A concerned poet

Agi Mishol is troubled by the changes she sees in Israeli society.

Agi Mishol (photo credit: FACEBOOK)
Agi Mishol
(photo credit: FACEBOOK)
Over the last decade and a half, Agi Mishol, acclaimed poet and, until her recent retirement, director of the Helicon School of Poetry in Tel Aviv, has become one of the hottest properties on the Israeli literary scene, receiving awards and praise both at home and abroad for her thoughtful, observational writing ‒ work that has endeared her to an ever-widening audience.
Next year, her words, chosen ahead of many other lauded international poets, will be set to music at a special performance in the gothic town of Goritzia, on the Italy- Slovenia border. The child of Holocaust survivors from Transylvania, Mishol reflects her central European roots in much of her work while often sharing her passion for the natural world in thought-provoking verse.
She was described in 2013 by the Netherlands- based Poetry International Foundation as “possibly Israel’s most popular living poet.” She has received a stack of awards, including the 1995 Prime Minister’s Prize for Poetry and the 2002 Yehuda Amichai Prize.
Last year she was awarded both an honorary doctorate by Tel Aviv University and Italy’s coveted Lerici Pea international award for poetry.
Acclaimed Israeli literary doyen Dan Miron wrote that “Agi Mishol undoubtedly belongs to the great dynasty of female Hebrew poets,” while the The New York Times Poetry Chronicle suggested that the 68-yearold fruit farmer’s wife from Kfar Mordechai “takes up political subjects with a sly delicacy reminiscent of the Polish poet [and Nobel Prize winner] Wislawa Szymbora.”
Situated a few kilometers northeast of Ashdod, on the southern coastal plain, when you turn into Kfar Mordechai you feel time has stood still – for all the best reasons – and you could be back in the Israel of the 1970s. A sleepy moshav, houses with land full of fruit orchards, an air of pastoral times disappearing rapidly. It’s a place where you have time to think. Mishol welcomed me into her comfortable, but unpretentious home, a house with eye-catching pieces of art, including a series of distinctive sheep images, painted especially for her by her late friend, the acclaimed artist, Menashe Kadishman.
“You get the feeling that Mishol’s home is very much a family hub. It’s comfortable, welcoming and calm. She’s a little nervous about doing the interview in English – her English is actually very good – and asks if I mind her having a cigarette, serves coffee, then loads the table with fruit, fresh from her orchard opposite the kitchen window.”
In a conversation that fairly flew by, Mishol reveals a warm sense of humor, a passion for animals, the burden carried by the child of Holocaust survivors, and genuine fears for the future of her beloved Israel ‒ fears that may very well have been even more vividly expressed had the conversation taken place less than 48 hours later. Her words in the interview proved uncannily prophetic, even though she is usually at pains to avoid directly politicizing her writing.
“I have political poems, of course ‒ because you can’t live here without having political things percolating into your poetry ‒ but in a more subtle way,” Mishol tells The Jerusalem Report. “It is in the language more than in the issues, although, during Operation Protective Edge [the 2014 Gaza war] the only poem I wrote was about a donkey, a donkey which was loaded with explosives and sent toward Israeli soldiers.
“There had been a newspaper headline, ‘No casualty reported,’ and there was a picture of a white donkey. It moved me… poetry always enters the big subject through the side door. The donkey was a metaphor, of course.
On his way, he suddenly saw green grass and was distracted. He went for the grass. Then he exploded. At the end of this poem, he was upgraded to a martyr and 72 white female donkeys were waiting for him in the sky. It reflects the whole absurdity of life here. It is about a donkey, but of course it is a political poem.”
No Casualties Reported
No one counted him,
the little donkey
in the photograph
below the headlines.
A white donkey,
his life shackled to scrap iron
and watermelons,
who surely stood still
as they strapped the saddle
of dynamite to his body,
until they patted his behind
spurring him on with a yallah itlah
to the enemy lines –
Only then
did he notice the pale grass
sprouting between the stones
and he strayed
from the plot
in order to munch,
belonging only to himself
in the ticking silence.
It was not written who fired:
those who feared he would turn back
or those who refused the approaching gift
but when he rose to heaven
in a blaze
the donkey was promoted to
explosive messiah
and seventy-two pristine jennets
licked his wounds.
