Poet Agi Mishol is surprised she’s become hot stuff
The 65-year-old doesn’t see herself as a ‘national poet,’ but loves the fact that readers get what she’s on about.
When I get into her car, Agi Mishol is just uttering the famous opening of “The Waste Land”: “April is the cruelest month.” During the drive to her home in Kfar Mordechai, about 30 kilometers south of Tel Aviv, she repeats the words of T. S. Eliot. “That line is enigmatic,” she says. “Every time I find a different interpretation to it. There’s something unresolved about it.”
The strong scent of Tel Aviv begins to fade, and scenes of awakening nature now accompany us. We pass the cemetery at the entrance to the moshav. “S. Yizhar is buried here,” she says, driving on amid the untamed fields, as the attractive homes of the community slowly come into view.
When we enter her house, Mishol takes a long look at the newspaper her son Uri left on the dining room table. “God, look at this − I’m hot!” she laughs. “I’m in shock. Do you believe it? My book is listed as part of the ‘hot’ recommendations in a section that has nothing to do with the literary part of the paper.”
That surprises you?
“I’m very surprised. Me? Hot?” She happily savors the word. “And here I was feeling that I’m in my blue-gray period,” she adds, alluding to the dark and melancholy background color of the cover of her newest book, her 15th, “Sidur Avoda” (Hakibbutz Hameuchad).
The truth is that Mishol has been “hot” for more than two decades − or, put more decorously, has been considered the most prominent Israeli poetess of our era. In 2003, Prof. Dan Meron collected her poems in the anthology “Mivhar Vehadashim” (Selected and New Poems), and in a comprehensive essay, officially declared: “Agi Mishol belongs, without a doubt, to the dynasty of the great Hebrew poetesses − Rahel (Bluwstein), Yocheved Bat-Miriam, Esther Raab, Lea Goldberg, Dalia Rabikovitch and Yona Wallach.
Mishol is very popular with both readers and critics, and as soon as each new book of hers appears, it gains wide publicity and accolades. “Selected and New Poems” has sold 12,0000 copies (quite a large number for an Israeli poetry volume); her previous book, “Bikur Bayit (House Call), sold about 6,000. It’s been about a month since her new work came out; the first edition, of 2,000 copies, is already sold out, and the book is on the best-seller list.
Mishol is abashed when asked to comment on her success.
“I feel like I need to apologize a little,” she says hesitantly. “Sometimes, when people want to put me down they also call me ‘popular,’ because if poetry sells well then there must be an explanation ... The same sort of thing was said against Lea Goldberg. People claimed she was too simple and not intellectual enough, and I’ve read similar opinions recently about [Nobel Prize-winning poet] Wislawa Szymborska, too. It makes me very happy to know I have a lot of readers. It means that in my writing I am able to be myself in a way in which other people can also find themselves in it.”
Mishol is very far from the image of the melancholy poet. She laughs and jokes a lot, and during the interview does not display any of the mannerisms often associated with successful and famous people. “I occasionally hear myself called a ‘national poet,’ but this moniker puts me in mind of a type of leadership authority, and I’m not at all like that. I’m really not the type to preach and I have something of an aversion to people who have a firm opinion on every subject.”
She sees her work as being closer to that of Yehuda Amichai: “I know how to look, I’m good at seeing things. After Uri Zvi Greenberg, Natan Alterman and Haim Gouri, it seems the institution of ‘national poets’ declined. Another institution blossomed in its place, and its founder was Amichai − a civilian poet, one whose poetry is mostly personal, not focused on the ‘big’ things, but giving expression to the mood of Israelis. So in that sense I am a civilian poet. People also use my poems in contexts that are not literary.”
Is it important to you that your poetry be clear and accessible to readers?
“Yes. I know that can be viewed in many ways, and it bothers some people. They prefer another kind of poetics, one that’s more inscrutable. But for me clarity and accessibility are virtues. I think my poetry could be defined as vertical. I feel that I broadcast on many frequencies and each person picks up the frequency that’s right for his soul. One may pick up the plot, another may understand the poem on a philosophical level, another on a psychological level. And one can listen to the language, which is the most important thing to me, because poetry, no matter what it’s about, is first of all about the language. The subject of poetry is language.”
