(review of “Sloan-Kettering” by Abba Kovner)
There are vast swaths on this planet where Abba Kovner is hailed as a hero, but none more steadfast in this writer’s life than a particular mosquito-laden parcel of land in the southern Catskills. There, in the summer camp I attended as a teenager, run by the Zionist youth group Hashomer Hatzair, Abba Kovner was a looming legend. Abba Kovner was, of course, a member of the same youth group in Vilna when he led that ghetto’s uprising. Like Mordecai Anielewicz, another Hashomer member who led the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Kovner was a tangible and immensely personal embodiment of chazak ve’ematz (strength and courage), the motto of Hashomer Hatzair. The word “hero” wasn’t bandied about quite as prosaically as it is today, but Kovner certainly qualified. And he wasn’t a hero in the pedestal sense; he was an attainable hero, one of us. He could very well have been in the next bunk over, drinking bug juice, singing campfire songs, or doing kitchen duty with us. And we could have been with him in Vilna, doing many of the same things with him, when the Nazis descended. And had we been—his enormously accessible persona seem to say—we would have stood courageously with him as he admonished the Jewish residents of Vilna to “not be led like sheep to the slaughterhouse.” The kindred spirits of Kovner and Anielewicz made us young Hashomer members feel immensely proud and strong, even if our biggest challenge was three days of “rapids” in the Delaware River while paddling our yellow rubber rafts. But we knew (or at least we fervently hoped) that we could be like them if such a situation were to arise again.
Anielewicz, sadly, was killed when the Germans flattened the Warsaw ghetto, but Kovner managed to survive as a partisan in the forest, eventually settling on Kibbutz Ein Hachoresh in Israel and turning to the pen. As a child in the Hashomer Hatzair summer camp, my image of Kovner ended there: ghetto uprising hero, wily partisan, aliyah to Israel, and then ultimate self-actualization living out one’s years as a writer in the paradise of kibbutz.
If you read most accounts of Kovner’s life, they essentially follow this formula, with just one line at the end to capture the other five decades of his life after the war. In some sense, though, that is how Kovner might have viewed his life. Those seminal years of resistance pervade his writing like a perennial itch, always there below the surface, no matter what the topic is at hand.
In someone with less of a resume this might be cloying, but Kovner has clearly earned his right. No matter how much we may laud ourselves for facing the challenges of our lives (and no matter how much we young Hashomer campers convinced ourselves), there wouldn’t be many of us who would actually stand up to the Waffen SS with acid-filled lightbulbs and a handful of revolvers. Kovner continually mines this period of his life in his writing. It is an era for which straightforward recounting can only be done so many times before we shudder and recoil from the horror of it all. For all the mounds of historical research in the last half-century, we can never gain a lucid understanding of evil. Perhaps that is why Kovner turned to poetry.
Sloan-Kettering is Kovner’s final book of verse. He died in 1987, and these poems are only now translated into English by Eddie Levenston. Kovner is not given to cryptic metaphors or to rococo descriptors, and so there is no mystery to the title of this slim volume. (Students of prosody will be grateful that Kovner did not check himself in to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, or other such esteemed institutions lacking mellifluous names). Sloan-Kettering is, of course, the paradigm of cancer centers. Whether justified or not, it is the barometer and icon of cancer care, a name with household recognition thanks to a century of solid clinical research and a Madison Avenue blitz of advertising.
Like thousands of patients around the world, when Abba Kovner was diagnosed with cancer (in his case, of the larynx), he picked himself up from the warmth and familiarity of home, boarded a trans-Atlantic jet, and deposited himself at this alter of oncology on York Avenue and East 68th Street. Unlike most of these fellow patients, whose stories remain detailed only in the terse jargon of the medical record, Kovner penned his own experience, filtering it through a personal history that few other denizens of that hospital shared.
These fifty-five poems follow Kovner’s treatments for laryngeal cancer, including the surgery that removed the tumor and his voice, and the horrific ramifications and indignities that followed. In typical soldier style, Kovner is blunt. Death arrives in the first, untitled poem, the sole poem in the section innocuously labeled “Introduction.”
