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Introduced by Arielle Angel

This poem and introduction appear in our Fall 2019 issue, out now! Subscribe to receive a copy in your mailbox.

Since I began questioning my Zionism, I have frequently found myself in arguments with other Jews about Israel/Palestine. For me, the most frustrating thing about such arguments is the way we pretend they are rational. We act as if the terms of debate have been settled by “History,” as if we are dealing in facts, which are as accessible as common sense. 

That we cannot agree not just on what was, but on what is—conditions that can be observed personally, if a Jew is so inclined—shows that this has never been about facts. It has always been about a story. The story of Zionism’s inevitability, its necessity, its fundamental rightness, is a powerful one, rooted as it is in the bottomless pain and absolute loss of genocide. On this foundation, other stories have been piled, stories that obscure, rationalize, and sanitize the brutal oppression of another people, in order to keep the original story—of our unique, enduring suffering, and hence our eternal entitlement—intact. And yet, as this argument about Zionism becomes increasingly (though not entirely) generational, with younger Jews inheriting an Israeli state that doesn’t square with our parents’ narrative, a new genre has emerged: the story of the moment when the old story breaks.

Tom Haviv’s new book of poetry, A Flag of No Nation, out now from Jewish Currents Press, is preoccupied with the origin story—the trauma-laden, pressurized conditions of its formation, the mysterious moment of its shattering, and the expansive possibilities that emerge in its wake. The son of an Israeli fighter pilot, and the grandson of activists in Istanbul’s underground Zionist youth movement, Haviv is all too aware that the story—like matter—cannot be destroyed, only refashioned. That though we cannot spare ourselves the pain, anger, and shame that accompany its collapse, this does not mean a break with our personal histories and identities, nor a negation of the experiences of those we love, but rather a reengagement on altered terms. Using a number of different modes—from allegory to oral history to the lyric poem—Haviv attempts to chart a path through the collective making and unmaking of the Zionist narrative to a proposed remaking in a post-Zionist context, declaring that process as valid and as rooted as the one that created and sustained the original Zionist myth. 

“Ladder,” excerpted from A Flag of No Nation, explores that crucial hinge between the past story and future possibilities—the often terrifying, all-at-once instant when the story breaks, “like a / ladder / kicked down / from a window.” Since reading it, I have been more attentive to the way those around me recount this moment as it transpired in their own lives. The catalyst for this realization is almost never loud or dramatic: a stray comment, a flashbulb memory suddenly replayed in a different light. For me, it was the image of a couch, dragged up to a hilltop overlooking Gaza, where Israelis gathered in the summer of 2014 to cheer as they watched the bombs fall. “[U]nder no weight,” Haviv writes, the story breaks.

By now, I am well aware that the long, anguished arguments with loved ones cannot precipitate this kind of moment. It is born of something else entirely. To solve the mystery of this moment would be, in a sense, to solve the crisis—to open, finally, into a space of true healing and political imagination. What Haviv has given us in A Flag of No Nation is a map of this almost alchemical process, a necessary one if we’re ever to break through to something new.

I.

How does
a story break?

Not by 
taking it 
apart
(or dismantling it)

but by 

telling and
retelling

and retelling. 

The story 
is a
bow 
It is a string
It is a net 
holding the weight 
of fruit fallen 
from old trees — 
and it cannot hold.
I wake in a blanket  
of sound & light 
in a remote town where
the story of who owns what
the story of who took what
is told and retold 
until the story breaks 
on earshot
and the mind closes.


II.

You are 
standing
in a field
the soil 
wet with 
heavy rain
that has
just passed 

      *

You are
on a train
to work
the book 
creased
but not yet
opened

      *

You are
flying 
home
head on
window

      *

You are
having
dinner
with an
old friend

      *

You are
forming
the words
to tell 
the same 
story
and it 
breaks

      *

In the field
the story 
returns to you
a star:       broken–shining–incoherent–singing
in a language
you can’t identify 
if it is 
even in a language  
known anywhere?

      *

You are 
talking
to a new 
lover
and it breaks

      *

It falls 
falls
like a 
ladder
kicked down 
from a window

(whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent) 

Do you 
remember
where we 
were both 
left 
standing?

      *

You resist
the soldier 
twists
your arms 
your words 
you yell
a word?
he yells
a word?
nothing builds
the story breaks

      *

Your mother 
tells you
a story

Before you 
can make 
out its 
meaning
the story 
breaks


III.

