Tali Latowicki: A modern Rachel, the poetess

A personal appraisal of a fragile talent.

By LARRY BUTCHINS
July 31, 2019 13:14
Tali Latowicki: A modern Rachel, the poetess

Tali Latowicki: poet, critic, editor, teacher and doctor of Hebrew literature. (photo credit: CAMILLA BUTCHINS)



The night before she died, Tali Latowicki (pronounced Lah-toh-vitski), poet, critic, editor, teacher and doctor of Hebrew literature who has been hailed as “a unique literary voice in Israel… maybe in the entire world,” reviewed the galley proofs of her new book of poems, The Right to Bodily Integrity, published posthumously at the end of May.
Just a week earlier she had held in her arms her newborn second daughter, Iyar, born to her spouse, Tal Levin, at the same hospital where she was treated for the cancer that claimed her life. Although breathing with the help of an oxygen tank, she had insisted on visiting the neonatal ward without the tank, so she could hold Iyar as close as possible.
She was just going on 43 years old, and had been suffering from cancer for nearly eight years, a disease which she treated with disdain and more as an inconvenience than a real threat. It was only in the last week or so of her life, in the middle of March this year, when she was hospitalized, and even then, friends said, just by looking at her you would never know that she was so ill.
Tali was born in Tel Aviv in 1976 to Danielle, originally from Switzerland, and a Polish-born father, Ami, who also died at the age of 43, in 1991. We knew Tali and her family on a quite personal level. She attended the TALI school in Hod Hasharon, where she met our elder daughter, Camilla. The two formed a deep and lasting friendship. Over the years we got to know her as “Camilla’s best friend,” in and out of our home, and we also knew her as a talented young classical pianist, something that was passed down through her mother, also an accomplished musician.
But we never really knew Tali in her truly creative and professional capacity. We never really knew her as a poet, a critic, an editor, a doctor of Hebrew Literature… or as a mother. We knew she was all those things, but we never really got to know the depths of Tali – until her death.
To get to the core of this complex young woman, I spent a number of hours talking to the people who mattered most in her life: her mother, Danielle, her journalist wife, Tal, and her mentor, Prof. Yigal Schwartz, founding director of the Heksherim Research Institute for Jewish and Israeli Literature and Culture at Ben-Gurion University, where Tali did her research and teaching.
As I suspect is the case with many English-speaking immigrants to Israel, we never fathomed the complexities, beauty and passion of Hebrew literature and poetry, in relation to Tali’s life and the role it plays in Israeli life and culture. Her work is almost completely unknown to English-speakers. It has been translated into Italian, French and Polish, but not into English. This is a pity, because if anything can help in the absorption process, it is having access to the vast body of Hebrew literary work, even in translation. A Hebrew-English translator is presently working on a collection of her poems.
It is only now through her passing that we are learning and understanding the significant role Tali played in that milieu, and the enormous contribution she made – and through her legacy will continue to make – to Israeli literature and culture.
We are just beginning to get to know the real Tali, the girl who wanted it all, and couldn’t decide whether to study music or literature – so she studied and excelled at both; the girl who was never completely satisfied with her work, so she took longer than usual to write a critique, a poem, to edit an anthology, to the point where her colleagues at Heksherim would literally stand at her office door begging her to finish.
According to Tal, her spouse and the biological mother of her two children, she would wrestle with her work.
“It took her forever to get something done, ensuring that it was perfect, precise, clean…ideal,” says Tal. “Tali was absolutely dedicated to the truth. It wasn’t just for the sake of being ‘right’; it had to be ‘true.’ She could not understand or tolerate falsehood, lies, deceit, dissembling. Everything had to be the truth. And she would be forthright. If somebody asked her opinion about something, whether personal or professional, she told them exactly what she thought. Not out of any malice, or spite, or desire to hurt, upset or denigrate anybody or to prove that she knew better… but out of a simple need to tell the truth.”

