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ELISHA PORAT
Elisha Porat
Elisha Porat
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was a 1996 winner of Israel's Prime Minister's Prize for Literature, has published more than a dozen volumes of fiction and poetry in Hebrew since 1973. His works have appeared in translation in Israel, the United States, Canada, and England.

He was born in 1938 to a pioneer family in Petah Tikva, Israel. In the early 1930s his parents were among the founders of Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, where he was raised and still makes his home.

Drafted into Israeli Army in 1956, heserved in a frontline reconnaissance unit and fought the Six Day war in 1967, and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. As a lifelong member of his kibbutz, he has worked as a farmer as well as a writer. He currently performs editorial duties for several literary journals. You can contact him at porat_el@einhahoresh.org.il.

MORE FICTION & POETRY
BY ELISHA PORAT

Posted 01.01
Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, Israel

ELISHA PORAT

Curly Headed Pussycat

In the winter of 1976, a few weeks after the publication of my first book of poems, I received a telephone call from the radio station of the Israeli Army. A pleasant young voice courteously invited me to come and be interviewed for their weekly literature program. I felt excited and confused, I was a complete novice about advertising poetry and didn't know how to react to such encouraging invitations.

I asked the girl if it was she herself who intended to interview me. She merely laughed and said they had a well-known poet at the station who interviewed poets whose new books had just been published. She was surprised I had never heard of him and his program and assured me that he was "an excellent interviewer whose programs were gripping, interesting, and very helpful for listeners to get to know the poetry."

I told her I would be very happy to give my first book of poems an encouraging start, even on the Army radio station, and asked her for the name of the poet-interviewer. She gave me his name and address and telephone number and added that he also published reviews of poetry in the press and if he liked me... I got the point.

"You're a novice right?" she asked me before hanging up. "Listen, don't get upset. They're saying here that you've written a moving book of poems."

And a few days later he did get in touch with me. At that time I was living in a hot, crowded students' dormitory in Jerusalem. He rang me in the afternoon, on the public telephone in the dorms. I was embarrassed again, my throat dried up, I blanched and spluttered and my hand holding the receiver began to sweat. I remember some very unliterary haggling over where to hold the interview.

I suggested the small apartment of mine on the kibbutz, surrounded by green lawns and happy shouting children. A place detached, as it were, from the worries and pressures of time. But he insisted on the interview taking place in Tel Aviv, the big city. He suggested a modest cafeteria near the radio station in Jaffa. But I refused, telling him it was difficult for me to find my way from the kibbutz to Jerusalem via Jaffa.

And anyway, why Jaffa of all places? I remember asking him how Jaffa was better than my small room on the kibbutz? He thought for a moment and suggested that we meet at a small cafe in the square near the Town Hall, close to his apartment. I pondered and hesitated and finally he decided we should meet in his apartment.

"Don't forget", he said, "on the second floor, it's an old building, in one of the small streets turning off Ibn Gvirol. and the door", he concluded, "is always open."

It was one day during the week, I think it must have been in the middle of February, 1976, one of those bright, warm days that take you by surprise in the depths of a cold winter. I reached his apartment, the door was brightly painted, the decorations around it overlapped the lintel. You could see at once that this was an apartment of artists, young free spirits who knew what was in.

The door was open. I paused a moment on the landing to recover my breath. I was gasping. The second floor, he had said on the telephone, but actually it was the third, he had not counted the height of the pillars from the entrance level.

I opened the door and went inside. In order to avoid any embarrassment, I cleared my throat, coughed aloud and gave the chair that was standing in the entrance a kick.

"Yes, come in, it's open." I heard his voice coming from the kitchen. "it's OK, I've been waiting for you."

He was sitting by the kitchen table, painted a dazzling blue, with the tape recorder in front of him and my first book of poems lying there among the plates and the breadcrumbs.

"Sit down, sit down," he told me, extending his arm from the shoulder, without getting out of his chair. "We can start in a minute. Would you like some coffee? Or tea? Maybe a roll?" He rummaged in the empty bread bin, apologized and said "Never mind, Rami will go down to the corner store and get some fresh rolls," and opened another door through which I caught a glimpse of a young man, almost naked, sprawled on a colored mattress that was lying on the floor.

"Rami is a good boy," he said and came back to sit in front of the tape recorder. "A fine, handsome boy, a real pussycat."

The interview began, he asked questions and I answered, and I was surprised by his journalistic efficiency.

"You have written a moving book," he said as he was changing the cassette, "excellent poems about memory. But don't expect it to sell. And don't think anyone is going to take note of it and recognize your talent You'll see, you're going to be very disappointed."

