Yael S. Hacohen’s Between Sanctity and Sand is a stirring, meticulously arranged chapbook in which the poet recounts her speaker’s service in the Israeli army.
The volume is comprised of 17 lyric poems—both lineated and prose. With precise diction and detail, Hacohen consistently draws readers into the fraught circumstances and mixed emotions accompanying these experiences.
Hacohen is masterful at showing the strange exhilaration of war, as in the title poem: “The first time I shot an M-16/ it was the heat of summer in the Negev./ […] And I could shoot like an angel./ […] I hummed to myself as I shot.”
But sitting right beside such exultation is a brutality she owns with equal fervor. For example, in “Settlement,” she casts her military shield as a thing of beauty—“like a peacock, heavy.” As the poem continues, readers begin to understand the heaviness: “I am ordered to evacuate this/ Family by force. No Israeli can// Live here, they tell me. I raise/ The shield as if to protect her// Before ramming it into/ The side of her face…”
Hacohen’s visceral details are immersive. Readers can see this speaker as she fires her first M-16: “The retama flower of my hair-bun drawn back tight/ blooming, sprouting open with every green round.” They can picture “the city of Haifa, where streets are wide as summer./ Red bougainvillea and hibiscus intertwine on hedges between the/ buildings.” She also engages her readers’ auditory, gustatory, and tactile senses: “I pull the pin out of the grenade./ […] There’s a ringing, a brass taste/ like salt water taffy./ Slow as rock debris, my CO’s helmet hammers/ into my shoulder, knocking me down.”
The poems here are layered with contradiction: a sense of rightness yet uncertainty; of confidence yet disorientation, as when “your nine-millimeter round/ gets lodged in the chamber.” As Hacohen’s words land with a marksman’s precision, readers will feel the churn of emotions—and find it hard to look away.
Also available in hardcover.