Voices Israel Anthology 2022, published by the organization called The Voices Israel Group of Poets in English, is its 48th anthology of poetry by contemporary Israeli poets writing in English. The group was founded in 1971 by four poetry enthusiasts. Today, it is a thriving organization with some 150 members in Israel and around the world.
Voices Israel aims to provide an outlet for contemporary Israeli poets writing in English in Israel and overseas, as well as to encourage new poets and foster international friendships through poetry. It promotes monthly meetings at centers across the country at which members read their work and submit it to discussion and critique. It also holds workshops two or three times a year, which non-members are encouraged to attend.
The group holds an annual competition among its members in memory of Reuben Rose, the founding editor and, as mentioned, it publishes an annual anthology, which contains a selection of the best poems submitted by members and non-members. In addition, Voices Israel partners with the family of Bar Sagi, an extremely talented young Israeli poet who succumbed to cancer before her sixteenth birthday, in presenting a Bar Sagi Young Poets’ Prize.
The 2022 winner was 15-year-old Sapir (Hila) Franklin, whose poem “White Noise” appears in the latest anthology. It is a delicate description of adolescent uncertainty in the presence of adult assurance, as opposed to the joy a young person feels at being free of it.
What are the poems in the new anthology?
There are 90 poems in the latest anthology. The first few selected by the editors are reflections on the issue that no doubt was uppermost in the minds of the poets as they wrote – COVID and its consequences. The first poem, “Pandemic,” by Patti Tana of the US, is not quite a Japanese haiku but is related and manages to evoke Stevie Smith’s “not waving but drowning” in writing of “this desire to stay alive.” Channah Moshe in her poem “Alien” relates COVID to the environmental dangers of the modern world, while Michele Bustin, who also titled her poem “Alien,” dwells on the disorientating effect of seeing one’s neighbor in a surgical mask.
The range of topics that caught the imagination of this collection of Israeli poets is wide, but quite a few touch on familiar themes such as religion, the Bible, and the Holocaust. Mark Elber tackles the Holocaust obliquely in his moving “Ode to Yiddish,” conjuring up a whole Jewish world that has been lost with the language. He ends with: “O mame loshen, mother tongue, why have we forsaken you?”
Contemporary themes proved an inspiration for a number of the poets. Ann Bar-Dov’s “Pogrom” relates not to some historic horror but was written, she informs us, “after the ‘events’ of May 2021.” She is referring to an outburst of Hamas-induced violence in Jerusalem and describes vividly and in great detail the experience of being at the receiving end. “The cops have copped out,” she writes. “You’re on your own.”
Julie Mendelsohn writes of a rocket attack on her son’s school. In “You Know the Drill,” she describes how and why his teacher first mistook the attack for an earthquake. In addition to her “Alien,” Bustin has a second poem in this volume. In “Once Again,” she appears, without being specific, to be reflecting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. She paints a vivid picture of ordinary people caught up in the disruption of war.
Lilian Cohen from Australia sets down her reflections in “Visiting Gamla” – the city in the Golan to which the Romans laid siege during the Great Revolt and eventually conquered, which witnessed the sort of suicide that occurred at Masada. The vultures that once soared above the city soar still over the desolate ruins, but Cohen would have us ponder on the “toxic threats spread by man’s encroachment.”
Miriam Webber (aka Rumi Morkin) has been living in Israel since 1953 and has 14 great-grandchildren. On a long, boring drive, she was suddenly overcome by memories of her childhood in England. The resultant poem, “Longing,” begins this way:
“Oh how I long for a bicycle
and an English country lane
to pedal down, in dappled shade
a ten-year old again.”
She ends with words of wisdom, born of advanced age:
“Inside an aging outer self
my youth, a phoenix, lies,
a guardian of memories
relived through childhood’s eyes.”
Biographical details about Webber and all 75 poets represented in this anthology are very usefully set out in a section at the rear entitled “Meet the Poets.”
By publishing an annual anthology of work by Israeli poets writing in English, the Voices Israel Group is performing a most valuable public service. It is an intellectual delight to share the emotions and experiences of writers who are masters of the English language and can evoke feelings and create pictures in the mind with a carefully chosen word or phrase. This year’s anthology, like its predecessors, is a treasure trove of contemporary poetry. It will provide readers with a great deal of pleasure. ■