Mishol writes with pen and paper (“Inscribing Hebrew letters on white paper is a sensual pleasure I’m not ready to give up”) and only when the final version is ready does it go on the computer.
Is writing easy for you?
“No. If there’s a day when I write three words that have an electricity in them and I’m satisfied with them − that’s a fantastic day. But most of it gets tossed out. I liken it to ‘interrupted broadcasts.’ Sometimes, though very rarely, the whole ‘broadcast’ comes to me at once. My poems may be accessible but I actually work very hard on them. It’s very hard to write simply.”
In “Sidur Avoda,” the self-awareness, wisdom and irony that make up the internal syntax of Mishol’s poems give a sober but compassionate view of life.
“I don’t like book titles with portentous words like ‘sorrow’ or ‘death.’ It’s too strong and immediately paints an overly clear picture for the reader of the poetic feeling. But I definitely feel that this book is a refreshing way of writing about death,” she says, smiling. She adds that while this work does depict the feeling of time passing, it also contains a perspective “that looks at the things that are lost and the things that are gained.”
What does your profit and loss balance look like?
“We lose innocence, we lose the ability to deceive ourselves or to prettify things we don’t like − but we gain realism, we gain compassion, which is the most important thing one can gain. I think that a lot of my poems are written from a place of compassion. From a place that looks at things and doesn’t judge them, a place that understands weaknesses and views them as part of the human condition. Within compassion there is also a kind of love.”
Physical awareness is a strong aspect of the book. Have you come to terms with aging?
“The poem ‘Self-Portrait with Landscape in a Flash Photo’ is a poem about an ass,” she laughs. “I couldn’t have written a poem like that at age 30, I didn’t have the guts, and today I say − Yes, this is my body [quoting from ‘Self-Portrait]:
This bottom revealed to me by surprise In a mirror facing a mirror In a hotel bathroom In a foreign city − In the absence of anyone but myself − Is apparently mine
A pale lunar landscape
Craters and hills of cellulite
Upon which for the first time
I land and plant
(Translation by Vivian Eden)
Green outside, red inside
Agnes (Agi) Mishol was born 65 years ago in Transylvania, Romania, to Holocaust-survivor parents who were originally from Hungary. Her memory of the family’s immigration to Israel is “of a round window on a ship and waves” and an immigration clerk who Hebraized her name from Agi to Hagi.
“For years that’s what it said on my Israeli ID,” she says. “When I started getting letters from the Israel Defense Forces inviting me to try out for the pilots’ course, because they thought Hagi was a boy’s name, I changed it back to Agi.”
She is an only child. “My mother was in Auschwitz and my father was in a labor camp,” she says laconically. “They were a young Transylvanian couple whose world was suddenly turned upside down.” Before the war, however, her parents had another daughter. “My mother never told me how she died,” she continues. “I only learned about my sister’s existence when I was 15. All in know is that her name was Zsuzsi and that she came with my mother to Auschwitz and died there. My mother never talked about her. She would say that she didn’t remember and that it was a long time ago.”
After coming to Israel the family settled in Gedera: “We lived in a housing project. Until I went into the army I lived with my parents in a one-room apartment. I didn’t feel poor because everyone lived in the same conditions, but I didn’t have a bed of my own. There was an armchair and after any visitors went home it opened up and became a bed. I didn’t have a desk. I did homework and wrote poems at the dining table.”
The family had a small bicycle repair shop. “In time, the shop expanded to sell and repair electronics, and record players, and all that kind of stuff. My parents worked from morning till night and I grew up more or less alone. My parents were the kind that didn’t talk about the past. They avoided sharing it with me, but it trickled down to me in little snatches, such as the word lager (concentration camp), which I heard when they were playing cards around the table with their Holocaust-survivor friends. They themselves drew a line over the past and I was their eternal answer to everything that happened. I was a little girl who was dressed nicely, who sang and danced for guests and was always cheerful. I couldn’t disturb my parents, because they were Holocaust survivors. When I think back now on my life, there were some very difficult things that happened to me that my parents never knew about, or they weren’t around at the time.”