THIS NEED for the “truth” made it difficult for her to reconcile her life with the Israeli-Palestinian situation, Tal and Danielle both told me.
“Tali felt this incredible tension about the situation, and was very empathetic to the Palestinian situation,” Tal explained. “It was something that caused her a great deal of pain. She didn’t know how to distance herself from this and all the pain in the world.”
This was already recognized in a November 2008 online appraisal (in Italian) by the official site of the Milan Jewish Community of her work Camera Obscura.
“Camera Obscura is a small volume… characterized by extreme immediacy, sometimes poignant, sudden and bold shots that reveal, with ruthless and photographic sharpness, those recurrent elements in the poet’s verses: the earth, love, conflict, loneliness,” the site commented. “With her poetry, simple and direct, she is able to split reality into frames and crystallize it in words. Love, the dominant theme, always manifests itself as disconnected from feeling, and becomes pure human and primordial experience, complementary to suffering and anguish.
“Compared to the difficult Israeli political position, the poet transforms her own verses into a means of protest, showing the strong discomfort of the people in the face of a situation of infinite conflict to which she, almost with terror, realizes that she is now accustomed...
“This work… reveals itself in its restless and fragile nature, of suffering and passion, against the splendid and dramatic background of a tough, filthy and chaotic Tel Aviv, but perhaps despite this, beloved.”
Tal said, “In a way, this was harder for her than the pain of the illness. It wasn’t just the cancer that weakened her; she couldn’t bear all of this ugliness. She was very much a pure spirit; she was too fragile for this world.”
Danielle described how Tali decided that she had to do something about the “unbearable” situation, so she organized an evening of protest poetry reading in Tel Aviv, with the help of friends.
“She knew somebody had to take responsibility to do something, so she took it,” Danielle told me.
An anthology of the evening’s poetry was subsequently published by a friend, Tal Nitzan, under the title From an Iron Pen – Hebrew protest poetry 1984-2004. Tali’s poem “…Call the snakes to me … I don’t want to live anymore because of what is happening…” was part of the anthology, which was translated into French under the title D’un Burin de Fer.
Schwartz, her mentor whom she followed from the Hebrew University to Ben-Gurion University more than 15 years ago, characterized her as possessing an “innocent curiosity” – almost childlike, with no innuendos, no hidden agendas.
“Tali had a most unusual mind, a remarkable intellect,” says Schwartz, who officiated at the wedding of Tali and Tal in 2013, in a ceremony in Jaffa. “She was always asking questions and was never satisfied with a simple – or evasive – answer. She always wanted to know more and more about everything. As an editor, she was meticulously accurate to the last nekuda – period, comma and full stop.”
So much so that right up until the night before her death in March, she was still editing, proofreading and making comments about the texts of her last anthology of work (Hazkhut L’shlaimut Haguf [The Right to Bodily Integrity], Pardes Publishing, 2019).
“This last work was the least like Tali in every sense,” says Tal. “It took only a few months to put it together instead of the painstakingly detailed process that was typical of her. Much of the work is not the clean, pristine writing that we had come to expect.
“She collected poems, wrote some new ones, worked very fast in proofing and editing. When her editor cautioned that perhaps some of the work wasn’t quite good enough, Tali responded, ‘This book should not only have good poems – we can allow ourselves to have some imperfections.’ What surprised me about this book when I read it was that she didn’t give me the poems to read beforehand – not at all typical.
“This was not the Tali we knew, something had changed in her. Maybe she felt she needed to rush, but I believe this anthology is better because of that. It’s more earthy – she allowed the more complex, dirty parts of the world to get inside her, to become a part of her poetry, because they’re closer to her life and closer to her pain and there’s no need to always be beautiful.
“Her first book was about searching for love and beauty,” Tal added. “But this book is about life, with all its grime and pain.”
Tali always wanted to find beautiful things and people to fall in love with, Tal recalled.
“She believed the world was basically beautiful, and the thought that there was pure evil in the world was intolerable for her. Plato’s philosophy about the truth guided her: ‘If people know what’s good and true, they will act on it.’ Tali also believed that – if people know the truth and know what’s good and they know it’s moral, they will act on it.”

