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Many readers already know of the poet Abba Kovner (1918-1987) as the charismatic Jewish leader who engineered the Vilna ghetto uprising, famously urging his comrades not to go "like sheep to the slaughter." After the war, he became a powerful voice in orchestrating the resettlement of Holocaust survivors to a new homeland.
Also a beloved master of Hebrew literature, Kovner was a poet, novelist, and essayist whose work is just beginning to reach the English-speaking audience. This translation brings his visionary gift to us in a new context: at the end of his life, dying of cancer in Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, Kovner faced his last great battle-one he knew he would lose. But the luminous verses in his book, written in the brief weeks before he died, are a testament to a life lived in an unflinching manner, by one who, as he writes, "began to love in times of disgust." Weaving together his perceptions of the present moment ("How little we need / to be happy: a half kilo increase in weight, / two circuits of the corridors"); sorrow at leaving the world (his wife knitting at his bedside, the chatter of his grandsons); the dramatic loss of his vocal cords ("Have I no right to die / while still alive?"); and memories of his heroic comrades in the Baltic forest, Kovner emerges from these pages with yet another kind of heroism. His continual movement toward freedom and his desire to give a complete account of the gift of life, even as that life is failing, make his words deeply moving.