And like that
the door opened without a click
pushing aside the shifting straw curtain
his shadow entered
followed by the man with his mane
of dark hair
a young man with
they took their places at the head of his bed
(the shadow quietly folded itself away
between the sink and the bedpans
and with the stance of a Trappist-to-be
he declared: “The time has come.”
“My time has come?” he trembled.
“That’s what I said,” he added
like a professional phantom.
At once he turned
to leave. As he went out,
trailing after him came his smell, his shadow
and his dread.
It takes a moment to figure out that it is Kovner himself asking, “My time is come?” because the poet refers to himself in the third person throughout this collection of poems, with only one or two exceptions. This is a bit unusual in the canon of illness narratives and poetics. Illness and bodily distress are such profoundly self-centered experiences that it seems that first-person writing would be a given. Apparently not. Writing in the third person might have been a way for Kovner to distance himself from his suffering, but this seems unlikely, since his poetry does not shy from the nitty gritty of pain. Perhaps he was looking for a way to universalize his experience. Or maybe he was viewing himself as a historical figure, one whose experiences were to be dissected in an “objective” manner for future study.
There’s no doubt that history plays a large role in Kovner’s psyche. “Never forget” is a phrase that has become part of common parlance. For Kovner, it is no slogan, it is not even an imperative; it simply is. Without seeming far-fetched or strained, the Holocaust and the ghetto uprising along with the postwar aftermath are in his present consciousness with the same degree of immediacy as his the pills he must swallow every morning. It is almost as though he is living two parts of his life simultaneously. The way Kovner’s neurological circuits are set up, these two parts exist and intertwine seamlessly. The hospital doesn’t remind him of a concentration camp; it is a concentration camp.
He Fell Asleep Under Strange Skies (pg 7)
He fell asleep under strange skies.
The neo-renaissance style
of New York Hospital. Outside
the last thing his eyes took in
three chimneys a crematorium
a red-tiled roof at the back
the medical center
a world of vanished routines,
your home and your rooms suddenly emptied
of yesterday’s light.
Sloan-Kettering (pg 11)
Sloan-Kettering (its full name: Memorial
Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center)
is a large and growing building
and all those who come within its walls
to strip naked,
jointly and separately, suddenly find themselves
in a cage, captive, exposed
Not unexpectedly, Kovner has a few issues to take up with God, and he doesn’t let the Almighty off too easily. “Is there a prayer,” he asks, “for one who prays like him/seething.” (His Prayer Stand, pg 15). I’ve always imagined that those who survived the Holocaust would no longer trust God, might even write God off entirely for the devastation that was wrought. But the image of a man praying, seething, is far more powerful and complex. After the war, Kovner formed a group called Hanokhmim (the Avengers). While other ex-partisans turned their energies toward building new lives in Palestine or America, Kovner wanted revenge. (In one prison camp in Nuremburg, his group managed to infiltrate the bakery and poison the bread baked for German POWs). Anger was a sustaining force in Kovner’s life, and this is reflected in his poetry. By all accounts, though, his anger lost its edge later in life, and he focused his energy on cultural and literary endeavors.
To borrow loosely from Tolstoy’s opening lines in Anna Karenina: healthy people are all alike, but every sick person suffers in his or her own way. Cancer is awful, but each type of cancer—and its attendant treatment— wreaks its own special brand of suffering and indignity. There are cancers that render one incontinent, cancers that choke the breathing, cancers that leave oozing sores. There are cancers that disfigure, cancers that bleed, cancers that clot. There are cancers that deprive one of sound mind, cancers that ravage the marrow, cancers that rob fertility. Abba Kovner’s cancer—cancer of the larynx—snuffed his voice.
Unless one believes in predetermined fate or specified suffering from a vengeful God, this is clearly just a random, horrible, irony: the loss of voice in one for whom words are the currency of life. There is an eerie echo from the writings of another of Israel’s great modern authors: A.B. Yehoshua’s famed short story collection is entitled The Continuing Silence of A Poet. Here now is a real life poet, whose voice has carried, powerfully, over seventy years, who will now be silenced—continuously—until his final breath.
