The motion behind poetry

A huge new anthology of Israeli poetry in translation hits the streets.

poetry book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
poetry book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Poets on the Edge: An Anthology of Contemporary Hebrew Poetry Selected and Translated by Tsipi Keller Introduction by Aminadav Dykman State University of New York Press 339 pp.; $24.95 The founding of the State of Israel was a bonanza for poetry - and poetry readers. In a few short decades, Hebrew poetry leaped from the prayer books to the battlefield, the bedroom and the kitchen, rushing to chronicle every aspect of life in a new land. The last time so many good poets wrote in Hebrew at the same time, in the same place, was probably in medieval Spain, before the expulsion in 1492. And just like the Hebrew poetry of Spain, the new Hebrew poetry is very diverse in subject and tone: Some poems are haunting, horrifying and very aware of mortality, but there is plenty of bawdy and hilarious poetry, and much that is gorgeous by any standard, even if it's written in times of terror and trouble. This new anthology of Hebrew poetry in translation has two special strengths - tremendous depth and a personal touch. In terms of depth, it moves far past the familiar big names of Hebrew poetry, or at least those names familiar to English-language readers. Sure, there's Yehuda Amichai, the most famous of recent Israeli poets, who has been widely translated by everyone from Ted Hughes to Leon Wieseltier to the team of Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld; there's Dahlia Ravikovitch, who is also fairly well-known, but there's also a slew of rarely translated or never-before-translated names that have a good chance of redefining the world's image of what Hebrew poetry is. A compulsion to introduce and widen seems to define Poets on the Edge. For 20 years, Tsipi Keller has been translating the most important names in Hebrew poetry, while quietly working on lesser-known poets too. Keller, a fiction writer who was born in Prague, raised in Israel and who now lives in Florida, has received numerous awards for her translation work, including a prestigious National Endowment for the Arts grant from the US government. It's always evident, in this anthology, that one translator worked on every page, as opposed to some anthologies, where an editor simply collected translations from a slew of translators. Keller represents each poet with a generous selection of poems - usually a dozen or more. She also includes a brief biography, which is helpful; so we learn that T. Carmi grew up in a Hebrew-speaking home in the US, and that certain translators worked as radio announcers or visual artists. Sometimes, she describes how she came across that particular poet's work. It's clear that she has strong feelings on which poets matter, and wants to explain why they matter. But why does the translator matter? Well, for starters, the translator is an artist, too, Keller insists in her introduction. She got started in translation while reading Ein Leben, a poem by Dan Pagis. She "began to hear it in English," she writes. "The poem sang to me in Hebrew and then resonated and 'sang' to me in English, and being a writer I had to translate it." That Keller felt she "had" to do this is a spirit that imbues the 339-page anthology, which is filled with efforts to guide readers who cannot hear a Hebrew poem "sing." There's an introduction by the poet Aminadav Dykman - also translated by Keller - which attempts to explain that "one extraordinary feature of Israeli poetry is the length of the chain in which a poet may feel as a 'solid link.'" Dykman writes that "it will not be erroneous to state that one line, contorted as it may be, connects every Hebrew poet to the poetry of the Bible." That's old news to Hebrew readers, but probably useful for English-only readers to understand. Dykman also chronicles the often shocking gap between the imagined, idealized land of Israel and the actual Palestine, which helps put many of the poems in context and makes their disappointment and lament understandable. Knowing that T. Carmi grew up in the US, and had an American part of his story, may give another layer to reading his poem "Monologue in the Twilight of His Life" reproduced below. Unfortunately, the biographies and introductions don't help with this book's biggest disappointment: the total absence of Hebrew. I constantly craved the Hebrew originals. This anthology could have been stronger if it had been a bilingual edition, or even if SUNY Press put the Hebrew originals on-line, as Princeton University Press did with Peter Cole's The Dream of the Poem. Readers with both outstanding and so-so Hebrew could benefit. With so many references to the Bible and other major Hebrew texts, not having the originals becomes frustrating. Keller does helpfully explain references and terms that might lead a reader astray, at least most of the time; sometimes, things seem awkward, like when she calls a moment "Jobian" in the middle of a poem. Occasionally, lines struck me as less than graceful, making me crave the original even more; sometimes, I wondered if Walter Benjamin was right when he suggested that only poets should translate poetry, and that the only way to do it is to write a poem in response to a poem. Interestingly, Keller sometimes leaves the untranslatable as it is, just transliterating the phrase, but she includes a footnote so the reader can understand her decision. So, for example, at the end of a poem by Shin Shifra titled "A Woman Who Practices How to Live" the last stanza is built around the phrase "ya ruhi." Keller explains in her note: "Ya ruhi, an Arabic idiom, means 'my soul'; frequently used as a term of endearment by Jews originating from Arab lands." That's helpful for most readers who haven't spent years in Israel. I was pleased to see selections of poets Israelis talk about, but English readers tend not to know, such as David Avidan, Yona Wallach and Maya Bejerano. Then there are individual gems, like a "blues" poem by Raquel Chalfi called "Reckless Love" and another called "Elegy for a Friend Who Lost Her Mind." Interestingly, the afterword is a highlight; it's a selection of poetry by Irit Katzir, a poet virtually unknown to English readers. Prof. Ephraim Katzir, who died on May 30, approached Keller and asked her to translate his late daughter's work. Here it is, in its entirety: Every sleep is a dress rehearsal for the great sleep. Every parting is preparation for the great parting. But, in fact, when I think about this, I don't need rehearsals. Even he who knows not how to live, knows, like all else, how to die. It's a perfect way to end the book - because translation is a fight against death, an attempt to give a work of art a second life in another tongue. The Israeli poets Keller translates refuse to let a poetic tradition stretching thousands of years die, and you can feel that gutsy battle on every page of this anthology. The translator, Keller insists, is part of that fight too, and so, probably, is the reader of the latest Hebrew poetry in translation. The writer's first book, And There Was Evening, And There Was Morning, about the experience of reading the King James Bible after a lifetime of reading the Hebrew, is forthcoming from Spiegel & Grau. Her work has appeared in The Wilson Quarterly, Harvard Review, and Partisan Review. She teaches at Columbia College in Chicago.