With an Iron Pen: Twen­ty Years of Hebrew Protest Poetry

Tal Nitzan and Rachel Tzvia Back, eds.
  • Review
By – January 9, 2012

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.

Addi­tion­al Books Fea­tured in Review

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

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