This is a poem written by Emanuel Litvinoff, in response to T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism. According to a popular story, Litvinoff read it in front of Eliot himself, among a crowd of poetry aficionados who angrily defended Eliot. As for Eliot, the story goes, he said only: “It’s a good poem. It’s a very good poem.”
Eminence becomes you. Now when the rock is struck
your young sardonic voice which broke on beauty
floats amid incense and speaks oracles
as though a god
utters from Russell Square and condescends,
high in the solemn cathedral of the air,
his holy octaves to a million radios.
I am not one accepted in your parish.
Bleistein is my relative and I share
the protozoic slime of Shylock, a page
in Sturmer, and, underneath the cities,
a billet somewhat lower than the rats.
Blood in the sewers. Pieces of our flesh
float with the ordure on the Vistula.
You had a sermon but it was not this.
It would seem, then, yours is a voice
remote, singing another river
and the gilded wreck of princes only
for Time’s ruin. It is hard to kneel
when knees are stiff.
But London Semite Russian Pale, you will say
Heaven is not in our voices.
The accent, I confess, is merely human,
speaking of passion with a small letter
and, crying widow, mourning not the Church
but a woman staring the sexless sea
for no ship’s return,
and no fruit singing in the orchards.
Yet walking with Cohen when the sun exploded
and darkness choked our nostrils,
and the smoke drifting over Treblinka
reeked of the smouldering ashes of children,
I thought what an angry poem
you would have made of it, given the pity.
But your eye is a telescope
scanning the circuit of stars
for Good-Good and Evil Absolute,
and, at luncheon, turns fastidiously from fleshy
noses to contemplation of the knife
twisting among the entrails of spaghetti.
So shall I say it is not eminence chills
but the snigger from behind the covers of history,
the sly words and the cold heart
and footprints made with blood upon a continent?
Let your words
tread lightly on this earth of Europe
lest my people’s bones protest.