These Moun­tains: Select­ed Poems of Riv­ka Miriam

Riv­ka Miri­am; Lin­da Stern Zisquit, trans.
  • Review
By – September 16, 2011

These Moun­tains: Select­ed Poems of Riv­ka Miri­am, trans­lat­ed and with an intro­duc­tion by Lin­da Stern Zisquit, is the first time that a book-length trans­la­tion of the poet’s work appears in Eng­lish. As such, this new book makes an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to con­tem­po­rary Hebrew poet­ry avail­able in Eng­lish. Read­ers should be espe­cial­ly grate­ful that the pub­lish­er, Toby Press, con­tin­ues to pub­lish vol­umes of trans­lat­ed poet­ry that con­tain both the orig­i­nal Hebrew and the Eng­lish side-by-side. This dual-lan­guage pre­sen­ta­tion adds depth even for those with only min­i­mal Hebrew skills. 

Riv­ka Miri­am, born in Israel in 1952, is a child of Holo­caust sur­vivors who became a pub­lished poet at the age of four­teen. Her ear­li­est poems were inspired by what she had learned about the Holo­caust and her family’s expe­ri­ence. She is sim­i­lar­ly influ­enced by Jew­ish texts and reli­gious and the­o­log­i­cal ideas, some of which seeps into and infus­es the poetry. 

Riv­ka Miriam’s poems are decep­tive­ly sim­ple at times. The lan­guage is straight­for­ward, yet worlds are con­tained with­in it. Some lines come direct­ly from Bib­li­cal or litur­gi­cal texts, while oth­ers could be every­day speech. 

Bib­li­cal char­ac­ters are fea­tured in many poems, as in The Stripes in Joseph’s Coat” which employs an econ­o­my of lan­guage to paint a rich his­to­ry of Joseph’s whole ances­try. The Song to Jacob who Moved the Stone from the Mouth of the Well” is a pow­er­ful, mov­ing inter­pre­ta­tion of the rela­tion­ship between Jacob and Leah, told from Leah’s per­spec­tive, which con­tains the lines, Flocks of sheep hummed beneath our blankets,/ tent-flies were pulled to the wind,” and ends with the lines, And he didn’t know I was Leah/​And flocks of sons broke through my womb to his hands.” This poem func­tions as mod­ern midrash, which gives Leah a voice and adds a per­spec­tive miss­ing from the Bib­li­cal text. God, too, appears fre­quent­ly in the poems, an inti­mate pres­ence with whom the poet is in rela­tion­ship, as in Still,” in which God knocks on the win­dow and enters the room. 

Many of the poems use mater­nal imagery such as breasts and nurs­ing, as in I Nurse a Very Old Woman,” or Oh My Moth­er.” Some­times these images are com­fort­ing and nur­tur­ing, but they can also be quite dis­turb­ing, as in the images of chil­dren suck­ling ash and leaves in Nev­er Will I Be Like the Moth­er in the Pic­ture” or fire ask­ing to be nursed in The Fire, Blush­ing from Fear.” 

The land of Israel is also a com­mon theme in Miriam’s poet­ry. She writes of a mys­ti­cal con­nec­tion to the land, marked­ly dif­fer­ent from so many of her Israeli peers who respond with irony when explor­ing a con­nec­tion to the land. Hers is an uniron­ic rela­tion­ship, one that is deeply phys­i­cal and sen­su­al. The land in her poet­ry is a liv­ing being, a friend and some­times a lover. In These Moun­tains” the moun­tains sit in arm­chairs and eat cake like com­fort­able vis­i­tors while in Lest it Be Revealed” in which Only when my land is asleep/​spread out before me/​I whis­per whis­per her name/​and she moans.” 

There are ref­er­ences in this poet­ry to the pain and trau­ma of the Holo­caust that Miriam’s fam­i­ly expe­ri­enced. The two relat­ed poems Chaya’s Unborn Child” and And Shalom, Chaya’s Hus­band” speak of vio­lence and loss with poignan­cy while avoid­ing any hint of sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty. These poems are dis­qui­et­ing, dis­turb­ing. There is a sense that the poet can­not help but bring forth what her lega­cy has bequeathed her, and that she is con­tin­u­al­ly try­ing, over and over, to make sense of her fam­i­ly his­to­ry of Euro­pean suf­fer­ing and the strug­gle of mod­ern Israel.

Lin­da Zisquit has done a mas­ter­ful job in these trans­la­tions. She man­ages to con­vey both the direct­ness and the rich­ness of the Hebrew, while mak­ing the poems read as if they were always meant to be read in Eng­lish. I can only hope that Miri­am and Zisquit will con­tin­ue to col­lab­o­rate for years to come, and bring forth many more such vol­umes of aching­ly beau­ti­ful poet­ry. Inter­view with Riv­ka Miri­am, notes, translator’s note.

Hara E. Per­son was ordained by Hebrew Union Col­lege-Jew­ish Insti­tute of Reli­gion. She is a writer and editor.

Discussion Questions