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Archive for May 17th, 2021


Dahlia Ravikovitch 1997 photograph (1936-2005)

A tweet I read tonight on twitter: “Tonight I put the kids to sleep in our bedroom. So that when we die, we die together and no one would live to mourn the loss of one another” Eman Basher @sometimes Pooh.” This reminded me of what I was told of a cousin of my mother’s in WW2. She chose to accompany her 6 children into the gas chamber rather than let them die alone.

Dear readers and friends,

This is an unusual foremother poet blog for me: most of the time I do not choose a woman poet because of the immediate political relevancy of her work; here in this time of another slaughter of Palestinians, yet more destruction of the open air prison they are forced to endure existence in, and the apparent indifference of all those in charge of gov’ts with the power to stop this shameless horror, I put forward Dahlia Ravikovitch’s poetry where she as a native-born Israeli, Hebrew-speaking and writing, eloquently cried out against what the Israeli gov’t (and the people who voted it in) inflict on a people whose country they seized by war (1948, 1967). Unless otherwise noted all the poems are translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld:

In this poem Ravikovitch identifies as an Israeli woman watching as a young female Arab is about to be destroyed

Hovering at a low altitude

I am not here.
I am on those craggy eastern hills
streaked with ice
where grass doesn’t grow
and a sweeping shadow overruns the slope.
A little shepherd girl
with a herd of goats,
black goats,
emerges suddenly
from an unseen tent.
She won’t live out the day, that girl,
in the pasture.

I am not here.
Inside the gaping mouth of the mountain
a red globe flares,
not yet a sun.
A lesion of frost, flushed and sickly,
revolves in that maw.

And the little one rose so early
to go to the pasture.
She doesn’t walk with neck outstretched
and wanton glances.
She doesn’t paint her eyes with kohl.
She doesn’t ask, Whence cometh my help.

I am not here.
I’ve been in the mountains many days now.
The light will not scorch me. The frost cannot touch me.
Nothing can amaze me now.
I’ve seen worse things in my life.

I tuck my dress tight around my legs and hover
very close to the ground.
What ever was she thinking, that girl?
Wild to look at, unwashed.
For a moment she crouches down.
Her cheeks soft silk,
frostbite on the back of her hand.
She seems distracted, but no,
in fact she’s alert.
She still has a few hours left.
But that’s hardly the object of my meditations.
My thoughts, soft as down, cushion me comfortably.
I’ve found a very simple method,
not so much as a foot-breadth on land
and not flying, either—
hovering at a low altitude.

But as day tends toward noon,
many hours
after sunrise,
that man makes his way up the mountain.
He looks innocent enough.
The girl is right there, near him,
not another soul around.
And if she runs for cover, or cries out—
there’s no place to hide in the mountains.

I am not here.
I’m above those savage mountain ranges
in the farthest reaches of the East.
No need to elaborate.
With a single hurling thrust one can hover
and whirl about with the speed of the wind.
Can make a getaway and persuade myself:
I haven’t seen a thing.
And the little one, her eyes start from their sockets,
her palate is dry as a potsherd,
when a hard hand grasps her hair, gripping her
without a shred of pity.

This one makes explicit the aim of the Israeli gov’t and settler colonialist “ethnic cleansers”

Get out of Beirut

Take the knapsacks,
the clay jugs, the washtubs,
the Korans,
the battle fatigues,
the bravado, the broken soul,
and what’s left in the street, a little bread or meat,
and kids running around like chickens in the heat.
How many children do you have?
How many children did you have?
It’s hard to keep the children safe in times like these.
Not the way it used to be in the old country,
in the shade of the mosque, under the fig tree,
where you’d get the kids out of the house in the morning
and tuck them into bed at night.
Whatever’s not fragile, gather up in those sacks:
clothing, bedding, blankets, diapers,
some memento, perhaps,
a shiny artillery shell,
or a tool that has practical value,
and the babies with pus in their eyes
and the RPG kids.
We’d love to see you afloat in the water with no place to go
no port and no shore.
You won’t be welcome anywhere.
You’re human beings who were thrown out the door,
you’re people who don’t count anymore.
You’re human beings that nobody needs.
You’re a bunch of lice
crawling about
that pester and bite

