Format: Trade Paperback, 160 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8052-1145-0 (0-8052-1145-4)
Pub Date: May 11, 2004
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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.
“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."
"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."
"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."
"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
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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