YET CURIOUSLY, Tali never complained about being ill, or the personal pain she was going through with her endless treatments and procedures over the years.
Schwartz recalled that she asked him once why there weren’t cures for all the illnesses in the world, on a universal basis. Not for her own condition, but for the entire world.
“Why not?” she would lament. “There should be. It’s wrong.”
Schwartz said Tali “always wanted to do what was right – this was her innocent curiosity at work.”
Although Tali was not prolific in her poetry, Schwartz considered her among the best that Israel has ever produced, believed she was unique in Israel – “maybe in the entire world” – for her work and her approach to poetry, her passion, and subject matter. A literary conference in Tali’s name will be held at Ben-Gurion University later this year.
Tali was intrigued by melancholy, and much of her work dealt with sadness – her doctoral thesis in 2015 was on the Hebrew phase of the work of poet and writer Jacob Steinberg, known for his mournful content.
In this way she was very similar in her style and ideas to Rachel the Poetess – Rachel Bluwstein (1890-1931) – the first Jewish female poet in Israel to receive recognition in a genre that was then practiced solely by men. Many of Rachel’s poems echo her feelings of longing and loss, deal with fate, and death, distance, and longing for the beloved. Her poems are included in the mandatory curriculum in Israeli schools, and her portrait appears on the new 20 shekel note.
Although no direct comparison has been made (Rachel also died in her early 40s), Tali’s work has been included in an Italian anthology with the work of Rachel, Hayim Nahman Bialik, Ibn Gvirol, Yehuda Amichai and other leading poets of Israel, titled Forte come la morte è l’amore [Love is as strong as death]. The anthology, which brings together 3,300 years of Jewish poetic tradition, is in itself a recognition of her talent and impact on Israeli literature and culture.
But it was Tali as a mother who was perhaps the most intriguing character, and in the final analysis, will possibly have as much of an impact on Israeli family law as her literary work will have on Israeli culture.
Tal is the biological mother of Ayala (Yuli), now three years old, and Iyar, born a week before Tali died. Both children bear the Latowicki name. Tali was recognized as Yuli’s mother through an adoption process, but the case of Iyar would prove to be a little more complicated. After months of battling the legal system to get Tali fully recognized as Iyar’s mother without having to go through a formal adoption, the parenting order was granted at the end of May, setting a precedent in Israeli family law.
“We began working on our petition when I was still pregnant with Iyar, and filed it the day after Iyar was born,” Tal wrote in her Facebook announcement when she received the court’s declaration. “On paper it was supposed to be simple – like Yuli’s adoption a few years ago. But Tali’s death was imminent, and the state delayed responding…partly, we think, because it was the first case of a parenting request when one of the mothers who signed it would no longer be alive. The order would actually recognize Tali as Iyar’s biological mother to all intents and purposes, without having to go through a long and exhausting adoption process.
“Let’s begin with the simplest fact: Tali is Iyar’s mother. Just like that. We planned it together, we dreamed of it together, we were excited by the medical updates, afraid of the hitches. A family is a group of people who want and plan to be together, even if at the end of life they are dealt a strange hand.
“It was impossible to ignore Tali’s happiness when she held Iyar in her arms; even though she was already weak and was very afraid she would not have the strength to hold her. She chose her name, and told Yuli excitedly about her baby sister. While I am deeply saddened that she will not see this perfect baby, I am gratified to know from the bottom of my heart that Iyar will know who her wonderful mother was.”
Tal related how for Tali, being a mother “was an adventure. She was a great mom, and approached it out of innocence. Her relationship with Yuli was essentially simple, coming to it out of pure love. She had no opinions about parenthood, no theories…no right and wrong.
“I am the practical one – I approached motherhood very intellectually. I know feeding time, bath time, sleeping times, vaccination schedules, every single technical aspect of being a mom. Tali just fell in love. She and Yuli would spend hours just hugging and smooching and playing, enjoying being together, like she would love a kitten, like a child loves another child – unconditionally.”
Tal added that Tali once complained that she was not writing enough.
“The poetry editor of the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth said to me: ‘It’s because of you – she’s happy.’ I think she was content in her personal life, and this affected her output, because Tali wrote out of great pain.”
In her eulogy at Tali’s funeral in a secular cemetery north of Netanya, Tal conveyed Tali’s approach to her illness.
“From the beginning your attitude to cancer, like so many other things, was pacifist. You refused to see it as a cruel enemy, and to enter into battles and struggles with it. Just like when you would see a scary dog in the street, you’d stop in front of him, smiling and reaching out, reaching for the cancer.
“Even in the most difficult treatments, even after surgery and hospitalization, you were not angry. And so we managed not only to survive…but also to live life to the fullest.
“You graduated with honors, taught, won prizes, wrote poems, and established a beautiful family with me, full of light and joy. If you felt the need to fight, it was against the evil and violence [in the world] that hurt you, I thought, more than all the metastases combined. You have endlessly agonized over the need to contribute and help, [despite] your body, which became more tired and fragile as the cancer progressed.”
Thus we came to know Tali more in her death than in her life: the deeply thinking young girl who spent hours in our apartment and 31 years of close friendship with Camilla; the young wife and mother; and the intellectual giant whose life and work will undoubtedly have a major impact on Israeli literature and culture.


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