Mishol only began to write about her parents after they died. “I needed the distance, the perspective,” she explains.
What did you absorb from being the child of Holocaust survivors?
“In the poem ‘Holocaust, Memory, Independence,’ I write:
And I, Agi Mishol, second generation
Light torches of poems
That aren’t even deterrent weapons.
“I folded the whole second-generation psychology into this one line: For my parents I was like a torch, an Olympic torch that they managed to carry from there to here, to the safe haven of the State of Israel. But the second part of the line − ‘that aren’t even deterrent weapons,’ is said after their death, and it questions the power and ability of poetry, or art in general, in a reality like ours, to influence the social and moral course of events. Poetry can’t really politically influence the situation here. But that’s what I can do.”
In her new book, she lets the reader see more of her mother in her, she says. “Personality-wise, I’m more like my father. I’m a happy person. My mother is the sadness within me, which is less visible. It’s like the riddle: ‘What’s green on the outside and red on the inside?’ So on the outside I’m my father but on the inside I’m my mother.
“My mother was very pretty and gentle and withdrawn, you could even say melancholy,” she says. “My father had that Hungarian vitality, he had a sense of humor and loved life. I had a different kind of connection to each of them. I inherited my humor from my father. Lots of pranks and jokes. He was my joy. With my mother I had a different kind of bond, in a more emotional way, because of her sadness, her depression.
“They spoke Hungarian at home. I learned Hebrew outside the house, in school. My mother’s mother tongue was my mother tongue,” she adds. “I can speak Hungarian, but it’s the Hungarian of a child. And their Hebrew was very basic. Which means that they could never really understand what I write.”
It means you grew up lonely, doesn’t it?
“Yes, it’s a situation where you’re understood only up to a certain level without them really being able to enter your world,” says Mishol, pausing suddenly. “It is truly odd to grow up with parents who don’t understand the language and to end up being someone who deals with language, with poetry to boot. It’s like what Yona Wallach wrote in one of her poems that I love: ‘A grizzly she-bear reared me / Milk of the stars was my main nourishment.’ Like her, I didn’t nurse on mother’s milk but on the milk of the stars.”
At this point in your life, can you understand how you became a poet?
“I think so. I think that if you look at the psychology of poets you’ll always find something in their childhood - some insult or wound, a desire to prove something. I had a very primal motive: I was a new immigrant child, in a place full of Israeli sabras with deep roots in the country − a chubby, curly-haired girl at a time when everyone straightened their hair. I felt rejected in a way. I was a lousy student, and there were teachers who mocked me. Later on, in high school, they always wanted me to repeat a grade. One day I saw my report card − it was all ‘Fair, fair, unsatisfactory, etc’ − and I think that was the insult. That instilled the desire to prove something.
She began writing at a young age. “I still have my poetry notebook from high school. I can’t believe what ridiculous poems I wrote,” she adds.
In the army, Mishol served at the nuclear facility in Dimona. “I was the clerk for the head of the supply department and I remember there was this feeling of pride in the unit because everything was so top-secret. The army tried to hide the fact that we were soldiers: We wore civilian clothes instead of uniforms and lived in houses in Dimona. And I remember (nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai) Vanunu too.”
“Yes, yes,” she says with a smile. “But all I remember is that he was a civilian employee of the IDF while I was a clerk making copies of documents that said things like ‘heavy water.’”
During her military service she also started studying literature at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva. She self-published her first book, “Kodem Tafasti Rega,” when she was just 18 and a half.
“I had to pay for it,” she blushes. “My parents agreed to finance it. I signed the poems simply ‘Agi’ − like Rahel. It was very important to me to feel that pleasure of holding a book with my name on it, but when I opened it and started to read, I felt ashamed. I went to all the bookstores and collected all the copies, and I even stole one copy that was in the National Library. I destroyed them all. I always like to say that it’s a book that sold out in its first printing.”
She married at 19 and a half. “It was a very short marriage that lasted less than a year, because I was panicked by the thought that life was over.”