(Translated by Joanna Chen)
I asked Mishol, who is on the left of the political spectrum, whether she feels Israelis had always been intolerant of political views other than those of the prevailing majority, or have now become less tolerant of those outside the mainstream that has veered toward the right? When you hear ‘Death to Arabs’ and ‘Death to left wingers,’ it’s all the same,” she sighed. “We’ve moved a long way away from our democratic principles. I have a very bad feeling about what is happening inside Israel.
I think it is even more dangerous than what is going on with Iran. I really do. I am much more concerned about the inner democracy and this government.”
Then, in what proved to be an eerily prophetic postscript, she added, “The danger is from within Israeli society. That’s a view shared by many of my contemporaries.”
Less than 24 hours after our meeting, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed six people at a Gay Pride march in Jerusalem, killing a 16-year-old girl. Later the same night, a murderous arson attack in Duma in the West Bank made Mishol’s words ring loud in my head. Jewish extremists were apparently responsible for setting fire to a Palestinian family home killing an 18-month-old child and causing severe injuries to his parents and sibling. The father died from his injuries a week later. “It makes me feel afraid,” she had told me.
“I’m the second generation after the Holocaust.
My mother was in Auschwitz. They brought me here when I was just three years old because this was the safe place. Now, I don’t feel it’s safe anymore.”
But, surely, the woman who grew up in the shadow of the Shoah, who served her time in the Israeli military at the secretive Dimona nuclear facility, who spent three years supporting her husband, Giora, in his earlier career as an immigration counselor for British Jews looking to start a new life in Israel, isn’t actually thinking of giving up the fight and leaving? “I will never leave,” she says in a melancholy tone, before sparking back to life. “Like Samson said as the pillars of the Philistine temple began to crash around him, ‘Let my soul die with the Philistines.’ I, too, will die here with the Philistines.” Then she laughs – an uncomfortable, hollow laugh.
“I am more concerned about my children and grandchildren and about what kind of life they will have here. It is something that keeps me awake at night. I have the second generation instinct, that’s why I took out a Romanian passport. I was actually born in Transylvania, but it’s now part of Romania. Life is more important than anything.
“I did it as part of an instinct to escape from the sense of danger that remains with me from my parents. I’m not very proud of it. I know many thousands of others have done the same, but I’m not proud of it. I did it for my children and my children’s children. I’m really worried about what will happen here.”
Clearly upset at the direction in which she believes Israel is heading, Mishol admits that whatever her feelings and political opinions, on her many trips abroad she invariably has kept her counsel when discussing the situation with people who, more often than not, have formed their views based on incomplete perceptions of the challenges both Israelis and Palestinians face on the ground.
“I was once at a poetry festival in France, in Lodeve, and there were a lot of Arab poets there. I remember when I went to a coffee house and sat down there, they all got up and left. If I’m abroad – never mind if I am right or left – I represent Israel, as they think Israel is. I wanted to correct them and tell them it’s not what they think.
“But I also know that there is a difference between what I can criticize here and what I can criticize abroad, because abroad they do see it in black and white. They don’t appreciate the complexities and nuances. I am not someone who will speak against my country.
I won’t do the dirty washing in public. Things I say here I won’t say there, because there I will be misunderstood.”
THE INSTINCT to survive is something that permeates much of Mishol’s work and something she focused on in her well received 2009 collection “House Calls.” Her parents’ mechanism of protecting their surviving daughter – they lost another child during the Holocaust – was to leave behind the horrors of the camps and not refer to them. It was not an uncommon attitude for the time.
“I think about all the survivors without husbands and wives that were in our house playing rummy, and the word ‘lager’ [camp] was mentioned all the time.
I didn’t ask what it meant. I speak Hungarian very well, but very quickly I changed my “rrrraish” to “raish” [replacing the Hungarian inflection in spoken Hebrew with the local Israeli accent]. A child wants to be like everyone else; to be one of the crowd.”
“My parents didn’t want to talk about the Shoah with me at all. They wanted to protect me. I was the ultimate answer for them. They survived, and now… here’s Agi. It was very difficult to be the ultimate answer. I wasn’t allowed to tell them my troubles, or to cry or be sad. I believed them when they said there was nothing to talk about and now this is our new life. Everything was going to be OK. As an adult, I have often asked myself why, as a child, I didn’t ask anything? I just believed them.”
The Ceremony
The ceremony was modest.