One can imagine how acutely painful it was for Kovner to realize that he was going to lose his ability to speak. Though he didn’t—as evidenced by this book—lose his ability to write, the loss of voice must have been profound. It is no accident, after all, that writers speak of capturing a character’s voice in order to accurately distill a human (real or imagined) onto the page. Voice is the embodiment of a person. Kovner and his doctors apparently fought mightily to avoid this loss, doing operations, radiation, and chemotherapy to spare his vocal cords. In October of 1986, it became evident that it was no longer possible to circumvent laryngectomy, and the dreaded surgery was undertaken with the hope of curing the cancer. Two months later, metastases were discovered in his lungs.
The concept of “last words” has a rich history in fiction, particularly in film. Movies are rife with deathbed confessions, or pithy pearls of advice, or well-timed accusations. Life in the messy world of death, however, rarely allows for such planned locutions. In all my years as a physician, rarely have I witnessed lucid last words that match the fantasy put forth on the large screen. Pain and delirium muddy the final waters, and it is often as difficult for the family to ascertain what the actual last words were as it is for the dying person to coherently put forth that expectant, emotionally-laden last line of dialogue. For most patients there is not an awareness that now is the time for those final words. There is no director cueing the ailing patient with a black and white striped slate, ready to shout, “Cut” as soon as that stunning and devastating line of dialogue is delivered. The real story of final words is that they are usually buried in the murky process of dying, with no one knowing that they are final, until it is over. Only in hindsight can we identify, mourn, or celebrate most final words.
Kovner, however, could not escape from his final words. Clearly not dying (yet), he was forced to confront his last words head-on, with all the emotional clarity of a sentient being. There was no comforting lack of awareness, no drug-induced delirium to blunt the razor-edged reality of what his cancer surgery in the waning months of 1986 would bring. I try to put myself in his place. What would it be like to know that there is a fixed time and date for the cessation of your voice, that there are a finite number of words that you may utter until your throat is, literally, severed? What, exactly, would you say for your final words?
Kovner doesn’t share with us his actual final words, but he does put us in his shoes. And of course the horror of his youth must, inextricably, join the pain of his older self. (“When They Told Him,” pg 31)
…suddenly his hearing sharpened. On trembling
lips the tune died away
with no great protest. The remaining
words streamed to his throat
to be uttered with the last sound of this voice
what he wanted to tell you
and they fled
like the land unfolding in panic
beneath the speeding railway carriage
The inner fear.
The inner dread.
The inner rage and
the innermost awareness
that he cannot longer escape
and when he lifts his arms from the infusion
in silent prayer
perhaps he will see the voices again
in the empty East River landscape
and rediscover the light of your face
When Abba Kovner’s book of poetry arrived at my desk, I had just finished a month on the newly-formed oncology ward at Bellevue Hospital. Previously, cancer patients had been scattered amongst the general medical wards, along with the pneumonias, heart attacks, kidney stones, and emphysema flares that make up the daily life of an internist. Hoping to improve both the quality of care for the patients and the educational experience for the medical students and residents, 16-West was reconstituted as the preferred location for oncology patients.
I usually look forward to my time on the wards, with its opportunity for intensive teaching as well as the thrill and exhaustion of supervising the care of 30-40 seriously ill patients. But this month on the oncology ward, I was a little hesitant. 16-West was dominated by patients with colon, breast, and lung cancer. There were two older men that month with newly diagnosed with AML (acute myelogenous leukemia). One after the other, they underwent their requisite seven days of induction chemotherapy. And then we set about repairing the damage that our treatment had wrought upon them: bone marrow suppression, fevers, infection, renal failure, and so on. The intern appellation is “train wreck,” and it is not necessarily an ill-deserved metaphor. These men had, each in turn, been run over by a train, and it was our job to help scrape them off the tracks. The metaphor of train, of course, holds a special bone-melting horror since the mid-twentieth century. Kovner is one who will never forget and never let us forget.
