There is an embarrassment of riches in the world of Israelipoetry publications in English at the moment. Recent months have seenthe publication of four significant volumes of Hebrew poetry in Englishtranslation.
From its very beginnings, the modern State of Israel has hada rich history of poetry, including the work of Hayyim Nachman Bialik,Rahel, Leah Goldberg, Yehuda Amichai, Amir Gilboa, and Dan Pagis. It isoften said that Israelis publish and buy more books per capita than anyother country in the world; it is not inconceivable that Israel alsoproduces more poets per capita than any other country. Many of Israel’sbetter known poets have been translated and anthologized around theworld, but there are even more who are as yet essentially unknown tonon-Hebrew readers. These four volumes go a long way to introduceEnglish readers to the wealth of poetry being written in Israel today.
Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitchis an elegant masterpiece. Translators Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeldhave created an exemplary and definitive collection of their originaltranslations of Ravikovitch’s poetry. They have allowed her powerful,insistent voice to come through in English idiom while managing toretain much of the Hebrew cadence, biblical references, and contemporaryHebrew phrasing that runs through her work in the original. Bloch haspreviously published several volumes of translation of Ravikovitch’swork, and some of the poems in this collection are re-translations.These new versions are even richer and more textured than the earlierversions, as if the intervening years and the collaboration withKronfeld have allowed the poems to deepen and grow.
Ravikovitch, who was born in 1936 in Ramat Gan and died in2005, was a wellknown personality in Israel and is widely considered oneof the country’s greatest poets. Her work has entered the fabric ofIsraeli 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 activistwho was deeply disturbed by what she saw as some of Israel’s humanrights 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 ayeshiva student was left to die because the Palestinians thought he wasan Israeli, and the Israelis thought he was a Palestinian. In thispowerful poem she uses biblical imagery, such as that of the heifer andthe commandment from Exodus 23:5 about coming to the aid of an enemy, tospeak out about realities of life in Israel that disturbed her. Some ofher poetry could be called protest poetry, reflecting both outrage andregret, as in “You Can’t Kill a Baby Twice,” which deals with Sabra andShatila, while other poems, like “Clockwork Doll,” reflect a morepersonal 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 pregnantPalestinian woman who loses her baby as a result of being beaten byIsraeli soldiers. In their tight, crisp translation, the sense of lossand tragedy is palpable through the poet’s repeated use of simpledeclarative statements in the negative:
He will not resemble a living child. His mother will not becalm and proud after giving birth and she won’t be troubled about hisfuture, won’t worry how in the world to support him…
In With an Iron Pen, this same poem, translated byRachel Tzvia Back, entitled “A Mother is Walking About,” is included in asection of poems called “And if the Dead is Child, Will Someone GatherHim Up?” This translation is less urgent than Bloch and Kronfeld’s, butstill conveys a sense of dismay at this tragic situation:
He’ll be nothing like a living child. And his mother won’tbe proud and calm after giving birth she also won’t be worried about hisfuture, 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 beplacid 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 thethree translations, emphasizing the quality of the language rather thanthe poet’s outrage.
With An Iron Pen is a significant collection ofprotest poetry related to the Israeli occupation of West Bank andPalestinian territories. Originally published in Israel in 2005, thisanthology is organized around sub-themes like possession of land, thedestruction of trees, and demolition of homes. The poets in this volumeinclude names familiar to English readers, such as Yehuda Amichai andNatan Zach, and many who will be less well-known but deserving of awider readership. The poems themselves are self-reflective, oftenself-critical, outraged, mournful, and tragic. This collection presentspoetry as prophecy, in the sense of giving voice to counter-culturalideas and crying out against injustice. Brought into English by avariety of translators, some of whom worked directly with the poets, thevoices and the tone of the poems vary, but they work together as awhole, calling attention to questions, pain, and injustice.
In Poets on the Edge, Tsipi Keller provides anintroduction for an English-speaking audience to the wealth ofcontemporary poets writing in Israel today. This anthology ofestablished and newly emerging poets includes a wide variety ofapproaches, styles, and themes. The careful translations are sensitiveto both Hebrew cadence and English idiom. Covering a wide range ofthemes including love, politics, doubt, death, identity, and even poetryitself, these poems are a carefully curated collection.
Maya Berejano is another Israeli poet whose work spans threeout of four of these books. Berejano, born in 1949, is a poet livingand working in Tel Aviv today. She is a recipient of the PrimeMinister’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 volumespreviously published in Hebrew, and is a wonderful introduction to thismajor Israeli poet. The Hymns of Job is a wide-reachingcollection, full of scientific and technological references, biblicalallusions, and themes of politics, hope, despair, love, eroticism,connection, and loss. Berejano plays skillfully with form, resulting in alively dynamism and constant surprise for the reader.
These four new volumes are a testament to the incredibleliterary creativity going on in Israel today; they provide a richtreasury of Israeli poetry that belongs in libraries and on bookshelvesof any collection.