After the divorce she moved to Jerusalem. She enrolled at the Hebrew University and also joined Yehuda Amichai’s writing workshop. “It was the only workshop I ever did. At the end he gave me a copy of a book by Else Lasker-Schuler that he translated, inscribed with this dedication: ‘To Agi, sister poet, with my mediation.’ And I thought well if he says I’m a poet then I must really be a poet.”
In the 1970s she published three slender volumes: “Nanny and Both of Us” (1972); “A Cat’s Scratch” (1978) and “Gallop” (1980). Her poetry caught the attention of scholars like Prof. Adi Tzemach, who wrote a glowing review of her debut volume in 1973, and like the late critic Yoram Bronowski.
In Jerusalem she met Giora Mishol, who worked in the Absorption Ministry’s student department. After she finished her master’s degree, they moved to Kfar Mordechai, which grows peaches, persimmons and pomegranates on 150 dunams (about 37 acres).
“Only 20 dunams are ours, the rest are leased lands from all the other kibbutzim that gave up on agriculture. I’m a city mouse and country mouse,” she declares. “My social and professional life takes place in Tel Aviv, but I still keep up my country persona, even though Giora is the real farmer. He retired two years ago and he’s one of the last real farmers left here.”
When she was 37 she published “Yoman Mata” (Plantation Notes), which earned rave reviews and really introduced the world to her fresh and powerful poetic voice.
“It was during my adjustment time to Kfar Mordechai,” she recalls. “In those years we were building the kibbutz, there was a Zionist spirit in the air. It was true poetry of the land. I drove a tractor. I harvested fruit. Friends and family pitched in to pack the fruit in crates and I decorated them with grape leaves. I remember selling crates of peaches by the side of the road along with copies of ‘Plantation Notes.’ We had the joy of hard labor then. We did it all alone. Nowadays everything is commercialized. I think about that time with nostalgia.”
“Plantation Notes” changed the course of her life. “I wrote it at a relatively late age and after a ‘silence’ of seven years, but in writing it I really understood that I was committed to poetry. Suddenly I felt very clearly that this was the path for me. I realized that the apprenticeship period was over. Before writing that book I didn’t know that poetry was the main axis of my existence.”
Ever since then, Mishol’s work has often been referred to as poetry of the land written by a woman, or as belonging to the eco-poetic stream or, more recently, as a modern poetry of nature.
“Tell me, what is that supposed to mean: nature poetry?” says Mishol, a bit taken aback. “When you say ‘nature’ people think of vast landscapes. Mountains, seas, forests. But I feel I’m basically writing about my own natural reality, which contains some nature and animals. S. Yizhar (who was a close friend) was once asked about the descriptions of nature in his books and he said something that I identify with: He said he was basically writing about the landscape between Gedera and Rehovot. That’s how I feel ... I feel that my work is concrete poetry taken from daily life. Every one of my ‘nature poems’ also talks about human nature. Ultimately, it’s always human nature that interests me. I won’t write a poem that’s about a compost heap and nothing else.”
Mishol has seven cats and a dog (“Two of my old dogs died this year”). In the course of the interview, various cats saunter into the room and nuzzle her. Mishol chats with each one. “Look how skinny she is,” she says with concern about one plump member of the bunch. “Wait a minute, I have to give her some butter. She’s 22 − isn’t that amazing? I can’t live without animals,” she admits. “It’s always been this way, since I was a little kid. I really feel them and understand their body language.”
Cats, her old dog Libby who died, an ostrich, a fly, turtles, salamanders, birds, chickens and even a slug − all are among the creatures living amid the lines of her new poems.
“You know that habit cats have? How they’ll take a newspaper or notebook and sit on it? How could they not wind up in the poems? They’re sitting on them,” she laughs. “Sometimes it seems like they’re reviewing the poems and making comments. When a cat is covering a few lines with his tail it’s as if he’s saying: Take that part out, you don’t need that.”
In 2003 Mishol was stunned to receive a call from Prof. Dan Meron informing her that the Bialik Institute had decided to publish a collection of all her writings.
