After the War

Gaza City. Photo: Getty / AFP photo / Mahmud Hams
Gaza City. Photo: Getty / AFP photo / Mahmud Hams


History moves darkly and we are small, soft things.
                                                                          – Kazim Ali

Across the Aegean to Ionian sea, would be
sparse journeying, even with winds slack or
rebelling. And the one-eyed monsters, lovely
nymphs, temptresses, we always knew their

story: Tales made-up long after, to explain
his extended, sorrow-drenched absence,
and the map’s mystery – how directionless
were all his wanderings. So why

ten years to cross such slender waters,
his heart and helm carrying him only
from, never toward hearth or harbor his own,
always further from known hills and air and

eyes that want at dusk, like dusk, to settle
on him softly – why each day his traveling farther
away, even as he kept telling every stranger,
any listening ear, that he wants only

to go home?



What was never told: how after the war,
he was heartsick. As a hollow holds
its emptiness.

Seeking for before or, perhaps, forgetfulness.
And grieving for what was now his
forever unblessed –

this fragile frame he’d seen broken and
spoken into utter




Shell-shocked, he wanders across the seas –
then descends

to where his dead reside, together with himself

At every dark crossing, unfathomed silence his
only dissent.



He had never wanted to go to war. When they
came for him, he feigned

Later, he hid in the belly of the wooden horse
he alone had dreamed of, thinking
it alone might

end the rage, exploding skies raining down
on the small soft bodies
of night.



All the while, in the narrow alleyways splintered and
slivered in the dark

I could hear shreds of shredded boy and breath
whose back is bent

under weighty pack single purposed with all pale
means to staunch

blood, stifle pain, till hastily stretchered out – but
he is left

behind amid the debris, shocked and shelled in the

world, every jagged and broken piece viciously
singing –



Not the dead, but the ones who survived –
the sons

whose wounds do not bleed or speak,
and whose weary

feet, at yet another village edge, have
a hard time

walking –



So sing to me, O Muse,
of he

who in twists and turns is
driven off course

in dark
combat fatigue endlessly

wandering –
Start where you will

in songs for our time
and my

lost son –

terrible grief to music –
and then

bring him home.




The idea of Odysseus as shell-shocked was given to me by the storyteller, scholar, and activist Hamutal Guri. In an email she wrote: “This last year I find myself thinking a great deal about Odysseus as suffering from shell-shock, and of his wanderings, The Odyssey, as his ongoing therapeutic process moving him toward the ability to remember what needs to be remembered, and to leave behind what needs to be left behind” (August 2016). 

Epigraph: Kazim Ali, “Disappearance: An Interview with Britney Gulbrandsen,” in Resident Alien: On Border-crossing and the Undocumented Divine (University of Michigan Press, 2015), 42.

Sixth section: This section is informed by Wallace Stevens’s poem “A Woman Sings a Song for a Soldier Come Home” (1946) in The Palm at the End of the Mind (Vintage Books, 1972), 282–283. 

Seventh section: Passages lifted from The Odyssey are from Robert Fagles’s 1996 translation. The phrase “raise grief to music” is Louis Zukofsky’s, from “A-11” in A

Poet and translator Rachel Tzvia Back lives in the Galilee, where her great-great-great-grandfather settled in the 1830s. Her poetry collections include A Messenger Comes (elegies), On Ruins & Return, Azimuth, and the forthcoming collection entitled What Use Is Poetry, the Poet Is Asking. Her most recent translation project, On the Surface of Silence: The Last Poems of Lea Goldberg, will be published in spring 2017.