Loosening up the Mother Tongue


Poets writing in English, in Israel? Well, of course there are. Plenty of them. An Israeli poet who writes in English and also performs with a rock band? Maybe not so many. An Israeli poet who writes in English, performs with a rock band half her age, teaches poetry at Tel Aviv University, where she encouraged students to produce an anthology of their poetry in English, Hebrew, and Arabic—and incidentally chairs the Israel Association of Writers in English and is vice chair of the Federation of Writers’ Unions?

There is really only one Karen Alkalay-Gut. Daughter of two Polish Jews who got out of Danzig on the proverbial last train, conceived in a shelter during the bombing of London, raised in America, transplanted to Israel with a husband and daughter in 1972, she is perhaps best known as a talking head on TV, or as a performer in the progressive rock scene, where her throaty voice and straightforward language—spoken, not sung—intersect with the swirling keyboard and driving bass of a classically trained group of Sabra musicians called Ahvak, in poems sometimes sultry, sometimes satiric, and at times seriously philosophical. The group’s recent CD, Thin Lips, is the product of Pookh, a label devoted to experimental music. If American audiences want to think about how Allen Ginsberg used to perform with rockers—well, the comparison is not that far off.

In the last two decades, Alkalay-Gut has published 20 books and chapbooks of poetry, mostly in English, some in Hebrew translation (she has also translated hundreds of Hebrew poems into English), most recently So Far, So Good. One of her topics, not surprisingly, is language itself, with all its twists and turns. In a poem called “Yiddish,” “a body lies pierced with many swords” yet “stays breathing,” and the poet hopes to revert to it in old age as “the prayer shawl of words/ from a world of wholeness.” Meditating on “Writing in English in Israel,” she recognizes Hebrew as “my hidden face,” but also enjoys the other “options at my command.”

My curses come from words my mother learned
from Russian soldiers in pogroms, blessings
from soft-eyed Yemenites, irony from that old
tongue of alienation in the shtetl.
It is language soup,
the kind you make when all
the vegetables in the fridge
are wilting and need renewal,
collective transformation.

Not many poets would make a claim for “collective transformation” in terms of a kitchen metaphor, yet the metaphor is brilliantly right. What Alkalay-Gut does for poetry in Israel is not unlike what the Beats did in America—loosen it, shake it up, make it unpretentious and available to audiences of all sorts and conditions, a vessel that can accommodate the sacred, the profane, the bawdy and comic, the sensuous and tragic, the dailiness of daily life, the kitchen, the bedroom, the clothes closet, the perspective of continents and centuries, political statements along with personal fear, mourning, and tenderness.

The voice is always a woman’s voice, always a Jewish voice, But there are many different ways of being a woman and a Jew. A short poem in the 2000 volume In My Skinis called “Tel Aviv”:

They are sitting next to each other
at the bus stop
the old woman who in Germany
was 876421
and the young girl with the blue butterfly
on her bare shoulder.

We are witnesses, my daughter and me.

Other poems in this book deal with the Shoah, in which most of her parents’ kin were slain, and with the Palestinian conflict and its incidents. In “Housewife,” when radio music is interrupted while the poet is talking on the phone to another housewife, “People have been shot./Are they theirs? Ours? Soldiers?/ Civilians? Terrorists? The mind/ staggers….Where is my child?” Dreams “blow up like suspicious parcels.” A poem entitled “Almost” gives a stanza to how “Everyone I know just missed/ being blown up at five to four on Monday./ Everyone I know just turned/ the corner… or took/ a different route that day,” then remarks that “Only a few/ were supposed to be elsewhere/ but missed the bus, or the light, or their luck,/ and wound up all over Dizengoff.” Such language is deliberately shocking in its apparent casualness—but no more shocking than the event. A refusal of solemnity is one of Alkalay-Gut’s primary trademarks as a poet, equally evident in poems that mark her place among those who yearn for peace. In “Purim Thoughts” she wonders, “What if even one of the sons of Haman was not evil?” In a poem called “Poetry in the Middle East” she imagines being a kindergarten teacher trying to make children behave themselves—“But you ask a kid in kindergarten/ what happened—and he’ll say:/ It all started/ when he hit me back.” A joke, yes, but one that exquisitely captures the blame game played by Israelis and Palestinians alike. In “Suicide Sister,” the poet imagines a would-be suicide bomber in Jerusalem “seeing a face in the Jewish crowd/ that recalls her own grandmother/ bent even now over shopping” and turning back—for what? “To face/ whatever humiliations…await/ a living/ woman.”

That life is humiliating, but better than the alternative, is one of Alkalay-Gut’s constant themes—in poems about family, love poems, poems about aging, even a whole book called The Love of Clothes and Nakedness. Here is “Discarding”:

To give away a dress
that once you danced in
and the skirt twirled straight out
and your joy was endless….
To lose a little life
with each discarding

Not earth-shaking, but real. And to become fully aware of the degree to which this poet systematically resists the dignity we associate with “poetry” is to realize that a little less dignity and a little more humor in men and nations might be what we need.