If you are still reading, two more:

A Mother Walks Around

A mother walks around with a child dead in her belly.
This child hasn’t been born yet.
When his time is up the dead child will be born
head first, then trunk and buttocks
and he won’t wave his arms about or cry his first cry
and they won’t slap his bottom
won’t put drops in his eyes
won’t swaddle him
after washing the body.
He will not resemble a living child.
His mother will not be calm and proud after giving birth
and she won’t be troubled about his future,
won’t worry how in the world to support him
and does she have enough milk
and does she have enough clothing
and how will she ever fit one more cradle into the room.
The child is a perfect izadil« already,
unmade ere he was ever made.
And he’ll have his own little grave at the edge of the cemetery
and a little memorial day
and there won’t be much to remember him by.
These are the chronicles of the child
who was killed in his mother’s belly
in the month of January, in the year 1988,
“under circumstances relating to state security.”

The Story of the Arab who died in the Fire

When the fire grabbed his body, it didn’t happen by degrees.
There was no burst of heat before,
or giant wave of smothering smoke
and the feeling of a spare room one wants to escape to.
The fire held him at once
—there are no metaphors for this—
it peeled off his clothes
cleaved to his flesh.
The skin nerves were the first to be touched.
The hair was consumed.
“God! They are burning!” he shouted.
And that is all he could do in self-defense.
The flesh was already burning between the shack’s boards
that fed the fire in the first stage.
There was already no consciousness in him.
The fire burning his flesh
numbed his sense of future
and the memories of his family
and he had no more ties to his childhood
and he didn’t ask for revenge, salvation,
or to see the dawn of the next day.
He just wanted to stop burning.
But his body supported the conflagration
and he was as if bound and fettered,
and of that too he did not think.
And he continued to burn by the power of his body
made of hair and wax and tendons.
And he burned a long time.
And from his throat inhuman voices issued
for many of his human functions had already ceased,
except for the pain the nerves transmitted
in electric impulses
to the pain center in the brain,
and that didn’t last longer than a day.
And it was good that his soul was freed that day
because he deserved to rest.
— Translated from the original Hebrew by Karen Alkalay-Gut

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To be accurate, Dahlia Ravikovitch’s oeuvre as a whole is not dominated by poems of protest on behalf of the Palestinian people or other groups the Israelis or their allies have decided to “take out.” While she appears to have been a peace activist, and sincere political humanist from the outset of her career, much of her earlier poetry is written in styles and imitation of Biblical and archaic verse; for a secular poet and independent woman (married twice, with her son born from a lover she did not marry), her allusions and content are (to me) jarringly from patriarchal sources: her mother had been a graduate of a religious teachers college who went on to train as a teacher of Jewish studies, and Dahlia herself became a a student immersed in Hebrew, Biblical, and Jewish studies. She also wrote prototypical “women’s verse” at first (fantasy, presenting herself as overwhelmed by the world) and only gradually does feminist verse emerge. While courageously outspoken against all the forced evacuations, land and house confiscation, abuse of Arab women and children in ordinary discourse and the groups of people she demonstrated and worked with, her earlier targets were the abuse of language, power and powerlessness itself.

For myself I find her poetry direct, forceful, but, except for the personal autobiographical poems, curiously detached from modern reality until half way through her oeuvre. My feeling is it was over time that she became passionately horrified by what she saw the state she lived in did to non-Jews living on the land mass it controlled. It was as she grew older she grew angry at the norms many women obeyed. Perhaps it was after she lost custody of her son (1989, a great grief for her), that she began her moving poetry about mothers.

She was born in 1936, the daughter of a Russian born engineer who emigrated from Russia to Palestine via China. When she was six, her father was run over by a drunken Greek soldier in the British army; one of her early successful (and a characteristic) poems registers the trauma she felt when two years later her mother first told her that her father was dead:

On the Road at Night there stands the man

On the road at night there stands the man
Who once upon a time was my father
And I must go down to the place where he stands
Because I was his firstborn daughter.