A government clerk handed me
your final papers. You
who never graduated anything
were suddenly entitled to a lovely
death certificate
with the symbol of the state
as if you had mastered something
and fulfilled all the requirements.
She asked me if I wanted to update
(that’s what she said)
father’s death certificate.
Then she placed them side by side
like a pair of matching gravestones
and pressed the electric buzzer.
I went down to the street
like a little girl
holding the hands
of paper parents
flapping in the wind.
(Translated by Lisa Katz)
She feels that 70 years after the Shoah, Israelis are growing weary of always referencing the seminal moment in modern Jewish history. They want to move on. She has her own “revenge” though on the Nazi ambition to exterminate the Jews.
“Last Shabbat I was with my family ‒ I have two children and six grandchildren ‒ and I looked at them and knew there will be more.
The family is expanding. This is revenge in itself. Also, becoming a poet [is a revenge].
It’s strange that I became a [Hebrew] poet as I was raised in the Hungarian language. I grew up in a house in Gedera without books, without literature, and without language. I didn’t even know literature existed. It wasn’t natural for me to become a poet.”
“For my bat mitzva someone gave me a book of Rachel, the poet, and when I opened it and started to read, it was a revelation for me that you can say things in a different way.
I had a strong sense that I would be a poet. It‘s a big word, but it felt like my destiny.”
Her parents paid for her first book to be published when she was 18, while still in the army, but when she received the first edition, she was desperately disappointed.
“I burned it. You really shouldn’t burn books but… oh, it was terrible. I felt very bad.
It was so unformed.” It would be 20 years before Mishol published a book of which she was truly proud.
“THE BOOK I consider my first, “Plantation Diary,” published by Keter, was after I came back from England. I was 38 and had published three books before this, but this was my first real book.”
There have been a series of acclaimed volumes since, but even now, despite the dedication of more than half a century to her craft, she is uncomfortable with the accolades that regularly come her way.
“I’m lucky. I don’t take it for granted and am always surprised. I’m really lucky because poetry for me is a kind of conversation with people, but on a coded frequency. It’s important to me to have this dialogue. I have been on this path for many years. It is really a ‘way’ in the deepest sense of the word.”
Despite her undoubted success, she feels the classic Ashkenazi poetry is now no longer the fashion, noting that times have changed.
“Actually, these days the most dominant poetry is Mizrahi poetry; they call themselves ‘ars poetica.’ This time is the time of Mizrahi poetry. It is not because of poetry, it’s more something sociological… and all sorts of provocative sentences about the treatment of the Mizrahi Jews.”
Is this development an accurate reflection on today’s Israel? “First of all, it is always interesting to see change, but… yes. Now, you have to be noisy and to shout. Once, I was in Berlin reading poetry with Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish.
He was a kind of national poet and his audience expected him to write about nationalism.
We shared a stage together, then we shared a car to the airport to go back to Israel.
“He was very upset and said to me that sometimes he wants to write poems about a flower, or a love poem, but he cannot do it because he is the ‘right man at the right time’; they expect him only to write about the big subjects. I don’t mean at all that he wrote things he didn’t want to write, but it was in the back of his mind. Now, poetry reflects the whole atmosphere of culture in Israel.”
As someone who has dedicated her life to poetry and to helping others achieve the optimum from their writing, Mishol might be expected, in view of her fears for the future direction of the country and its people, to be pessimistic about the next generation of poets. She isn’t. During her time at Helicon she saw herself as “a midwife” delivering new life to the genre.
Poetry remains popular with the Israeli public, far more so than in most of the Anglo-Saxon world. Mishol suspects it is because there is still a certain glamor in being a poet with so many streets in Israel dedicated to the great names of yesteryear who were not only poets but were also seen as leaders ‒ Bialik, Tchernichovsky, Ahad Ha’am.
“It seems like poetry is easy but, of course, it’s not. It’s like a Fata Morgana, an illusion. A lot of young poets get confused, thinking that if you have emotions and you write them it is poetry. It is not. Everyone has emotions, but not everyone who was sad could write Anna Karenina. Poetry is a language inside the language.
You have to study it like you have to study everything.
“Everyone wants to be a poet. But, it’s very difficult. It’s not a game. You have to be dedicated and there is a lot of suffering. I always say to students in my first lesson that, ‘If you can still run away, then go; there’s no money in it.’” 
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @paul_alster and visit his website: www.paulalster.com