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Septmenber 2023

The Love of Mortal Beings

by Batnadiv Ha Karmi

Kelsay Books, 46 pp.


Reviewed by Shoshana Sarah

What remains of the people we love when they are gone? How do we handle the emptiness of the conversations we thought we had more time to have and the questions that we forgot to ask? How do we fill in the blanks of the stories that are incomplete? Batnadiv HaKarmi’s The Love of Mortal Beings, a tribute to her grandparents, is a painstaking documentation of looking back and a preservation of all that has been left behind.

In a way, HaKarmi embodies her grandparents, both Holocaust survivors, in a metaphorical hoarding of breadcrumbs, as one who had starved would do, rationing out the details poem, by poem. She takes on the legacy of her grandmother in her persistent remembrance of the dead, and of her grandfather in his innocent belief in mercy and the possibility of absolution for a lifetime of mistakes. As her grandmother in the poem “Shalom,” dedicated to a lost brother and son, HaKarmi also tells herself, “Be grateful…this is enough.” She resurrects her grandparents in words—just as they resurrected their lost families in the form of namesakes, again and again, despite tempting an “evil fate.”

In trying to make do with the pieces that remain, HaKarmi creates a mythology out of biblical characters, with her grandparents as the tragic heroes, the protagonists of her odes. Her grandmother becomes Lot’s wife, Rachel, the witch of En-Dor. Her grandfather becomes Abram, Issac, Jacob, and David. These figures create a map, a way of making sense of the seemingly irrational actions of people suffering the unpacked pain that is the inheritance of unspeakable suffering. An inheritance that seeps into everyday life, from the milestones to the mundane, from how one cuts bread, as in “Our Daily Bread,”


                        she pressed down hard,

                        cut one identical piece after another, saying

                        Whenever my mother cut

                        bread, she cried—


to the naming of newborn children, to how one departs from their dead.

The poems in this collection follow a Jewish rhythm (readers who are unfamiliar with the culture can find assistance in the glossary). “Who Knows One?” is an allusion to the traditional Passover song, “Echad Mi Yodea?” a cumulative counting song which enumerates common Jewish motifs such as the five books of Torah, the Ten Commandants, and the twelve tribes of Israel.” HaKarmi takes this children’s song and winds it into a wistful, morbid counting:


                        Who knows seven?

                        Bubby knows seven.

                        Seen are the months in Moscow,

                        watching her mother die.


The Love of Mortal Beings is full of the questions HaKarmi never got the chance to ask, as in the litany “Questions I Never Asked My Grandfather”:


                        I never asked your brothers’ names.

                        I never asked their ages.

                        I never asked if there were three or four—

                                    in that one picture, it looks like four.


In all of the unasked questions, there is a longing, an intense regret for the missed opportunity to fill in the gaps in her family history—as if the more details she has, the more she can honor them, keep them alive. Yet, somehow in all of what is not, one can see all that is; in the asking, a story begins to unfold, and the poet seems to know so much more than she believes she does. The answers are to be found in the act of asking. HaKarmi interrogates her need for understanding through a rewriting of history, one in which loved ones can be saved from a terrible demise.

Perhaps the most gripping poem in the collection is “Stealing the Birthright,” in its visceral detailing of the naming of her grandparents’ firstborn child, who is also the poet’s mother.  The conundrum pits the tenets of Jewish naming tradition—“‘It belongs to the mother. Let her name the child’”— against what it means to have a first-born child when both your and your partner’s mothers have been murdered, and “‘…who knows if I’ll have another.’” The reader’s sympathies move between the synagogue and the hospital, back and forth between the new parents, as one asks oneself, ‘What would I do?’ Either way, there is no right answer. The result is a punch to the gut, and everyone involved, even the yet-to-be-born HaKarmi, must live with the consequences of the decision to the end of their days. The story doesn’t end with the verdict or with this poem, demonstrating the epic power of naming. It alters the trajectory of her grandparents’ relationship, and trickles down to the poet herself.

The Love of Mortal Beings weaves together ghost stories, “The dead /are weak, /have forgotten how to speak…She squeezes blood/from flayed flesh/to call them close” and HaKarmi, like her grandmother in “When my grandmother was the witch of En-Dor,” practices a witchcraft of her own.               

                        As least

                        when she’s here

                        I remember who he is.

She is truly her grandmother’s granddaughter, carrying the torch of remembering for those who have forgotten to speak and squeezing their stories into poetry to call them close. Yet, unlike her grandmother who forgives no one, the bitterness of grief eating at her until her last days—lasting even beyond the grave, and unlike her grandfather who swallowed the blame for a lifetime of mistakes, HaKarmi redeems them both, her compassionate recounting freeing the ghosts. The Love of Mortal Beings unravels the fallibility of human nature and “the mess of loving” that struggles to flourish despite it all.


Shoshana is the founder of Poets of Babel, a multilingual poetry club, and is in an “it’s complicated” relationship with Jerusalem. Her lyric essays and poetry appear in The Ilanot Review, מרחב الفضاء  Space, Duende, בקול רם!  (Bekol Ram, the Poetry Slam Israel anthology), Identity Theory, The Spotlong Review, Bending Genres, and more. Her manuscript Not on the Map: A Hybrid Lyric Memoir, was recognized as a Dzanc Books longlist honoree and is forthcoming with Alternating Current Press in 2024. She is a spoken word and creative writing workshop facilitator, academic English teacher, and narrator.




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