Night after night he stands alone in his place
And I must go down and stand in that place.
And I wanted to ask him: Till when must I go.
And I knew as I asked: I must always go.

In the place where he stands, there is a trace of danger
Like the day he walked that road and a car ran him over.
And that’s how I knew him and marked him to remember:
This very man was once my father

The use of repetition, the simple stanzas, rhymes, monosyllables, and plain blunt sarcasm are central to her most memorable shorter lyrics and feminist poetry, as in

Clockwork Doll

I was a clockwork doll, but then
That night I turned left, right, round and around
And fell on my face, cracked on the ground,
And skillful hands tried to piece me together again.

Then once more I was a proper doll
And all my manner was demure and polite.
But I became damaged goods that night,
A fractured twig with only tendrils to prevent a fall.

And then I went invited to dance at the ball
But they cast me me with the writhing dogs and cats
Though all my steps were measured and true.

And my hair was golden, and my eyes were blue
And I had a dress printed in garden flower sprawl,
And a trim of cherries tacked to my straw hat.

She must have been a difficult (as the common adjective used) child from the first. Her mother took her and her siblings to live on a kibbutz after the father died, but at age 13 unable to cope with the collectivist conformist atmosphere of such a place, Dahlia left and moved from foster family to foster family. She was lucky to meet and be mentored by a literature teacher in high school Baruch Kurzweil who praised the way she blended archaic and contemporary modes; with high grades (a story of an intelligent reading girl) and the encouragement of Avraham Shlonsky, the leading poet of the pre-State Hebrew Moderna, and Leah Goldberg, a major woman poet of the time, her verse was published when she was 18; she went to Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was awarded a scholarship for Hebrew studies at Oxford.

For a woman whose work received so many prizes over the years, she did not do well (I am not surprised) in the academic or publishing marketplace when it comes to positions or jobs, and at the end of her life she was living in what is described as “a modest apartment in Tel Aviv, near the Mediterranean, barely ekeing out a living” as a journalist, TV & theater critic, high school teacher, writer of popular lyrics. She translated into Hebrew poems by Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Poe and others, as well as children’s classics, such as Mary Poppins. She is said to have suffered from severe depressions; when she was found dead in her apartment, it was at first assumed she killed herself.

Medically speaking it was determined she died of heart irregularities (“sudden death”) but surely her serious emotional breakdowns, lack of a secure family life, peripetatic lifestyle, several relationships, and underlying moods in her poetry (justifiable anger, bitterness, anguish and just strong passion for whatever she is feeling) and poverty (which she is said to have worried about) helped bring on a relatively early death. Not that she was spiritually alone or neglected; she collaborated with other poets, musicians, and respected public figures seeking peace, justice, and equality for all in Israel.

If the interested reader wants to know more, I list in the comments a couple of websites beyond 5 more blogs (by me), and a few reviews of Szobel’s book. For this blog I read Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poems of Dahlia Ravikovitch, translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (where most of the poems here come from) and A Poetics of Trauma by Ilana Szobel. I find Szobel’s psychoanalytic and close reading approach to Ravikovitch’s poetry to be illuminating, useful — she will help the reader appreciate Ravokovitch’s poetry in all its layering. See The Poetry Foundation, Jewish Women’s Archive, an obituary from The Guardian.

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From a series by Martha Rosler: House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home

So here are a few of the poems I find most successful and appealing. This first one is said to have been a favorite with her; and is often reprinte

Dress of Fire (The Dress)

You know, she said, they made you
a dress of fire.
Remember how Jason’s wife burned in her dress?
It was Medea, she said, Medea did that to her.
You’ve got to be careful, she said,
they made you a dress that glows
like an ember, that burns like coals.

Are you going to wear it, she said, don’t wear it.
It’s not the wind whistling, it’s the poison
seeping in.
You’re not even a princess, what can you do to Medea?
Can’t you tell one sound from another, she said,
it’s not the wind whistling.

