Poets on the Edge


Poet Alicia Suskin Ostriker reviews a cutting-edge “feast of a book,” filled with the verse of 27 Israeli poets.

Poets on the Edge: An Anthology of Contemporary Hebrew Poetry (State University of New York Press, 2008) is a feast of a book. Twenty-seven Israeli poets—religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, immigrant and native-born, mostly straight but some gay, almost half are 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 it.

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.

The article above was reprinted with permission from JBooks.com.

About the Author

author_ostrikerAlicia Suskin Ostriker
Alicia Suskin Ostriker, a Brandeis alumna, is a poet and critic, twice nominated for a National Book Award. She is Professor Emerita of English at Rutgers University, and leads a monthly midrash-writing workshop in New York City.

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