I was taken in by the style of his interview and the interest he displayed in my work; like a man high on drugs, by his dirty kitchen table, I poured forth all the pain and anger and frustration that had accumulated in me since the war.

From the moment I had been discharged after a long period of military service, I had been unable to settle down. Like many of my acquaintances I had been badly shaken by the appalling trauma we had all undergone during the October War. Like a hurt child who does not know who is really responsible for his suffering, I placed the blame on everybody.

At night, when the politicians spoke to me from the television screen, I couldn't stand their bare-faced lies, and when intellectuals serving in the army broadcast laments for the loss of our ancient, valued identity and the birth of a new one, hard and painful, conceived in blood and tears, I laughed to myself at such idiotic naivety.

In those days I could easily distinguish the various kinds of shirkers. Those who were firmly attached to their cafe tables, in Tel Aviv and other places. And at a time when my comrades and I, and thousands of other soldiers who had survived the firing line "were searching frantically" for cover from surprise hostile bombardment, they were holding pitiful, garrulous debates about the "existential abyss" they had suddenly discovered.

He stared at me and asked "What are you so angry about? Why are you so hostile? All I'm doing is interviewing you about a new book of poems, your first book of verse."

Handsome Rami re-entered the apartment and with quiet grace put fresh rolls in front of us. I gazed in wonder at his mass of curls, and I remember the signs of sleep that marked his face. He looked at me for a moment as he passed my chair and I was sure he could see the cloud of anger and frustration that enveloped me.

"A nice-looking kid, eh?" the poet said when Rami had left the kitchen. "A real curly-headed pussycat."

Anger gave rise to anger, misery brought more misery and I could no longer stand the suspense.

"Don't jabber to me about good-looking kids." "I saw too many young lads piled up at casualty clearing stations. I saw too many handsome soldiers strewn on the ground in the maneuvers of that damn war."

He turned off the tape immediately. There was no point in continuing with the interview. I was a bundle of nerves. What had been recorded had been recorded, he said as he rose from the table, and the rest could be done when I had calmed down.

"And what about everything I said?" I asked. "We'll see," he replied, packing away the cable, "maybe we can do something with it. This anger of yours will eat you up. You had better be careful; in your place I would do something about it."

We parted in haste, with no particular amiability, no gesture of growing intimacy, and no promises whatever. We agreed that he would inform me when and in what framework the interview would be broadcast. And I left his Bohemian apartment, hurrying along the street of the wintry city towards the nearby bus terminal.

As I sat in the bus, on the road going up to Jerusalem, I was assailed by all the poems, all the sounds and memories of the war. The sense of outrage that I felt, whose precise origin I did not know, gave rise to a desire to settle accounts with the whole world. As usual I was too tense, too loud, too sure of the justice of my own stupid hatred. It had been born in the trenches, during the long bitter winter I had spent in the basalt army posts on the Syrian front.

I was sorry he had been so quick to turn off the tape recorder. Some day someone would have to listen to me. It certainly wasn't all my fault, I consoled myself. He's a busy man, he was hurrying to another appoint- ment. A pity I didn't ask him to play back what he had already recorded. It was a good thing I had recited some of the poems into the microphone.

"Read, read," he had encouraged me, "no one can read your poems better than you can."

I got off the bus at the central bus terminal in Jerusalem and made my way quickly to my room in the students' dormitories. The air was fresh and cool, reminding me of the dry mountain air I had breathed for such long months at the top of the basalt hills. Would I never be able to forget what I had seen? That was another reason why I had written the poems of recollection. To rid myself once and for all of troublesome memories. How long would they haunt me?

Two weeks later I was surprised again by a telephone call to the dorms. Again it was from the army radio station. This time it was the poet-interviewer himself speaking.

"How are you? Have you calmed down?" And a few more polite remarks for starters. I was completely relaxed. Jerusalem had been kind enough gradually to banish the war.

"Well, what now?" I asked, "when is the broadcast?"

"Ah, that's it, that's exactly the problem. There will be no broadcast," he told me. "I listened to the partial recording that we made and it's really good. And your reading of the poems is wonderful. However, the interview will not be broadcast. The station manager has vetoed it.

" "Vetoed it?" I was dumbfounded. "What did I say? What did I say that had to be vetoed?"

"Ah," he replied, "that's just the problem. The poems you read came out really good. I'll see that you get a tape with the poems. Make sure you keep them, you may find a use for them some time. A wonderful reading, really touching poems about memories. Some of them may be the best war poems I have read recently."

