It’s symbolic that Israeli poet Chaim Gouri died on January 31, which fell on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevet this year –Tu b’shvat – a Jewish holiday known as the new year for trees, as it celebrates when they begin to bloom again after the winter. For Gouri was truly the salt of the earth – from which we come and to which we shall return. His death caused memories to engulf me like today’s total eclipse of the moon: the contemplative and modest way he waited in line at the market and the post office on Chopin Street; his strolls with his wife Aliza and Prof. Menachem Brinker to a nearby park; the parodic tall tales he wove far into the night with poets from the Ketovet group, from Ma’ayan journal and many others during poetry festivals at Sde Boker in the south; discussions about the Tel Aviv Hapoel soccer team on the long bus ride home to Jerusalem on Saturday night; literary talks at Poetry Place, in homes, in his home. Talks on petit politics, the connection between military intelligence and the reading of poetry, and his recitations from memory of poetry and letters. He will be missed.
Gouri was the head of the tribe because he believed in it, a diverse tribe that included all those who loved the land, Gouri to Jews and Juri to Arabs. His poems are saturated with the motif of camaraderie; he was a prophet of "love thy neighbor as thyself". He was a member of the tribe in the personal and national sense: a symbol of true fellowship among peoples beyond that in his famous poem 'Shir hareut' , or 'Song of friendship in arms', referring to the particular bond among soldiers. In our divided society it is a luxury to mock the pathos in Gouri's unsentimental and admiring approach to such a relationship. And it's true he was an atheist, but his poetry was permeated with prayer motifs – a prayer for friendship. He was one of the shapers of the new religion of Sabras – native-born [Jewish] Israelis.
The public correctly identifies Gouri as a poet of the Palmach, a predecessor of the Israeli armed forces, of the generation of state builders, but he was much more than this. He was a multi-tasker, forever young: poet, song writer, author, film director, journalist and more, a youthful and futuristic model of a contemporary literary figure. Gouri was a poet of consolation but also of rebuke, both stemming from a great love of his people. As the strength of his reproofs was the strength of his love.
At his start he was influenced by the lyricism of Natan Alterman, although in time he absorbed as well Alterman's topical mode, poems written for newspapers. It's clear that Gouri's work is 'popoetic': pop-poetic, the literary equivalent of pop-art and pop-music – communicative, young, cool, humourous, temporal, in dialogue with popular culture. For Gouri has always depicted the carnival of daily life. In some poems he deals with culture heroes such as athletes ('Boxing', "The Long Distance Runner') and movie stars ('The Last Moment' in which Gouri as Buck Jones saves the day). In these, he depicts popular, contemporary heroes, perhaps because we can only depend on them, and not on politicians.
Gouri wrote lucid poetry, at times almost as clear as his phenomenal memory. Such lucidity was an expression of the importance he ascribed to dialogue and his own ability to speak to a broad audience and wield influence; he was also a rare performer. At a Poetry Place workshop, I once asked Gouri if he knew Alterman's 1936 poem, 'Cinema'. He immediately recited it from his theater of memory. He occupied a heroic, Olympic position as a brave friend and father-poet figure.
Gouri was born in Tel Aviv and grew up there, but most of his adult life was spent in Jerusalem, in a modest building. Visiting him was as much a part of experiencing Jerusalem as a pilgrimage, and involved a climb of 54 steps to his apartment. I hope the municipality will create a memorial as soon as possible in Jerusalem on Earth, because Jerusalem in Heaven has been taken care of, and it seems that a cable car is in the works.
Photo from Nurith Aviv's film, Langue Sacree, Langue Parlee