Dahlia Ravikovitch, in English at last

Hovering at a Low Altitude
The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch
Translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld
W.W. Norton
271 pp.; price $29.95 (hardcover)

A literary celebrity in Israel, the late Dahlia Ravikovitch is barely known in the United States, and far too small a presence in the English-reading world. Ravikovitch (1936-2005) is not only one of the towering figures of 20th-century Israeli poetry, but also one of the strongest female poets in the history of Hebrew verse; she was so present here that she used to make frequent appearances on television, in which she was asked for her views on political or military developments. Long active in the peace movement, she often mixed the contemporary with the ancient and the biblical in her poetic responses to the news. While Ravikovitch is not an easy poet or a simple one, there is an approachability to the best of her work, and also, fortunately, to the best of this new translation.

Take the poem "Like Rachel," one of the strongest poems here. It's understandable on first read, but it also has layers and layers of richness that are waiting for a reader to uncover. For starters, it makes use of the heartbreaking story of the biblical Rachel, who had to share her husband with her less-loved sister, and who later died in childbirth. But it also invokes two other Hebrew poems about the biblical Rachel, by Rachel Marpurgo (1790-1871), and the poet known simply as Rachel, born Rachel Bluvstein (1890-1931).

It's wonderful how the translators, Chana Kronfeld and Chana Bloch, lay out all of this at the bottom of the page, making Ravikovitch approachable to the English-language reader who may not know the Bible and the past 200 years of Hebrew poetry as well as she did. And so, in that same poem, when the reader sees "How Jacob's love ate away at her/with a greedy mouth" we know - because of the helpful footnote - that that's from Isaiah 9:12, and that it's a prophecy, the translators explain, of how "the enemy will devour the Israelites."

If the names Bloch and Kronfeld sound familiar, they should be to readers of Hebrew poetry in translation. They are the team of California-based professors who previously did a beautiful job with Yehuda Amichai's masterpiece "Open Closed Open," but here, they have a different and perhaps more difficult task. Ravikovitch is far less well-known in the English-speaking world than Amichai, and so the translators have to make a case for why she matters, which they do vigorously in the thorough introduction.

Ravikovitch is also tougher to translate: She is drawn not only to older (and sometimes obscure) Hebrew poets but also to unusual biblical moments, and will often zero in on words that are only used once in the entire Bible. She uses all kinds of Hebrew words, from street slang that can be rough and crude to phrases from the prayers, and she'll put that in the same poem as lines from the psalms, or the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah.

That range of centuries can make the translator's life a challenge, but it seems natural for Ravikovitch. The poet's mother was the granddaughter of one of the founders of Mea She'arim, the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood, and taught religious texts for a living though she lived a secular life; her daughter Dahlia clearly inherited the family love of traditional Jewish texts.

There are other loves here, too, like Rome, the scene of a slew of these poems. Ravikovitch and Rome is an interesting pairing, and I imagine that the translators tried to see Italy as the poet saw it. Italy, like Israel, has an ancient past, ground that millions call holy, majestic mountains and blue water, and hordes of tourists who can never fully know it. In Rome, as in Jerusalem, there is an insiders' code, which may have appealed to Ravikovitch, the descendant of early settlers of Israel. The bond was so strong that the visual artist Jenny Holzer put some of Ravikovitch's poems in Rome's public spaces.

But at her core, despite all the travel poems, Ravikovitch was deeply Israeli, and her most important landscape is her inner landscape, which she sometimes melds with Israel's landscape in her work. In 1942, when she was six, Ravikovitch's father was killed by a drunken Greek soldier in the British army, described in the poem "on the road at night there stands a man." Ravikovitch's mother only told her daughter that her father was dead two years after the fact. The poet had a son, Ido, at 42 and later lost custody of him, yet another major loss. Ido is the subject of some of the softest, most tender poems here, and he helped with this volume.

Despite her fame here, Ravikovitch never had it easy - personally, psychologically, or financially. I was drawn to the poem "Growing Poor," which reminded me strangely of some of the wrinkled 70-something women climbing the mountainous streets of Rome, refusing to take public transportation or move to an easier city, because in Rome, one walks. Here it is, in its entirety:

If I am to grow poor
let it be like a land
ravaged by blight.
If I am to grow poor
let it be with pride.
Torah scrolls
are saved from the fire.
Not me.
If I die, this is my desire:
Let me be
like some ship wrecked at sea.
Waters without end
will extinguish the fire.

The line "Torah scrolls/are saved from the fire. Not me" is especially troubling, because of how true it is: the Jewish community often rushes to preserve religious artifacts, and "collectors" go door to door to raise funds for rabbis or yeshiva students so they should not starve. There is no such collection effort for Jewish poets, even major ones like Ravikovitch.

IT'S IMPOSSIBLE not to hear the poet's psychological struggles. The poem "Like Rachel" ends with the haunting line: "To die like Rachel/That's what I want." But it seems important to note that Ravikovitch believed her struggles helped her fight oppression. "If I didn't know depression myself, I wouldn't be able to feel the tears of the oppressed," she once told an interviewer.

Ravikovitch was involved in efforts to secure Palestinian rights for decades, and the poems reflect her commitment, which deepens with time. "On the Attitude Toward Children in Time of War" plays with a line from the Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:5, which famously reads: "He who destroys a single human soul... it is as if he had destroyed the entire world." The poem starts:

He who destroys thirty babies
It is as if he'd destroyed three hundred
and toddlers too,
or even eight-and-a-half-year-olds,
in a year, God willing, they'd be soldiers
in the Palestine Liberation Army.

The poem also plays with Natan Zach's poem about whether the number of children reported killed in the 1982 Lebanon war was accurate. This, too, is an example of the translators' thoroughness; footnote after footnote is actually helpful, and I think even those who can read Ravikovitch in Hebrew can learn something from them.

The layers of Ravikovitch's battles, references and conversations are housed well in this physically beautiful volume: The cover, title, and typesetting are all classy, not a given in poetry publishing. The book-jacket copy refers to the "Occupation," politicizing the book immediately, which may draw some and deflect others; I would prefer if the poems were allowed to make their own case for how they see history. Politics aside, I hope the presentation helps bring Ravikovitch to the attention of the English-reading world, giving her the global audience she deserves.

Like Rachel

To die like Rachel

when the soul shudders like a


wants to break free.

Behind the tent, in fear and


Jacob and Joseph speak of her,


All the days of her life

turn head over heels inside her

like a baby that wants to be


How grueling. How

Jacob's love ate away at her

with a greedy mouth.

As the soul takes leave now,

she has no use for any of that.

Suddenly the baby screeches,

Jacob comes into the tent -

but Rachel does not even sense


Rapture washes over her face,

her head.

* * *

Then did a great repose descend

upon her.

The breath of her nostrils would

not stir a feather.

They laid her down among

mountain stones

and made her no lament.

To die like Rachel,

that's what I want.

Excerpted with permission from: Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch, translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld, published by W.W. Norton & Company.