"So what's the problem?" I pressed him, "why did they veto the interview?"

"It came out a little defeatist," the interviewer told me carefully. "That's what they thought, the people at the station who heard it. This is hardly the time to be broadcasting defeatist talk on an Army radio station. Such an interview could lower the morale of the listeners, that's what they say at the station, we should keep it till better times."

His words astonished me. I had thought of everything except such a moralistic argument. Of all the objections in the world, they should veto my first interview because it was defeatist? I had had no choice but to give expression to all those mute witnesses who had spent such long months with a feeling of betrayal. I had been obliged to give voice to my depression, to share with the listening public my outcry, my protest, my despair.

"I'm sorry," he said finally, after hearing all my protestations, "I'm really sorry. It's a pity your book will be forgotten. Perhaps we can meet again, after you publish your next book of verse."

But I haven't written any more poems since then, my next book of verse is taking a very long time. Unexpectedly, we did meet again, several years later, in very different circumstances. I happened to find myself one day in the flowering garden of the President's residence in Jerusalem, on the occasion of Hebrew Book Week. The garden was decorated, refreshing, everything was very colorful and eye-catching.

I recognized him immediately when he crossed the lawn. I was sitting at the back as usual, in the last row of chairs. He came and sat down next to me. He hadn't changed much, only the lines on his face had deepened. He didn't recognize me, waved a hand in greeting to scattered acquaintances among the guests present and stared at the drinks table which was standing close by.

I told myself that if he didn't recognize me, I wouldn't bother him. In any case, quite a few years had passed since the interview. I doubted whether he would remember our short but intense meeting in his Bohemian apartment near the city square. Suddenly I remembered Rami, the good-looking spoilt "pussycat" who had gone down to the corner store and brought us coffee and rolls. He had not accompanied him to the celebrations of Hebrew literature at the President's residence.

All of a sudden, to everyone's total astonishment, he leapt from his chair and started screaming and running towards the platform. The security men moved quickly, grabbed him by the arms and pulled him away.

"This isn't a Hebrew Book Week", he screamed at the crowd and the dignitaries sitting on the platform, "it's just a commercial occasion for publishers."

The security men returned him to his chair and forcibly sat him down. All the guests turned their heads towards us and suddenly we were the focus of attention at the celebration. He assured the guards he would take it easy but they were hesitant. One of them went back to his place but the other remained standing behind the protesting poet, resting a heavy hand on his shoulder and keeping him in his place.

"Try it once more", said the security guard, "and we'll sling you out." The poet pretended to relax and said to him "Hey, bring me something to drink."

The guard went to the drinks table and immediately the poet sprang up and started running towards the platform.

"You're all crooks, this is one big racket. It's a celebration of exploitation and theft, the swindling of poets."

The security men ran after him, grabbed hold of him, lifted him up and flung him down at the edge of the lawn. He fell on the grass, dazed, and tried to stand up and brush his clothes. But they manhandled him.

"So, you promised to relax, eh?" They held him between them and dragged him off like a sack. The master of ceremonies tried to calm the guests and the protesting poet was thrown outside the gate of the presidential residence. He held on to the bars and shouted something incomprehensible. The guards offered him a cold drink and urged him to calm down. Beyond the lawn they couldn't harm him.

"Your anger proved too much for you, eh?" I asked him. "Anger is a very bad counselor." He looked, suddenly recognized me and said "I remember you. You're the disappointed poet who came home a wreck from the war."

We shook hands outside the barred gate and I asked him whether the interview we had recorded had eventually been broadcast.

"No, it was erased", he said "and you have nothing to regret."

I didn't tell him that since then I had ceased writing poems. And I didn't remind him of his promise that he would interview me again when my second book of verse was published. He stood there trembling, his shoulders aching from the rough handling by the guards.

"And what happened to the good-looking boy, Rami, who was with you at the time," I asked.

He raised his lined face, and gazed at me, and I suddenly seemed to see in his eyes the betrayal in my own that I had left behind me in the war.

"I've no idea where he is now, that pretty boy, that curly-headed pussycat. You're really dangerous, with your poet's memory." I turned round, to go back to my place on the lawn, but to my surprise he added, "Do you remember his magnificent curls?"

I waved my hand in goodbye from a distance and suddenly felt sorry for him, and for the handsome lad, and for my next poems which, perhaps because of everything that had happened to me, were taking so long to get written.

(Translated from the Hebrew by Eddie Levenston.)

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