Sami Shalom Chetrit
Jews—the 2015 English translation from Hebrew of Sami Shalom Chetrit’s poetry—raves, muses, laments, whispers, roundly scolds, kvetches, and praises. These poems sing of the longing for justice, humanity, brotherhood, and peace, and always for a God who is elusive yet somehow cannot be wholly denied. The book’s author page characterizes Sami Shalom Chetrit as, “Teacher, poet, writer, filmmaker, and scholar…raised in Israel, and [living] in New York City. He has been writing and publishing poetry for thirty years, with five books in Hebrew…Chetrit is Associate Professor of Hebrew and Middle Eastern Studies at Queens College, CUNY, and is on the faculty of Middle East/Middle East in America Studies at The Graduate Center, CUNY.”
Additionally, Chetrit is a Moroccan Jew, born in Morocco, but his family moved to Israel when he was three. His diverse, conflicting heritage and global stature as scholar and writer combine to give his poems a uniquely independent vision. Chetrit’s blunt yet sophisticated style speaks with free breadth, confidence, and quiet swagger, in tones light, satirical, deep, and musing. His concerns here range from those of the disenchanted international citizen, the intellectual, the wanderer/observer, and the passionate anti-war advocate to those of the gruffly sentimental lover of parents, children, and homeland.
Early in the collection, “A Mural with No Wall” a five-page, dense, impassioned letter in verse to the famed Palestinian poet, Mahmud Darwish, ends with the following lines of brilliant transcendence:
I am not an Orientalist, I am Oriental, ya’ani aMizrahi Jew,
Reaching the end, the reader must leap from his or her comfortable chair, crying, “Yes, I know, I am with you, never surrender!” Who could help but respond to this pitiless quest to liberate mind and spirit from the traps and burdens of the world, this internal struggle to attain a free, clear vantage point?
Chetrit writes with quiet fury and scathing contempt of the lust for war and the ongoing conflict in the Holy Land, including the resultant oppression and destruction of peaceful daily life and sanity. “New Jerusalem” begins:
Bad Dream, Part 1:
A wild night,
I was caught like a rat in the corner of a dark alley.
With similar anti-war venom, “Hey Jeep, Hey Jeep” powerfully depicts an Israeli military gang out joyriding in a jeep, finding and beating an Arab youth:
Eight soldiers, one a Hebrew major
They finally pitched him from the fleeting coach,
The cowardice and bloodlust of the military and those thirsty for war sickens the speakers of these poems, as well it should.
Often direct and bleak, and as often, eloquently oratorical, Chetrit’s style, diction, and tone also take imaginative turns; for example, in the sly political satire, “Midnight atop the Regional Garbage Dumpster,” which personifies enemy leaders as cats, like “…two big rogues,/ atop the regional garbage dumpster./ Between them one centimeter of terror,/ announcing in loud voices/ the camps are ready for war.” One at first might picture Disney’s Lady and the Tramp slurp-sharing a bowl of spaghetti in that alley as one reads about cats atop a garbage dumpster—but then the brutal reality of Chetrit’s subject asserts itself, driving away whimsy and innocence.
The poems also speak tenderly of family, as in, “And Thou Shalt Teach Them Diligently to They Children” which touches on the father and son relationship and on the passing down of multiple traditions:
I am teaching my son to play soccer
Kicking a soccer ball
The final, long poem, “And Only Love,” reaches beautifully into the soul, exalting romantic love and the “other”:
Let the Lord open my lips but to you I shall cry out my song
Not just the human beloved, but the triumph of love over darkness, betrayal, and loss—these triumphs of love and all others, Chetrit’s speaker celebrates and holds sacred here.
Readers of Sami Shalom Chetrit’s Jews might be uplifted or offended by his words, might agree or disagree—no matter. The reader is a witness to the poet’s need to express his perceptions of mind and heart. Chetrit’s work reminds us of the importance of freedom and inspiration, a plea for all poets to carry on this quest, to discover the Word within and give it life through their voices.