Remember, I told her, that time when I was six?
They shampooed my hair and I went out into the street.
The smell o shampoo trailed after me like a cloud.
Then I got sick from the wind and the rain.
I didn’t know a thing about reading Greek tragedies,
but the smell of the perfume spread
and I was very sick.
Now I can see it’s an unnatural perfume.

What will happen to you now, she said,
they made you a burning dress.
They made me a burning dress, I said. I know.
So why are you standing there, she said,
you’ve got to be careful.
You know what a burning dress is, don’t you?

I know, I said, but I don’t know
how to be careful.
The smell of that perfume confuses me.
I said to her, No one has to agree with me,
I don’t believe in Greek tragedies.

But the dress, she said, the dress is on fire.
What are you saying, I shouted,
what are you saying?
I’m not wearing a dress at all,
what’s burning is me.
— translated by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch

She can express sheer sensual delight and pleasure; here is sonnet using the same devices of repetition and simple words and natural imagery:

Delight

There did I know a delight beyond all delight,
And it came to pass upon the Sabbath day
As tree boughs reached for the sky with all their might.
Round and round like a river streamed the light,
And the wheel of the eye craved the sunwheel that day
Then did I know a delight beyond all delight.
The heads of the bushes blazed, insatiable bright
Sunlight striking the waves, igniting the spray.

It would swallow my head like a golden orange, that light.
Water lilies were gaping their yellow bright
Mouths to swallow the ripples and reeds in their way.
And indeed it came to pass on the Sabbath day
As tree boughs lusted for the sky with all their might,
And then did I know a delight beyond all delight.

There is a series of poems where she expresses raw feelings as a woman involved with men who don’t treat her that well and whom she herself accepts because there is nothing better to calm herself with. I’d reprint “Cinderella in the Kitchen” but it is long so here is a shorter one from this type or series:

At Her Own Pace

A woman is holding a small photo.
She is no longer in her prime.
Travels a lot. Airplane. Suitcase.
For months on end, she stays
with relatives of hers.
“At your pace I couldn’t,” she says.
An introverted woman,
gentle in her ways.
People give in to her. She gives in too.
She’s on the move again. Airplane. Suitcase.
Nothing was set in advance.
The phone rang. She was flooded with a joy
that could tear the heavens open. He’s a man who’s not hers
in the full sense of the word.
She walks from room to room alone. An endless calm.
In the innermost circle of her being, she’s torn to pieces.
On the outside she’s calm. Doesn’t really seek
to take possession.
A small passport photo in her hand.
He’s wearing a tie. A featureless face,
I would say. For her he’s really
the world entire.
Apart from that, outside the innermost circle
she’s calm and recoiling
at her own pace.

Her poems on mothering are intertwined with her protests against brutal war — she saw mothering in war zones:

The quieter intense lasting grief of loss (this also includes typical sarcasm):

What a Time She Had!

How did that story go?
As a rule she wouldn’t have remembered so quickly.
In that soil no vineyard would grow.
A citrus grove stood there,
sickly,
stunted.
The single walnut tree blooming there bore no fruit
as if some essential life-giving element
were lacking in that soil.
Hard green lemons.
A balding patch of lawn.
A great tranquillity.
On the western side, the hedge went wild
and there was a honeysucker, of course
(today we’d call it a sunbird)
-if he were still alive
he’d be twenty years old.
In the valley, the army was hunting down human beings.
Fire in the thicket.
Summer’s hellfire blazing as usual.
Evening mowing down shadows, merciless.

Now she is a mother: On the Attitude towards Children in Times of War

He who destroys thirty babies
it is as if he’d destroyed three hundred babies,
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.

Benighted children,
at their age
they don’t even have a real world view.
And their future is shrouded, too:
refugee shacks, unwashed faces,
sewage flowing in the streets,
infected eyes,
a negative outlook on life.

And thus began the flight from city to village,
from village to burrows in the hills.
As when a man did flee from a lion,
as when he did flee from a bear,
as when he did flee from a cannon,
from an airplane, from our own troops.

He who destroys thirty babies,
it is as if he’d destroyed one thousand and thirty,
or one thousand and seventy,
thousand upon thousand.
And for that alone shall he find
no peace.

