By ALICIA SUSKIN OSTRIKER
POETS ON THE EDGE
An Anthology of Contemporary Hebrew Poetry
Selected and translated by Tsipi Keller
Introduction by Aminadav Dykman
339 pages. State University of New York Press. $24.95.
This is a feast of a book. Twenty-seven Israeli
poets—religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, immigrant and
native-born, mostly straight but some gay, almost half of them women, all of
them vital, most never published in this country before, each represented by an
ample selection of poems—brilliantly translated by a gifted poet. For American
readers, who are likely to know much more about Israeli fiction than its
poetry, or know only a few names like Amichai, Dan
Pagis, Dahlia Ravikovitch and Yona Wallach
(all of whom have been well translated into English), Poets on the Edge
will be a revelation.
“On the edge,” one might ask, of what? “Edgy” is a term we use in art to imply
modern or postmodern wit, irony, bite, a cool playfulness, a possible undertone
of violence. Edgy in the sense of “nervous and uneasy” certainly describes
Israeli society in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, when most of these poets were
published, and it’s a mood that saturates and stimulates their writing. For
Israeli poets, the edge also suggests the far limit of what Hebrew can do,
rooted in its old magnificence as the language of the Bible, lashon
hakodesh, the holy tongue, which remains alive in present-day Israel,
bracingly interleaved with modern slang, curses borrowed from Russian and
Arabic, technical terms lifted from English, and the abundant energy of its
reincarnation. Aminadav Dykman’s Introduction usefully tracks the history of 20th-century
Hebrew poetry in terms of a series of generational transformations, from
earnest nostalgia and messianic aspirations, to the mythmaking “place poems” of
the Zionist 1940’s, and on into the more skeptical language of the street, the
kitchen, the bedroom.
One way to read Poets on the Edge is to browse, and let poems snag your
attention. In this way I discovered the allegorically inclined David Avidan (b.
1934), and poems like “The Stain Remained on the Wall,” which begins
Someone tried to scrub the stain off the wall.
But the stain was too dark (or conversely—too bright).
At any rate—the stain remained on the wall.
In this way I found a Dahlia Ravikovitch (1936-2005) poem I had not known,
evoking how “a smelly Mediterranean city/ squats on the water.... her feet
covered with scabs,/ her sons dealing knives/ to one another.” Evidently Tel
Aviv, the city is ”flooded/ with crates of grapes and plums... pumpkins,
cucumbers and lemons,/bursting with juice and color,” and though “not deserving,/
Not deserving of love or pity,” the poet writes, “how my soul became bound to
hers.” Cognizant of Ravikovitch’s significance as a peace activist, Keller has
included both the famous “Tale about the Arab who Died in the Fire” and the
less-well-known poem “But She Had a Son,” invoking a present-day Rachel who
works at City Hall but speaks day and night to her fallen son, saying (with a
piercing echo of Lamentations), “I’m Rachel, your mother,/ Possessed of
cognition and free will,/ There’s no comforting me.”
Other poets who seized my attention included Meir Wieseltier (b. 1941) writing
equally straightforwardly of politics and of “the basics/ like a kiss or eating
cheese,” the provocatively sexy Agi Mishol (b. 1947) with her “complementary
nipples,/ one red one green,” the sensual Dan Armon (b. 1948) whose poems
celebrate squash, apple, cucumber, plum, and “the wondrous wilting of a flower/
in the calm of a vase,” and the astonishing Raquel Chalfi, (no date given)
whose poem “German Boot,” the longest piece in the book, is a masterpiece of
realistic and comic self-mockery laced with pungent midrash, ultimately turning
surreal, mythic, and terrifying. I won’t quote a word here. You have to read
Why translation? It is often said that poetry is what gets lost in translation.
My own view is that translation of poetry, provided the translations are live
poems in the new language, enriches our collective humanity and expands our
awareness of “others, and many others,” which Shelley said was necessary for
the moral life. In any case, Poets on the
Edge will send readers who know Hebrew scrambling for the originals of many
of the poets here, and will make those who don’t know Hebrew want to
learn—precisely because these translations are so alive. For English-speaking
readers (and writers), both Jewish and non-Jewish, the book will explode
whatever lingering stereotypes there may be about Israeli culture. More
broadly, it will confirm Israel’s place in world literature today as a
cornucopia of poetry.