Stuck on the Fence: Shahar Bram’s “North of Boston”

Haim Watzman

Shahar Bram
When I encountered Shahar Bram’s lyric “North of Boston” on the back page of Ha’aretz’s arts section last month, I was immediately struck by its plethora—celebration, really—of intertextuality and interlingual word play. A poem awash in allusions and puns that cross textual and linguistic boundaries is by definition impossible to render into any other language without losing precisely that which makes the work stand out. But, inured as I am in expressive frustration, I wrote and asked him for permission to essay an English version.

Robert Frost
I begin here with the usual caveat I affix to my other attempts at translating and commenting on poetry here on South Jerusalem. I’m not a poet, as a translator of poetry must be, so this translation is very much a work in progress that I intend to revise in response to reader comments, and those of Bram himself.

The original Hebrew version can be read here. I’ll follow my translation with some notes to explain what excites me about the poem.

North of Boston / Shahar Bram

If you want to watch the mending of fences
Come to this place. The leaves are falling and with them the fences
Lose some of their value. The trees send their branches
From yard to yard, the lawn is swamped with spies.
The season’s routines: to walk along the fences, to check out
The birds chirping, to prepare for the frost. It’s fall
And from yard to yard the neighbors take counsel.

Those lines, which keep me here, resound
In my head: Good fences
Signify a journey.

The title, of course, refers us directly to Robert Frost’s volume of that name, and the first line to the poem “Mending Wall” with its famous opening and closing lines: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” and “He says again: ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’” And note that Bram includes Frost’s name in the poem—except that in Hebrew the reference only works if you translate the poem as you go along, since the original word is “kara,” the Hebrew word for the ice-dew of a cold morning. In Hebrew, the season’s routine is to prepare for the winter chill, but the Hebrew, lehitkonen la-kara, could just as well be rendered, with a tweaking of the vowels, as “to channel Frost,” which is presumably what Bram does when he encounters a fence in Massachusetts.

That reference also points out the contrasts. Frost’s narrative takes place in the early spring, when he and his neighbor meet to repair the wall that separates their properties, a wall that has been covered in snow all winter. Bram’s poem happens in the fall, and the fences (Bram uses “gader,” fence, rather than a word for “wall”) are concealed by fallen leaves rather than snow.

Fences and walls connote division, but gader connotes definition (hagdara). Frost uses his apple trees to denote the futility of division (“My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines”), while Bram’s trees ignore the fences, stretching their branches over, trespassing into the next yard. What does cross the wall in Frost’s poem is advice—the neighbor’s sanctimonious advocacy of the wall. Bram has no interlocutor, but what crosses the wall is the trees—“etzim,” in Hebrew akin to the word “advice,” “etza,” as the neighbors take counsel.

“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it / Where there are cows?” Frost thinks to himself. Cows can’t cross where there are walls, but the animals in Bram’s poem are birds, who like the trees blithely ignore the fences, mended or not.

Now, what about those spies? It’s a weird, jarring reference in my English version, one that seems to come out of nowhere. In the Hebrew the word meraglim also seems out of place, although if read as a verb with some stretched connotations (regel means “foot”) it could evoke people shuffling through fallen leaves.

But Bram clues us in two lines previously, where I’ve rendered “the trees send their branches.” The Hebrew verb is “sholhim.” The name of the Torah portion in which Moses sends spies from the wilderness into the Land of Israel is from the same verb, “Shlah.” So we’re not just north of Boston, we’re also in the Sinai wilderness, south of the land where Hebrew is spoken.

Here’s where Bram’s use of sound comes in. My repetition of the “ch” sound, “to check out / The birds chirping,” is a lame attempt to represent Bram’s repeated use of the “tz” sound, from his first word, “Ha-rotzeh” through “etzim” and “etza” and “mi-hatzer le-hatzer”” (“from yard to yard”), to the birds themselves (“tziporim”) and their chirping (“tziyutz”). It’s a virtual blast of trumpet (“hatzotzra”) sounds. So while no trumpet appears, we’re prepared for the surprising last line.

Because if we read the Hebrew with English in mind, we expect Bram to channel Frost, and to end “Good fences / Make good neighbors.” But if we listen to the sounds, in Hebrew, we hear the trumpets in the wilderness, blown to signal that it was time for the Israelite camp to move on during its 40-year journey.

Where does all this leave us? I read it this way: an expatriate Israeli poet resides in America. His head rings with both Hebrew and English language, verse, and literary associations. Like Frost, he does not like fences that divide people, but the languages he hears in his head divide him and, more frustratingly, his readers. His readers in Hebrew do not catch the American-English resonances in his verse, and his interlocutors in America cannot appreciate the Hebrew/Jewish/biblical resonances. He’s stuck alone on the fence, in the wilderness, undefined, everywhere a spy, always journeying.

3 thoughts on “Stuck on the Fence: Shahar Bram’s “North of Boston””

  1. Thank you for this post — I read distressingly little poetry these days, in English or Hebrew, and I’m glad to have occasion to rectify that at least a little bit. I especially like your conclusions about how you read both the poem, and the poet.

  2. I have heard elsewhere of the near musical allusions in Hebrew (modern echoing Biblical, as stated in this piece) that are mostly foreign to English. I have never read, til now, how that can be, how that works. I can now imagine music playing in the head as words are sounded, arguments turning on a note, seemingly irrational if not steaped in Hebrew literature and, I might chance, Torah gatherings. Even secular Torah gatherings. Figure that one out.

    There is a travel diary literature in Japan, as in Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior, where a poem is set within a prose passage. I see in what Haim is doing here a new form of this, where what cannot quite be translated is hinted at by surrounding prose. A book of translations like this would be, for me, a real advance.

    It might also help us understand why various people dance differently (so to speak), keeping our various elbows out of our various eyes.

  3. This is a beautiful reflection and explanation of the artistry that goes into translation- and the pleasure and meaning Haim you get from this endeavor. I was thinking of course Frost as I read. Frost did not like the wall, did not see the reason for it but he put up with it, reached across, acquiescing in what he could not change ( his neighbor’s stubbornness).

    Thank you for sharing and making the Bram lines deeper, more enjoyable than it would otherwise have been.

    About spies ( also a kind of apple-ie Northern Spy or Spie) I read that in a very lighthearted way- as friendly curiosity and freedom experienced in nature. Perhaps “spies” might be more jarring or sinister from another vantage point.

    Gregory Pollack , it’s rare that I read someone who also knows and loves Basho’s wonderful little volume, The Narrow Road to the Far North”. I am aiming to read another translation of that – but the Penguin classic was wonderful. Thanks for mentioning it.

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