A Canopy in the Desert (Hupah Ba-Midbar)
A CANOPY IN THE DESERT (Hupah ba-midbar)
Poem by Abba Kovner, 1970
A Canopy in the Desert (1973; Hupah ba-midbar, 1970) by Abba Kovner is a lengthy narrative poem that describes a journey through the Negev and Sinai Desert in Israel. Divided into several sections, the poem merges biblical motifs with the memory of the Holocaust and with life in modern Israel. The poem has been compared to H.N. Bialik's "The Dead of the Wilderness" for its form, structure, and theme. It is divided into 12 "gates," or chapters, and contains approximately 100 shorter poems.
The journey into the desert is a journey into the past, both near and distant. At the end of the travels a wedding is to take place, but it does not. The desert is a charged location: here Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt, here Moses made his Covenant with God, here the state of Israel fought three wars. It is a location of struggle with both man and God. These different phases in Jewish history are collapsed into a vast wasteland in which one can see no trace of the past, as the sand forever blows over the footsteps of those who have gone before. But the narrator of the poem, the wandering poet, carries the voices of all those who died—in the Holocaust, in the Vilna forests where Kovner fought as a partisan, and in the wars of Israel.
The Covenant received at Mount Sinai ordained "Thou shalt not murder." The location looms as a constant battle-field. The traveler wishes to renew the Covenant by becoming one with the little sister, reminiscent of Kovner's My Little Sister , to whom he wishes to be betrothed at the end of the journey. The wedding, however, does not take place, and the Covenant is forever broken. Kovner depicts many forms of death in this location—from soldiers and local Arab and Jewish inhabitants to dead dreams and hopes, which cumulatively negate any possibility of change. There are many allusions to the bible; for example, the whale that throws the poet narrator up on the shore is a reference to Jonah's whale, and in rabbinic tradition it alludes to coming out of exile. Many words in Kovner's poems carry references to biblical or Midrashic themes.
The poem alludes to the Holocaust indirectly, by calling on and recalling characters from more specifically Holocaust-oriented poems, namely the little sister, but also in its overriding agenda. In A Canopy in the Desert Kovner asks whether the order of things cannot be broken, whether it is possible to bring order into the chaos of humanity, whether another beginning is possible. This question of humanity in an inhuman world clearly relates to the poet's own experience and other artistic treatments of the Holocaust.