Sowing and Reaping

Article in Issue 25, March 30, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A look at three books dealing with Hebrew literature finds one exciting, another soul-stirring and the third 'way over the edge' Ever since moving to Jerusalem in 1981, the American-born poet Peter Cole has been a tireless promoter and enabler of Hebrew literature to the world at large. He is perhaps best known for his recent Princeton University Press anthology, "The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain," and for his individual translations of such poets as Shmuel HaNagid and Solomon Ibn Gabirol. Cole has also translated numerous Israeli writers (Aharon Shabtai, Yoel Hoffmann, Avraham Ben-Yitzhak, Harold Schimmel) as well as the Arabic poetry of Taha Muhammad Ali. And Ibis Editions, which he helped found, regularly produces handsome volumes of English translations from Hebrew, Ladino, Arabic and other languages To these award-winning achievements we may now add Cole's extremely valuable "Hebrew Writers on Writing," the latest volume in the Trinity University Press series The Writer's World (which to date also includes Irish, Polish and Mexican anthologies). "HWonW" has two outstanding components. The first, of course, is the primary documents that Cole's nearly 50 chosen authors have supplied. These vary in character and format just as widely as one might expect from some 50 often idiosyncratic Jews, men and women, secular and religious, of various nationalities and all writing throughout the course of the last tumultuous 100 years. Their unifying theme is the excitement of the recently revivified Hebrew language. Some of the writers, like Yosef Haim Brenner and Gershom Scholem, address the matter of writing in Hebrew directly. Others have a go at the subject more obliquely, often by the expedient of writing about other writers: David Frischmann on U.N. Gnessin, for example, or Lea Goldberg in diary entries that expound on (and gossip about) evidently every writer she reads, translates or meets. Several of Cole's other authors, such as Natan Alterman and Avot Yeshurun, discuss in letters, essays and interviews the universal agonies and ecstasies of writing and publishing that might have issued from practitioners of literature in any number of languages. Still others tell it slant, dealing with writing simply by example (Gershon Shofman, Dan Pagis), presenting well-crafted poems and sketches that speak for themselves, thank you very much. In all it makes for an invaluable anthology, by turn delightful, surprising and thought- provoking. And this is of course a tribute to the editor, who indeed is the volume's other key component. His contribution is three-fold: first in his selections, second in his deft translations (some 15 other translators were also employed) and lastly in the biographical and critical headnotes, each a marvel of compression and insight, that introduce each writer. Of course in reviewing any anthology, the critic is required by law to carp about the choices, and especially about omissions. On this first issue, this reviewer cheerfully turns outlaw, pleased with selection after selection, at times happy to note a familiar text (a choice chunk from Amos Oz's "A Tale of Love and Darkness"), thrilled to rediscover a longforgotten piece (S.Y. Agnon's autobiographical Nobel Prize acceptance speech), or, best of all, to find some hitherto unknown gem, such as Avraham Kook's dreamy musings on the spirit of literature, Dvora Baron's aphorisms regarding the uplifting possibilities of literature, Uri Zvi Greenberg's tough-minded "The Poet in the Teaching of the Untamed Jews" and a score of other delights. As for omissions - ha! The crafty Cole heads off critics at the pass, blithely admitting that "one could easily imagine assembling a companion volume with an entirely different set of selections by these same writers and many others whose work isn't included in this gathering…" He then proceeds to rattle off the names of about 30 entirely worthy candidates. To which I say, I eagerly await Cole's alternative anthology. But surely I can find something to carp about. OK, two things, one minor, one major. The small irritation is Cole's tendency to shower superlatives on his selected authors (each is acclaimed as unique, a master, the finest, etc.). More significantly - and hardly Cole's fault - is the overall discomfort that arises from reading Hebrew writers on Hebrew writing - in English. But that's another story - and another language. And leave that aside; there's simply too much treasure in "HWonH" - in whatever tongue is its utterance. To name just one item whose author I did not know and which I'm still savoring, there is "Blessed Are They Who Sow and Do Not Reap," a monumentally moving little lyric by Avraham Ben Yitzhaq (born Abraham Sonne in Galicia in 1883, died in Israel in 1950). May such Hebrew writers ever sow and ever reap. The renowned Israeli novelist David Grossman is included in the Cole collection, and more of his graceful musings on life and literature (well served by translator Jessica Cohen) are found in the six essays and speeches collected in "Writing in the Dark." The offerings range from the utopian "Contemplations on Peace," originally delivered as a lecture to the Levinas Circle in Paris in 2004 (Grossman confesses to being "a great believer in acquired naïveté"), to the equally lofty "The Desire to Be Gisella," a somewhat tortured explication of why writers write. "Gisella," as well as "Books That Have Read Me," "Individual Language and the Mass Media," and the collection's title essay, which was delivered as a lecture in New York in 2007, are all meditations on how questions of