There is an embarrassment of riches in the world of Israeli poetry publications in English at the moment. Recent months have seen the publication of four significant volumes of Hebrew poetry in English translation.
From its very beginnings, the modern State of Israel has had a rich history of poetry, including the work of Hayyim Nachman Bialik, Rahel, Leah Goldberg, Yehuda Amichai, Amir Gilboa, and Dan Pagis. It is often said that Israelis publish and buy more books per capita than any other country in the world; it is not inconceivable that Israel also produces more poets per capita than any other country. Many of Israel’s better known poets have been translated and anthologized around the world, but there are even more who are as yet essentially unknown to non-Hebrew readers. These four volumes go a long way to introduce English readers to the wealth of poetry being written in Israel today.
Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch is an elegant masterpiece. Translators Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld have created an exemplary and definitive collection of their original translations of Ravikovitch’s poetry. They have allowed her powerful, insistent voice to come through in English idiom while managing to retain much of the Hebrew cadence, biblical references, and contemporary Hebrew phrasing that runs through her work in the original. Bloch has previously published several volumes of translation of Ravikovitch’s work, and some of the poems in this collection are re-translations. These new versions are even richer and more textured than the earlier versions, as if the intervening years and the collaboration with Kronfeld have allowed the poems to deepen and grow.
Ravikovitch, who was born in 1936 in Ramat Gan and died in 2005, was a wellknown personality in Israel and is widely considered one of the country’s greatest poets. Her work has entered the fabric of Israeli life, having been used and adapted in many other forms. In 1998, Ravikovitch was awarded the Israel Prize, the highest honor in Israel. Somewhat reclusive, she was at the same time an outspoken peace activist who was deeply disturbed by what she saw as some of Israel’s human rights violations. The thorough and detailed introduction to Hovering at a Low Altitude by Bloch and Kronfeld brings Ravikovitch to life as a full, complex, and fascinating person.
Ravikovitch’s poems are at times deeply disturbing, sometimes angry, and often political. In her poem “Beheaded Heifer,” Ravikovitch deals with an incident that happened in Hebron, in which a yeshiva student was left to die because the Palestinians thought he was an Israeli, and the Israelis thought he was a Palestinian. In this powerful poem she uses biblical imagery, such as that of the heifer and the commandment from Exodus 23:5 about coming to the aid of an enemy, to speak out about realities of life in Israel that disturbed her. Some of her poetry could be called protest poetry, reflecting both outrage and regret, as in “You Can’t Kill a Baby Twice,” which deals with Sabra and Shatila, while other poems, like “Clockwork Doll,” reflect a more personal narrative.
Ravikovitch is a thread that runs through three of these four volumes. Her work appears in both With An Iron Pen and in Poets on the Edge. One of her poems appears in all three books. In Hovering at a Low Altitude, it is entitled “A Mother Walks Around” (1992). In their introduction, Bloch and Kronfeld explain that this poem is about a pregnant Palestinian woman who loses her baby as a result of being beaten by Israeli soldiers. In their tight, crisp translation, the sense of loss and tragedy is palpable through the poet’s repeated use of simple declarative statements in the negative:
He will not resemble a living child. His mother will not be calm and proud after giving birth and she won’t be troubled about his future, won’t worry how in the world to support him…
In With an Iron Pen, this same poem, translated by Rachel Tzvia Back, entitled “A Mother is Walking About,” is included in a section of poems called “And if the Dead is Child, Will Someone Gather Him Up?” This translation is less urgent than Bloch and Kronfeld’s, but still conveys a sense of dismay at this tragic situation:
He’ll be nothing like a living child. And his mother won’t be proud and calm after giving birth she also won’t be worried about his future, she won’t ask herself how she will support him…
Tsipi Keller translates the same poem as “A Mother Goes About,” in her volume Poets on the Edge:
He will not be like a live child. And his mother won’t be placid and proud after the birth, will neither worry about his future, nor wonder how she will provide for him…
Keller’s translation is the most formal and lyrical of the three translations, emphasizing the quality of the language rather than the poet’s outrage.
With An Iron Pen is a significant collection of protest poetry related to the Israeli occupation of West Bank and Palestinian territories. Originally published in Israel in 2005, this anthology is organized around sub-themes like possession of land, the destruction of trees, and demolition of homes. The poets in this volume include names familiar to English readers, such as Yehuda Amichai and Natan Zach, and many who will be less well-known but deserving of a wider readership. The poems themselves are self-reflective, often self-critical, outraged, mournful, and tragic. This collection presents poetry as prophecy, in the sense of giving voice to counter-cultural ideas and crying out against injustice. Brought into English by a variety of translators, some of whom worked directly with the poets, the voices and the tone of the poems vary, but they work together as a whole, calling attention to questions, pain, and injustice.
In Poets on the Edge, Tsipi Keller provides an introduction for an English-speaking audience to the wealth of contemporary poets writing in Israel today. This anthology of established and newly emerging poets includes a wide variety of approaches, styles, and themes. The careful translations are sensitive to both Hebrew cadence and English idiom. Covering a wide range of themes including love, politics, doubt, death, identity, and even poetry itself, these poems are a carefully curated collection.
Maya Berejano is another Israeli poet whose work spans three out of four of these books. Berejano, born in 1949, is a poet living and working in Tel Aviv today. She is a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Prize, the Bialik Prize, and the Bernstein Prize. Her work, found in both Poets on the Edge and With an Iron Pen, is translated by Tsipi Keller in the solo collection The Hymns of Job and Other Poems. This collection includes poems from several of Berejano’s volumes previously published in Hebrew, and is a wonderful introduction to this major Israeli poet. The Hymns of Job is a wide-reaching collection, full of scientific and technological references, biblical allusions, and themes of politics, hope, despair, love, eroticism, connection, and loss. Berejano plays skillfully with form, resulting in a lively dynamism and constant surprise for the reader.
These four new volumes are a testament to the incredible literary creativity going on in Israel today; they provide a rich treasury of Israeli poetry that belongs in libraries and on bookshelves of any collection.