On day 11 of the end of 2020, let’s turn to Israeli poet Natan Zach who died this November. I left his poem “Against Parting” at Michigan Central Station. The 1913 Station, once called Detroit’s “Ellis Island” and later the favorite of “ruin porn” photographers, is being renovated by Ford Motor Company. (You can link to a history of the building here.)
by Natan Zach
My tailor is against parting.
That’s why, he
said, he’s not going away;
he doesn’t want to part
from his one daughter. He’s definitely
Once, he parted from his wife, and
saw no more of (Auschwitz).
from his three sisters and
these he never
He once parted from his mother (his father
died of a fine and ripe age). Now
he’s against parting.
In Berlin he
was my father’s kith and kin. They passed
a good time in
that Berlin. The time’s passed. Now
he’ll never leave. He’s
(my father’s died)
“I would prefer not to,” Bartleby the Scrivener famously says when asked to do the work he was hired to do. By force of sheer intransigence Bartleby upends office life, to the point where his boss is forced to relocate to another building.
The speaker’s tailor in “Against Parting” is just such a one, albeit less robotic than poor Bartleby. He’s done with separation; he refuses to do it anymore. His wife, his three sisters, his mother, the good times he had in Berlin with the speaker’s now-deceased father, all gone. His daughter is all he has left, and he’s holding firm to her.
It’s a facile thing to say—I am against parting—who isn’t? And it’s oddly phrased (of course, the poem is translated, so maybe not so odd in Hebrew) and unembellished with poetic flourishes. But it has power, and repeated it becomes almost a battle cry. I am against parting! In the face of terrible suffering, the tailor asserts his commitment to attachment and his attachment to commitment. It’s stark, strong, and beautiful—I am against parting! Someone who’s lost love so brutally understands the value of it in a way others do not.
This year we’ve been overrun with parting. Not just the parting death brings (1.7 million partings and counting), but the kind of parting that circumstance forces us into. Social distancing, quarantining, work-from-home and online schooling are not friends to human connection. Well, sorry, Mr. Tailor, but it can’t be helped, you’re going to have to go along.
But there is one kind of parting we can take a stand against: the parting political disagreement causes. Let’s aim for disagreeing without hating. Let’s be against parting (that kind anyway) and those who foment separation for the sake of power.
Nathan Zach was born in 1930 in Berlin. His father was German-Jewish, his mother Italian-Catholic. In 1936 the family re-located to what was then British controlled Palenstine.
He served in the army during Israel’s War of Independence and after studied political science and philosophy at Hebrew University. He taught at Tel Aviv University. In his late 30’s he moved to England for ten years to get his PhD. He returned home to teach at university.
He’s credited with loosening up Hebrew poetry, moving it away from rigid rhyme and meter schemes, and is considered a seminal figure in modern Israeli poetry, winning multiple national literary awards. He was known for translating Allen Ginsberg into Hebrew. Link here for a fuller discussion of his life and work.
Zach collaborated with musicians and many of his poems have been made into popular songs. Here’s a musical version of his poem, “It is Not Good for Man to Be Alone.” Just get a load of that groovy host.
He was diagnosed with Alzheimers at age 84 and died when he was 89.