Many small details of my experience on the cancer ward pulsed under my skin as I read Sloan Kettering. Like Abba Kovner, the majority of our patients were not from the United States. I don’t know what Kovner’s proficiency in English was, but our patients typically suffer the burden of double translation: the bizarre language of medicine into English, and then the bizarre language of English into their native language (either by a family member, a helpful staff member, or an AT&T international operator in the case of the less common languages like Tibetan, Fulani, or Creole).
For a patient, the hospital is a surreal place: a frightening Babel of machines, medications, procedures, administered by a dizzying and often anonymous array of doctors, nurses, interns, residents, fellows, students, aides, consultants, technicians—all of which is experienced while wearing horrid patient gowns that slip open in the wrong places, lying in uncomfortable beds with stiff sheets, eating food not fit for the average zoo inhabitant, trying to keep straight hosts of conflicting information, all the while experiencing pain, nausea, sleeplessness, fatigue, fever and other sundry assaults on the body. For the staff, the hospital is a workaday place with routine, gossip, boredom, and politics, not dissimilar from a typical office. But there are also surreal aspects for the staff, if one takes the time to consider them.
Consider the image of the patient. When the interns and residents review their patients with me, my mind makes visual rounds of the ward. I see each patient in my head as their case is discussed. As we debate whether to change antibiotics, or order another CT scan, I imagine the residents are picturing that patient the same way I am, the way we saw them on rounds that morning: in a hospital gown, prostrate in bed, worn slippers on their feet, sallow skin from illness and lack of sun, bruises from IVs and blood draws, mussed hair from less frequent showering, the faint (or for some, powerful) sour odor of sickness.
Could we imagine that patient dashing down the subway steps to catch a train for work? Could we imagine that patient chopping vegetables for a salad, balancing a checkbook, dancing at a wedding, demanding a pay raise, having sex? It’s not that we can’t consider that these patients may be able to, or may have been able to, do these things, it’s that our scope of vision simply doesn’t extend beyond the hospital walls. In our eyes, the patient is, has always been, and always will be, a patient. Though we rarely stop to think about that, it is a surreality worthy of The Twilight Zone. A whole cross-section of society is lined up in our wards, and we process only the commonality among them: they are patients. I don’t think this is malicious, or even intentional, but when one is so fully absorbed in this culture, it is difficult to imagine patients as anything but. And even when the patients occasionally remind us of their occupations or pre-illness lives, these are facts that don’t entwine itself into our perception of the patient; they float in a separate realm, unable to pin themselves onto the mental image planted in the brain of the doctor. The human has sunk into patienthood, and all else has evaporated.
I recall such a transformation myself, when I donned a patient gown and entered my very own hospital to deliver my baby. In the same corridors where the white coat of an attending afforded me respect, or at least recognition, I was suddenly one of the drab masses, having to wait patiently (or not so patiently) for the lowest of orderlies to answer when I rang the bell for help. I felt shrunken into the hospital bed…and I wasn’t even sick!
I imagine that the majority of staff at Sloan-Kettering saw an elderly, foreign, sickly man in Kovner’s bed, one of hundreds in their hospital. Perhaps he occasionally mentioned that he’d been a leader of the resistance during World War II and I wonder if that was written off as a drug-induced hallucination, or a slightly inflated recounting in an attempt to regain control in an otherwise humiliating situation. Probably few outside of his immediate doctors realized that this old man indeed was a true hero of the twentieth century. Whether or not Kovner voiced this, this theme arises many times in his poetry.
In “His Blanket is Still Wet,” (pp36-37) Kovner writes about the hands of a young nurse…
Supporting his hips, without noticing
touching what had been his privates and without
embarrassment continuing to talk about him
as though talking about ancient shards—
they could not understand how such a skeleton
could still remain alive.
They could not imagine that this was a man
who had fought the world,
it was not he who had given life a name
of such fatuity—
his blanket is still wet from the night.
Until the duty nurse arrives, …..
In the section entitled “Half-Drugged,” Kovner is visited—one might say plagued—by memories from the Holocaust. His body does not allow him to forget, and perhaps the effects of medication serve to lower his protective defenses by a few notches. Many of the recollections are potent, factual accounts of fallen comrades, fearful flights, lost family. “Today is the Sixteenth of July” recalls how his friend and fellow resistance fighter, Itzik Wittenburg, turned himself in to the Nazis to avoid the threatened mass punishment to the Vilna ghetto residents.
