Poetry Sunday: “during the bombing of Kosovo,” by Alicia Ostriker


during the bombing of Kosovo

Hevel may be translated vanity
or mist or vapor
the name of the first man
whose brother was not his keeper

It is evening it is morning one day
like mist from ten thousand feet
above the hills bombs fall
like vapor the thin air
is full of them
roads crawl with tanks soldiers
like mist tens of thousands
of refugees cross the border
like vapor from morning to dusk
unmanned families
like mist women in slippers
children in bare feet
like vapor carrying blankets
suitcases of clothes
like mist money
ripped off by border guards

Not new under the sun
not new on throbbing bluelit screen
but the eye tires of seeing
the ear of hearing
oh we still prepare our feast
of liberty and memory
we remain your children

And you, you—
father of rain
what are you thinking

—Passover 1999


From The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems, 1979-2011. Originally, “during the bombing of Kosovo” is from the “covenant” poem cycle from the volcano sequence, by Alicia Suskin Ostriker © 2002. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.


Alicia Ostriker is a poet, critic, and author of seventeen collections of poetry, most recently The Book of Seventy (winner of the National Jewish Book Award), The Old Woman, the Tulip and the Dog, and Waiting for the Light.  She has received the Paterson Poetry Prize, the San Francisco State Poetry Center Award, the William Carlos Williams Award, and has been twice nominated for the National Book Award, among other honors. As a critic, she is the author of Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America and other books on poetry and the Bible. She is a distinguished professor emerita of Rutgers University, teaches in the low-residency MFA poetry program at Drew University, and is currently a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Ostriker’s books can be ordered from Amazon or from the University of Pittsburgh Press.


Poet’s Note

The poem originally appeared in the volcano sequence, a book that wrestles with Jewish tradition and the Jewish idea of God. It is part of a group of poems on the theme of Passover, the annual holiday that celebrates the Exodus from Egypt. The poem asks implicitly, what is God doing to save these refugees?  The Hebrew word “hevel,” usually translated “vanity,” literally means “mist” or “vapor.”  It is also the name of Adam and Eve’s son, usually translated “Abel,” who was killed by his brother.

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Meryl Natchez April 10, 2017 at 10:05 pm

    I love how this poem builds and resolves. A terrific poem to read at any Passover Seder. Thank you for this/

  • Mary Burke Mockler April 9, 2017 at 11:10 pm

    I am a poet living in Westchester County,NY.