At what point

                  in its

                  telling

does a story — 

                                    break?
                                                      by teeth, by tongue, by gum, by mouth?

the accumulated facts

                                    break

the whispered assurances 

                                    break

the down-bending apology

                                    breaks

the incisive argument

                                    breaks

in 1945 the Americans liberate

                                    breaks

in 1948 we landed

                                    breaks 

the story began in

                  Istanbul 

                                    breaks

the story began in 

                  Thessaloniki

                                    breaks

Auschwitz

                                    breaks

Córdoba

                                    breaks

Gaza

                                    breaks

Jerusalem

                                    breaks


IV.

When it breaks

                  silence
                  fear / embarrassment
                  jealousy / anguish

the lie bends not

the lie fractures, is no longer pliant

                                   breaks

we are here because

                                   breaks

they behave this way because 

                                   breaks

they set fires

                                    breaks

our destiny is to

                                   breaks

we deserve this place

                                   breaks

this is how one survives

                                   breaks

this is how we learned to survive

                                   breaks

this is why they hate us

                                   breaks

this is just their culture 

                                   breaks

when the story you were told

becomes brittle

                                   & breaks / barak / breaks / bracha 

                                                    breaks


V.

The field 
thickens 
into a forest 
the soldier is 

leading you
out of the poem

He points ahead
over there
you will find nothing
no answers 
to your questions
no richness lived in
no community

I suggest you go there

since it’s where I’m from too

home.


VI.

                                                                                       How long have you been telling this story?

                                                                                                                         The soldier presses.

Since childhood, 

                                   I say 

                They even told it 
                before
                I was born

                                                                                       Why this story?

I am not the only one

                     the guilt 

                                                       breaks

                                                                                       is it 
                                                                                       faith
                                                                                       or is it
                                                                                       mute 
                                                                                       fate?

                                                                                       Where are you from? M’efo atah?

                                                                                       The soldier asks.

[We walk further together | We feel each other’s heat]


VII.

You are speaking 
to your lover
and the
words snap
at hinges 
careless ­— you had
spoken again — that same
story — nothing altered
and under no weight
each word breaks

(if it is no longer 
told, does it not break?
will it decompose?)

the life 

                                                      breaks

the trust 

                                                     breaks

the alibi 

                                                     breaks

the carcass 

                                                     breaks

                                   (flies collect on grasshopper’s carapace, 
                                                                      grinding into grass
                                    — the ant carries a smaller ant, raw material now, down.)

(the nation 

                                                     breaks)

the good fight 

                                                     breaks

the hysteria 

                                                     breaks

the question

                                                     breaks

the answer

                                                     breaks

the friendship

                                                     breaks

the lust 

                                                     breaks

the lesson

                                                     breaks

the curriculum

                                                     breaks

the poem

                                                     breaks

the school

                                                     breaks

the calculation

                                                     breaks

the cunning

                                                     breaks

the numbness 

                                                     breaks

the numbers

                                                     break

the analysis 

                                                     breaks

the power

                                                     breaks

the siege

                                                     breaks

the hand

                                                     breaks

the quiet

                                                     breaks

the threat 

                                                     breaks

the treaty

                                                     breaks

the ceasefire

                                                     breaks

the call to prayer 

                                                     breaks

the sabbath 

                                                     breaks

the intention 

                                                     breaks

the lineage

                                                     breaks

the history 

                                                     breaks

the commitment

                                                     breaks

the covenant

                                                     breaks

the fear

                                                     breaks

the shame

                                                     breaks

the sorrow

                                                     breaks

the pity 

                                                     breaks

the grief

                                                     breaks

the ladder

                                                     breaks


VIII.

Do they break in constellation?  

(or something more violent:
nettles in a crown or 
sky-weapon)

do they break, falling into 
earth — crystals of
kindness — as they
are no longer being told  
& told & told & told & told
(not untold)

we let grieving overtake us

we let out grief like rain

we let out grief like rain

into the ruin 
that nourishes
the earth — and

lets new life come out gently 
                                                                              (slowly, slowly)

finally

the
land
                                           sings as
                                           we let broken
                                           things be reclaimed by it.




Tom Haviv is a Brooklyn-based, Israeli-born writer, multimedia artist, and organizer. His debut book of poetry, A Flag of No Nation, is being published by Jewish Currents Press. He is the founder of the Hamsa Flag Project, which intends to stimulate conversation about the future of Israel/Palestine.