaper vendor goes by me,

even the beggar doesn't come to my table

and the security man at the airport didn't check me,

didn't frisk me, I'm not even suspect.

I remember my father's prophecy, “When you grow up,

you'll be able to travel alone,” and I fulfill it.

I remember, in my childhood in a foreign land

my mother and I were knocked down by a bicycle.

Since then, I've grown up and learned to sing the proud song,

“Though we were knocked down, we were not dismayed.”

I sang with

them all, for I was them-alled, very them-alled, with them all.

And now I'm alone in a foreign land. And what's happened

to them all?

Some were dismayed, some were knocked down and got up,

and some

remained fallen. My mother is dead. The witnesses are gone.

I remember only one wheel of the bike still spinning a little,

spinning freed from the hard earth.

But We Must Praise

We must praise the Lord of all.

—Hebrew liturgy

But we must praise

a familiar night. Gold borrowed from the abyss.

Cypresses rising forever. Far away,

long hair still flows, Lord of the loss of all.

What are you doing to me, far-away woman?

As on branches you hung me with weeping thoughts.

From far away your hand touches me as if testing

my bridges. They bear the weight and tremble.

Yours is the kingdom.

Behind my words dark as a moon

come to me, make me tired.

But we must praise the loins of all: your lap.

The rousing cheer

that bore you to me on the night of overturning,

stars of forgetful man above us.

Your body's style, sky's manner here in the hollow

of this narrow world. But we must.


from Songs of Zion the Beautiful

The photos of divided Jerusalem

you burn, and the so beautiful

love letters of a quiet beloved.

The undivided noisy matron has returned

with her gold and bronze and precious stones

to her fat legitimate life.

But I don't love her.

I sometimes remember the quiet one.


The light of passing cars

sorted my thoughts in black and white.

I, who cross the street

only in the places permitted,

was suddenly called among roses.

And like a dark branch that is white

where it is broken, I too am bright in my love.


Robert Alter is the author, most recently, of The Wisdom Books: A Translation With Commentary (Norton). These poems appeared in the December 20, 2012 issue of the magazine