Jewish and Israeli identity and the Holocaust have informed Grossman's literary career. Especially interesting is Grossman's explanation of how, even as he was grieving over the death of his son in combat in Lebanon, the profoundly political Grossman could continue writing a novel that had nothing to do with Israeli politics, war, policies and the like. All of Grossman's ideas are engaging, just as all of them are eminently arguable. (Is Israel indeed "intoxicated with power," yielding to the "unhindered temptation to hurt the helpless"?) But there is no arguing about the degree of passion with which the author maintains his beliefs. This is never more clearly articulated than in the book's final piece, an address Grossman delivered at the Yitzhak Rabin memorial rally held in the wake of the highly destructive but inconclusive war against Hizballah in 2006, in which his son was killed. In the previous essays Grossman more than once expresses a deep pessimism about his nation's future. In "Gisella," for example, he wails: "When I say this, I feel that after decades of spending most of our energies, our thoughts and attention and inventiveness, our blood and our life and our financial means, on protecting our external borders, fortifying them and safeguarding them more and more - after all this, we may be very close to becoming like a suit of armor that no longer contains a knight, no longer contains a human. Moreover, I often think that even if this longed-for peace reaches our region tomorrow, in some sense it will already be too late." In his Rabin speech, Grossman to be sure sounds such bleak notes yet again: "When did we lose even the hope that we could ever live a different life, a better life? Moreover, how can we continue to stand by and watch, as if hypnotized, as our home is taken over by madness and coarseness, violence and racism?" Yet Grossman refuses to submit to despair. Sounding like nothing so much as one of the fiery Hebrew prophets of old, Grossman excoriates the nation's leaders and then tells them - in thunder - precisely what they must do to reverse history and to save the nation's body and soul. "Writing in the Dark" is a contentious book, but no less soul-stirring for that. It was with much eagerness that I turned away from the discussions of language and literature in the two volumes above for some original instances of language and literature. Unfortunately, Tsipi Keller's "Poets on the Edge" proved an exercise in disappointment and frustration. Even beyond disappointment and frustration, much in this anthology of contemporary Hebrew poetry simply irritates, beginning with the volume's flaccid title. All poets by definition on are the edge, but Keller's Israelis are on the edge of what, exactly? Keller, herself a poet born in Czechoslovakia, raised in Israel and a resident of the U.S. since 1974, asserts that Israeli poets writing in the 1960s and onwards became "edgy" because of the country's "new urban edginess" (read Tel Aviv's Café Kassit). I suppose this urban edginess somehow even affects Keller's kibbutz poets, but let that go; Tel Aviv puts me on edge, too. On the plus side, Keller has rounded up more than two dozen poets, a few familiar old hands (Amichai, Pagis, Carmi, Zach, Avidan, Ravikovitch), but many younger guns who have never been translated into English before. (Much thanks for Mordechai Geldman and his cheery porno-poems, for Ronnie Someck and his sardonic imagination - who else would yoke Johnny Weissmuller and Yehuda Halevy in a single poem?) Keller also allows each poet a generous showcase, at least a half-dozen offerings per poet and more often a dozen or more. So much for the plus side. The chief and deadly flaw of "Poets on the Edge" is that Keller has translated all of the poetry herself. This means that because of Keller's particular vocabulary, her poetic sensibilities, her rhythmic and syntactical temperament, the poets undergo in her translation a deadening homogenization. Indeed, with only a few exceptions, any number of the translations here could be lifted from under the name of one poet and placed under another's and no one would be the wiser - or the more gratified. (O for Peter Cole and his army of talented translators!) Couple this with the fact that virtually all of these poets are writing free verse (and for many untutored hands this means free-of-verse) and the result is far too often something not quite poetry - perhaps something on the edge of poetry. The upshot is that most of the women poets sound like piss-poor imitations of Sylvia Plath, most of the men simply sound like one another, and to keep reading most readers will have to prop open their eyelids with matchsticks. The only thing that jarred me alert was the outstanding awfulness of many of the poems. Several times I was reminded of a supremely unpoetic line by an American poet long resident in Israel, a line that years ago stopped me cold only to lodge in my head ever after: "My father sits on the toilet." Someone once said that not every line in a poem can be poetry. I ask, What else should a line of poetry be? Well, whatever else it might be, it shouldn't be as ludicrous as Raquel Chalfi's "the Water Queen of Jerusalem owns/ a bathing suit made of Yiddish." Or Dan Armon's "the apple hums and sings: / I'm a young cucumber." Or Nurit Zarhi's "The rain reveals the hidden names of leaves," silly enough, yet followed by the equally astonishing - if anatomically accurate - "my heart warm as if washed in blood." Somewhere along the line, somebody went 'way over the edge.' • Contributing Editor Matt Nesvisky frequently writes about books. Article in Issue 25, March 30, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.