The remembrance poems that intrigue me the most are the ones with the sensual memories. When I’ve observed patients under conscious sedation (using drugs in the Valium family) I’ve noticed that they seem to lose some of their concrete connections—time, date, location. I imagine that with the receding of these “secretarial” functions, the senses are left to frolic unchecked: smells and tastes, sounds and colors, roll in waves across the blunted consciousness, subverting quotidian neurological circuits, leaping past logical connections, joining images and sensations in random, luscious, and frightening unions that occasionally lead to profound conclusions.
Violent Interruption (pp. 68-9)
Before his eyes
steeply they fall
words without context;
they are holocaust survivors, you said,
they emerged stricken in body
After what happened to them
we must be careful. They said:
The worst of all comes back.
They did not extinguish the fire.
They have not lit the light.
One day, damn it, one
fine day it has to stop!
But they had such a penetrating
in the ghetto the lice
got under your skin. The story of the ghetto
did not get under your
skin. When, my friend,
did you last visit
the likeness of the questioner,
the other one
inside you, flesh of your battered
to ask him, black brother, your morning coffee
that smelled of smoke—what did it taste like?
And another question.
for it is not the answers that are important. Only
by questions is man empowered. And no final summary,
just no rounding off,
in the name of God!
Upon first reading, Kovner’s writing is simple and unadorned. But perhaps ‘deceptively simple’ is a more accurate description. It is clearly accessible even to the most poetically-challenged among us. Readers will not be intimidated by pompous metaphors or grandiose, self-serving structural idiosyncrasies. His writing is eminently readable and the poems are quite short. But, as I’ve said, the poems are deceptively simple. There is a cumulative affect of reading 55 of them in a row, a relentless tugging back of the curtain on his life, which is both a uniquely exceptional life, and an ultimately universal one. Kovner nudges us gently, but inexorably, to experience the rawness of illness, the assault upon humanity, and the role of world history in the workings of the body. By the end of this slim volume, one feels as though one has sat at the bedside of a respected, affectionate, but at times cantankerous, uncle, watching illness and treatment pummel his body. One peers into his dreams, listens to his “half-drugged” murmurings, and witnesses his physical reactions with a mix of fascination, discomfort, and empathy.
Kovner’s poems take us through his medical journey: the tests, the surgery, the chemotherapy, the radiation, his return home to Israel. He also takes us through his emotional journey as well: the fears, the doubts, the indignities, the small triumphs, the love and support of his wife Vitka Kempner (the poems about his wife are the only ones in which he speaks in the first-person.)
What lessons are we to draw? What does Kovner wish to tell us, apart from how awful it is to be sick and to avoid it at all costs? Without ever having had the opportunity to talk with this man, it would be presumptuous to attempt to summarize his wisdom. Instead, I would offer this tiny gem of verse, one so small that it doesn’t even merit a title. It is the first poem in the final section of the book, which is entitled: “An Exercise With Slips Of Paper (slips of paper as a limited experiment in writing a will).”
If we could lift one more veil
we might reveal
the face of our near ones
more than the things
for which we went
Kovner apparently did not leave any written will. According to Dina Porat, author of Beyond the Reaches of Our Soul: The Life and Times of Abba Kovner (published in Hebrew, 2000), the only specific wish that Kovner had written was that his tombstone be no different than that for any other members of his kibbutz. Apparently when his son Michael suggested he put together a will, Kovner retorted, “What do you think, I’m going to die?” In Porat’s book, Kovner is described as an ongoing fighter, telling everyone that he intended to outlive this cancer. He even admonished his elder brother not to die, reminding him of an oath they had taken together decades earlier in the ghetto, promising each other that they would not die. Whether this was a show of bravado or willful denial, Kovner certainly pushed himself to be productive even through the worst of his illness. He completed a book about his mother, Rose’s Song, which was published a month before he died. He continued to be involved with the Museum of the Diaspora at Tel Aviv University, which had always been an important project for him. He wrote a public letter of protest to Israeli president Chaim Herzog who had made a diplomatic trip to Germany, commenting that if Herzog had been through what he, Kovner, had been through, he’d never consider a visit to Germany. As late as two weeks before his death, Kovner wrote a letter to Itzhak Rabin, then Minister of Security, praising Rabin’s comment, upon visiting Dachau, that if the state of Israel had been founded just a few years earlier, millions of lives might have been saved.
