Front and Back
by Vivian Eden; Carmel Publishing House (in English and Hebrew), 144 pages, NIS 79
This book really amounts to two collections of poetry. The first has its origin in English, and reads from left to right. That's the way it was written by Vivian Eden, an American immigrant (and member of the Haaretz editorial staff) who has lived for many years in Jerusalem. The other, which opens from the other side of the volume and reads from right to left, consists of the same poems in the same order, rendered into Hebrew by nine different translators.
The beauty of this volume is to be found principally in its English texts. Thus, for example, the book opens with a poem that could never be properly translated, for the reason that it is constructed entirely from words of one syllable. Anyone wanting to render it in Hebrew would have to go to extreme lengths to write a "Love Song in Words of One Syllable," as it is called:
We meet where we meet
like the sea and the cliff
and the chalk of the cliff
tints the sea white
and the salt of the sea
licks the cliff soft
Opening both the English and the Hebrew sides of the book with this poem is Eden's strongest statement, as if the poem itself is a cliff that, in the final analysis, prevents the passage of the syntactical music from one language to another. Beyond sensing the amusement value in writing a love poem composed exclusively of one-syllable words, the reader can also discern Eden's superb musical instincts.
Two out of its five lines "remove" a syllable, and thanks to the abundance of one-syllable words in English, the poem creates a sense of separation and meeting, and of chalk dissolving in water. The transitions between the combinations of the "f" and the sharp "t" sounds, between the sea and the cliff, the water and the chalk, almost cosmically expand upon what initially sounds like the mumbling of a farewell.
Eden is conscious of her musical sense. She writes, apparently, about herself, in "Fairy Tale":
She had all the usual attributes -
Daddy a king, flaxen curls -
And also one unusual grace -
A perfectly iambic voice.
But then comes the turning point, when some element of the fine initial conditions seems to fail:
So did she right, or did she wrong
When the prince turned out to be a frog
To squat beside him, croak along?
Since Eden never tells us precisely what happened to her - in what sense she squatted and croaked along, and thus missed out on what seemed to be within her grasp at the beginning - we have no choice but to believe her when she suggests that there is something generic in this fate. That is the source of the restraint she demonstrates in the poems, since after all, just about everyone has had the experience of turning into a frog instead of a royal. It may be that she's referring here to something more than immigrating, or giving up one's homeland or mother tongue, although it's hard to ignore the impression that by writing in English while living in Jerusalem, Eden is leaving something behind in her poetry, somewhere between America and here, and that this something disappeared along the way and isn't going to return.
Yes, it's true that there's a large English-speaking community in Israel, and so the poet has an audience for her work. Not only that, but a good portion of the country's poetry readers are able to read her work in its original English, and presumably do so. Still, there's no doubt that Eden is speaking about the loss of a place in which to write her poetry. Language, after all, is not just an instrument: It is the "place" in which a poem exists - which is to say that this is poetry that is in dialogue with another place entirely. Over and over, these excellent poems give the impression of having been uprooted from English or of having been written out of the need to hold on to the language. One can't help but be moved by Eden's ability to move back and forth between the music of the English and the observation of what it left behind, so far away.
The sun rose over Edom
The most beautiful of these poems scamper between Israel and abroad, between Jerusalem and New York, in English iambs. Even if the translations into Hebrew - by Amir Or, Gil Alroy, Yael Globerman, Ariel Zinder, Salman Masalha, Agi Mishol, Tal Nitzan, Irit Sela and Rami Saari - don't always measure up, the reader is invited to page through the English originals. Eden writes:
Much of the time my father was dying
Faster than all of us are dying, I was flying
(from "Things Like That")
But her flying, or rather, her scampering, is always treated with great restraint. The way Eden deals with personal disaster is always somewhere between "It's not so terrible" and "This may be as terrible as it gets." For instance, this is what she writes in "Pass the Time Please":
Listen to the news on the radio.
It does not criticize you
Arrange your letters in logical order.
Make your bed. Sweep. Dust the mirror.
Translate a fairy tale into a ballad.
Try names for the children you never had.
Go through your clothes and choose what to wear
to your divorce tomorrow. Wash your hair.
I would like to close by presenting in full the poem "Memorial Day":
Puddles of fire:
Slits of light
before the first
print silver scales
on the black river
as my son runs towards me
across the wide grass
hugging to his Wonderman T-shirt
two blackeyed susans yellow as suns
Oh blind me blind.
I think I know something about the connection between the "lamb-legged" son and the curse the poet wishes on herself. I'm not sure. But the heart breaks at the biblical conclusion of the poem.
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