Author’s note: This is a variation on a poem by Natan Zach that deals [satirically] with the question of whether there were exaggerations in the number of children reported killed in the [1982] Lebanon War.
Lines 1-2, He who destroys: cf. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:5: “He who destroys a single human soul. . . , it is as if he had destroyed an entire world.”
Lines 16-17, As when a man: Amos 5:19, about the danger of apocalyptic yearnings.

This is the concluding poem in the volume translated by Boch and Kronfeld:

The Fruit of the Land

You asked if we’ve got enough cannons.
They laughed and said: More than enough
and we’ve got new improved antitank missiles
and bunker busters to penetrate
double-slab reinforced concrete
and we’ve got crates of napalm and crates of explosives,
unlimited quantities, cornucopias,
a feast for the soul, like some finely seasoned delicacy
and above all, that secret weapon,
the one we don’t talk about.
Calm down, man,
the intel officer and the CO
and the border police chief
who’s also a colonel in that hush-hush commando unit
are all primed for the order: Go!
and everything’s shined up like the skin of a snake
and we’ve got chocolate wafers on every base
and grape juice and Tempo soda
and that’s why we won’t give in to terror
we will not fold in the face of violence
we’ll never fold no matter what
‘cause our billy clubs are nice and hard.
God, who has chosen us from all the nations,
comforteth with apples
the fighting arm of the IDF
and the iron boxes and the crates of fresh explosives
and we’ve got cluster bombs too,
though of course that’s off the record.
Serve us bourekas and cake, O woman of the house,
for we were slaves in the land of Egypt
but never again,
and blot out the remembrance of Amalek
if you track him down,
and if you seek him without success
Blessed be the tiny match
that a soldier in some crack unit will suddenly strike
and set off the whole bloody mess

From Bloch and Kronfeld’s notes: “The Fruit of the Land” (Hebrew, zimrat ha-arets), zimra means singing; in biblical Hebrew it can also mean “produce, bounty”. Block and Kronfield capture the macho voice of the defense types we constantly hear in the media rhapsodizing about Israel’s superior firepower. But nowadays they wouldn’t acknowledge they have “more than enough” and would have answered the opening question – ” You asked if we’ve got enough cannons” – with a demand for more funds for the military. There is much allusion to the Bible.

Central to the poem is the reality that things do not have to be this way. Armaments ever worse do not have to be the fruit of the earth

I pull out separately this rare more cheerful poem: New Zealand is a colony which succeeded: not all countries founded by colonizer end in cruelty, brutality, hatred; we see in this poem her early Biblical allusions, her use of repetition, her personal voice, the irony and sarcasm, and a late turn to acceptance.

Two Isles Hath New Zealand

Africa’s not the place to go right now.
Plagues, famine — the human body can’t bear it.
Brutality. They flog human beings with bull-whips.
Asia — it would make your hair stand on end.
Trapped in the mountains, trapped in the swamps.
The human body can’t bear it,
There are limits to the life force, after all.

As for me,
He shall make me lie down in green pastures
in New Zealand.

Over there, sheep with soft wool,
the softest of wools,
graze in the meadow.
Truehearted folk herd their flocks,
on Sundays they pay a visit to church
dressed in sedate attire.

No point hiding it any longer:
We’re an experiment that went awry,
a plan that misfired,
tied up with too much murderousness.
Why should I care about this camp or that,
screaming till their throats are raw,
spitting fine hairs.
In any case, too much murderousness.
To Africa I’m not going
and not to Asia, either.
I’m not going any place.

In New Zealand
in green pastures, beside the still waters,
kindhearted folk
will share their bread with me.

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Al-shifa Hospital, 2014

Which other women have written powerful political verse, including directly about war successfully (whose work I know)? Charlotte Smith, Anna Barbauld, Simone Weil, Alice Oswald. Who have pictured it? Martha Rosler. Novels and plays and memoirs: Ann Radcliffe (in her Summer Tour), Olivia Manning, Iris Origo, Lillian Hellman, Suzy McKee Charnas, Marta Hiller, Margaret Atwood, Adhaf Soueif

Ellen

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