Kovner was not a religious man, but observed that even the most rational of people rely upon the “mystical” when pressed. He dragged his ancient Hermes typewriter to the hospital upon which to do his writing, hoping that this “icon” would bring him out of his misery. Much of the poetry in Sloan-Kettering was written on this manual typewriter.
In another nod toward the “mystical,” Kovner, an avid secularist, asked his son to say kaddish for him after he died. But Michael was not religious either, and apparently Kovner was not convinced that his wish would be carried out. He engaged a back-up plan, asking a more observant Jew, an old friend from his ghetto days, to say kaddish after his death.
Kovner traveled between New York and Israel many times, but on the eve of Rosh Hashana 1987, he felt inexplicably better, and asked that his family take him back to Israel so that he could “refresh himself” for the new year. Kovner flew back to Israel, and died 48 hours later, on the second day of Rosh Hashana, just shy of a year since his vocal cords had been removed.
The late Zvia Ginor, in her doctoral thesis on Abba Kovner, felt that the writer’s central personal metaphor was shaliach tsibor. Literally a representative or messenger of the community, a shaliach tsibor was a layperson who led services in the synagogue. Before the war, Kovner’s father performed this role in Vilna. Kovner clearly viewed himself as a messenger of the community, both of his immediate community of embattled Vilna Jews, but also of the greater community of humanity. As a survivor of—and a fighter against—Nazi genocide, he felt he had the credibility, and obligation, to remind the world of what happened during that bitter and brutal decade.
The book, Sloan-Kettering, is printed in a 6”x7” format, and so sits a bit oddly on the shelf with the other, more standard-sized books. Physically, it is a beautifully produced book, but I just wish the publisher had been slightly more generous with its height. So many of the poems run over to the next page by only a few lines. An inch or two more would have allowed a good proportion of the poems to sit comfortably on single pages. Given the freedom of structure in poetry these days, one often isn’t sure if a poem has ended at the bottom of the page. I know that my eye and my mind stop for a breath at the end of a page, an ending of sorts. When I turn the paper over to discover that there is more, I have to backtrack emotionally, and retool into that train of thought which, no matter how focused I am, sags momentarily when the page is turned. A small lament, perhaps, but in a collection of such short poems, an effort to preserve most in full unity would have been appreciated by this reader.
Sloan-Kettering is blessed with a stunning introduction by Leon Wieseltier. I was compelled to read parts of it aloud to the (somewhat puzzled, but ultimately impressed) interns in my clinic, after making the mistake of thinking I could just ‘leaf through the intro’ between patients. Wieseltier writes gracefully of the efforts of human beings to avoid confronting death. Along the lines of Ernest Becker, he writes, “Perhaps it is the impossibility of remaining indifferent to death that requires of us our elaborate improvisations of indifference…” This may be where Abba Kovner fits in. He resists the elaborate improvisations of indifference. He did this when he spoke before a disbelieving crowd of Jews in Vilna about what he saw as the ultimate plan of the Nazis. He does this now when speaking before a disbelieving audience of readers who, in the great opium of the masses that is good health, cannot believe that their bodies will ever fail them. In holding onto his humanity throughout both of these profound crises in his life, Kovner reveals the iron will beneath the physically unassuming exterior. This is Abba Kovner’s resistance
(from Parnassus: Poetry in Review)
The author is grateful to Professor Avraham Holtz of the Jewish Theological Seminary for information about the late Zvia Ginor and her doctoral thesis on Abba Kovner, and to her own abba, Zacharia Ofri, for translating sections of Dina Porat’s biography of Kovner from the Hebrew.