Sloan-Kettering

( 3 )

Overview

In this luminous collection of poems, Abba Kovner records his deep engagement with life during his last days, as he lay dying of cancer in Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Kovner, the famed Jewish resistance fighter who led the Vilna ghetto uprising during World War II, was also a beloved master of Hebrew literature, and his work has seldom appeared in English. This translation brings us the fierce and humble gratitude of a visionary who has been a fighter not just for himself but for a whole people, as ...
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Sloan-Kettering

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Overview

In this luminous collection of poems, Abba Kovner records his deep engagement with life during his last days, as he lay dying of cancer in Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Kovner, the famed Jewish resistance fighter who led the Vilna ghetto uprising during World War II, was also a beloved master of Hebrew literature, and his work has seldom appeared in English. This translation brings us the fierce and humble gratitude of a visionary who has been a fighter not just for himself but for a whole people, as Kovner takes up his pen to say goodbye to a precious, if flawed, world.
 
Weaving together his perceptions of the present moment (“How little we need/to be happy: a half kilo increase in weight,/two circuits of the corridors”); his sorrow at leaving the world (his wife knitting at his bedside, the chatter of his grandsons); the dramatic loss of his vocal cords (“Have I no right to die/while still alive?”); and memories of his heroic comrades in the Baltic forest, Kovner emerges from these pages with yet another kind of heroism. His continual movement toward freedom and his desire to give a complete account of the gift of life, even as that life is failing, make his words stirring and unforgettable.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A work of self-commemoration that takes the side of continuing existence . . . A book written from the dark side of alienation . . . it shimmers with the dark radiance—the stark beauty—of last things.”
—Edward Hirsch, The New York Times Book Review

“Moving . . . In these plainspoken poems . . . Kovner meditates on the possibility of heroism in the face of illness.”
The New Yorker

"Abba Kovner wrote about his impending death with a broken heart—a heart laid open to longing, to memory, to love, to the ugly details of cancer treatment. The Sloan-Kettering Poems are unsentimentally, passionately, furiously alive."
—Anita Diamant (author of Saying Kaddish, The Red Tent, and Good Harbor)

"Here is a work of art, masterfully presented."
—A.B. Yehoshua

"Abba Kovner was one of the greatest poet-fighters in the Jewish tradition. I grew up in his light, as did many of those of my generation. He was a hero to us all, and a splendid poet. To read, hear, experience the intimacy of his last months—that is something very powerful."
—Chaim Potok

"These are beautiful, stern, lacerating poems written by a genuine hero as he was dying of cancer. They detail his struggle to bear witness to the destruction of his body and the perseverance of his will and identity. It is a terrifying but superb legacy he has given us."
—Marge Piercy

"In this deeply moving collection, Kovner shows the same greatness of spirit in confronting cancer that he showed in confronting Nazis in the Vilna ghetto."
—Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805211450
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/11/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 5.88 (w) x 7.09 (h) x 0.51 (d)

Meet the Author

ABBA KOVNER (1918–1987) was born in Sebastopol, Russia, and was a leader in the Vilna ghetto uprising during World War II. After the war, he helped take European Jews into Palestine, where he settled with his wife. In 1970, he won the Israel Prize for Literature.
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Read an Excerpt

I. 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 large eyes

At once 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.
"Where are we going, do you really know the way?"
"We are taking you there." He fell silent.
"Can I ask a question?"
"Too late."

(The swine!) "Let me take a towel,
some soap, a book?"
"Unnecessary. Anyone who enters comes out as he went in."

At once he turned to leave. As he went out,
trailing after him came his smell, his shadow and his dread.

II. THE CORRIDOR

He fell asleep under strange skies

He fell asleep under strange skies.
Vaulted windows the neo-renaissance style of New York Hospital. Outside the last thing his eyes took in clearly:
three chimneys a crematorium a red-tiled roof at the back
Rockefeller University,
the medical center,
a world of vanished routines,
your home and your rooms suddenly emptied of yesterday's light.

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First Chapter

I. 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
large eyes

At once
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.
"Where are we going, do you really know the way?"
"We are taking you there." He fell silent.
"Can I ask a question?"
"Too late."

(The swine!) "Let me take a towel,
some soap, a book?"
"Unnecessary. Anyone who enters
comes out as he went in."

At once he turned
to leave. As he went out,
trailing after him came his smell, his shadow
and his dread.



II. THE CORRIDOR


He fell asleep under strange skies


He fell asleep under strange skies.
Vaulted windows
the neo-renaissance style
of New York Hospital. Outside
the last thing his eyes took in
clearly:
three chimneys a crematorium
a red-tiled roof at the back
Rockefeller University,
the medical center,
a world of vanished routines,
your home and your rooms suddenly emptied
of yesterday's light.


Still inside

East River
beyond the foot of the wall. Like
a crimson tongue silently encompassing
Roosevelt Island the river
gently ripples.
Shocked by the sight of power soaring above him
concrete
and dark glass
proudgods–

ready to forgo the knowledge acquired
to cope with self-examination, studying
the powers
assembled
summoned up and recruited
to cut throats
still inside. Outside
a small finger fumbles for
that bag of skin and bones,
to say through dry lips:
No! to the knife.
A second time.


Fiction caught in the thicket

Dr. Strong is a large-limbed man,
a surgeon brimming with confidence. When he talks
about cancer of the throat, the head or,
let's say, the larynx,
chasms melt away. But when he draws near
the edge of the bed and looms
over your face, your heart falls
before the cold blue of his eyes,
an indifferent patch of sky,
and you shudder like one
challenged to stand up for his right
to live, even with closed eyes.

A second. Another
half second–and after
nine hours of anesthesia,
when you return and open them,
and speech rises and is heard
floating out of the darkness,
a still, small voice,
you know a little more about the nature of the heart

and the world and the man
whose hands have done everything for you
that a man's hands can do

and the rest is with heaven - - - -


Sloan-Kettering

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

and the silence astounds on all
its many floors
and when a patient
cut off from his supervisor
finds himself running
from room to room
with no idea where to turn
first, peering down the glaring corridors,
half-open doors and half-
shut,
Sloan-Kettering is a personal encounter

with a pathless wilderness
between yellow arrows

and blue signs
something obscure is going on
in the feverish cells
of your brain
at the entrance to a triple elevator
that has not yet
opened its maw
like a desert
beginning to take shape

from within;


Transparent infusion

Drop
by drop
colorless atropine
oozing down
into his veins,
like death. Like his name spelled out
in a foreign language

dripping from every telephone receiver
and receiving an American reply
to soothe the foreign breast
You are welcome, sir.
Doesn't cost a cent. He marvels:
the fingers of the black nurse on duty
are like the velvet pads where Mother
kepther needles
a sweet velvet pad like
chocolate–
She looks at him but sees nothing:
Your pulse is fine, sir.
Thank you.
You're welcome.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 28, 2013

    Lexi

    *coughcoughleavingcoughcough*

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 28, 2013

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 28, 2013

    To gabby

    Im here...lets go to a diff book go to munch res three

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