“Usually they do that when a person has stopped writing, or died. It was flattering but I asked for time to think about it since I was still alive,” she smiles. “I added new poems to what was then ‘my life’s work,’ and I chose a bright red cover, so it shouldn’t look anything like a tombstone.”
What has changed over the years in your poetic language?
“When you’re a young poet you’re so intoxicated with your skills, and your poetry is very metaphorical. It’s like you are testing your abilities. When you get older or further along, you care less about the how and more about the what. You want to say something and you can, because you have something to say. You’re not afraid of being more direct, more blunt, more vulnerable. I love Dahlia Rabikovitch’s later poetry, which is political. It’s very direct. I think the same process happened to me. You slough off all the ‘skills’ and get down to the real bones of the thing.”
How do you respond to criticism that says your poetry ought to be more political, given your standing in the literary world?
“To me that’s not an aesthetic criterion − whether or not poetry is political. There are poets who never wrote anything political and that doesn’t detract from their stature in any way. And then there are poets who are political, but whose poetry is not on such a high level aesthetically. But in a place like Israel it’s impossible to avoid being political, because reality seeps in from every direction. It’s the air I breathe here. I have some clearly political poems like ‘The Olive Tree 2002’ and ‘Shahida.’ In ‘House Call’ there is the poem ‘Hakotzer’ (The Harvester) which on the surface is about a tractor harvesting a field while being oblivious to the animals that dwell there and wreaking disaster. It’s a description of Gaza and of how whole neighborhoods were razed there. So is that an example of eco-poetry? It depends on who’s reading it.”
In ‘Sidur Avoda’ there are poems against the exclusion of women and “haredization.” How important is it to you for your writing to make a public stand on issues?
“I have no agenda. I don’t say to myself, okay now I’m going to write a poem about an issue that has the country in an uproar. My poetry is not meant to serve any cause. Poetry should be free. There are very few poems written for a cause that are very good on their own terms. I don’t feel that because I’m a poet it gives me the authority to advise the government whether or not to bomb Iran,” she says, pointing to a corner of the house where a new fortified room has just been added on. “We just built it. It cost a ton of money but missiles were starting to fly around here. I feel like I’m always cringing. I am genuinely afraid of what might happen.”
Mishol’s two children live nearby in Kfar Mordechai. Her first child, a boy, died when he was just three weeks old. “As the result of some medical error, I don’t know exactly. It wasn’t a time when people sued or investigated. I just remember the doctor telling me, ‘Hurry up and have another one.’ I didn’t share my feelings with my parents at all. It’s a hard thing. You come home from the hospital after three weeks empty-handed. I repressed it all. I think that it’s only in recent years that I’ve really grieved over it. I was a young woman of 26, sailing into life, and the whole thing just really scared me. I must have used every repression and denial technique known to man, and I got pregnant again soon afterward.”
Her daughter Maya was born a year later. Now 37, she is a jazz singer and composer, a graduate of the Rimon School of Music, and a mother of two. Mishol’s son Uri, 35, started a successful high-tech company called Xoreax that has offices in Tel Aviv and Japan.
“He is also into spirituality and leads workshops on spiritual development,” says Mishol. “Now I’m watching my grandchildren develop. They’re at the stage where they’re just acquiring language and it’s fascinating. Children are natural poets.”
Your children don’t appear in your poems at all.
“My children are like a resolved issue for me. An internal department for me. I don’t have any conflicts with them. They may have, but I don’t.”
Mishol still writes her poems, as she did in childhood, at the kitchen table. “I don’t have a separate office. I have a corner,” she says. “I love writing on the Formica table which is like my prayer rug. It’s absorbed all the energy from years of writing and it’s in a spot that gets lots of natural light and where I can see everything around. But I can’t write there if anyone is at home. Even if they’re outside.”
So you really need a house of your own, not just a room of your own.
“Yes, and it’s not so easy for Giora, especially since he retired. I was used to having the house to myself all the time. Now he has to put up with me. If he gets up in the morning and I’m writing just then, I can’t talk. It’s not easy. As much as one might understand it, it can still be hurtful.”
When Giora comes in from the field, Agi brings him into the conversation. “I was just saying how married life is no easy thing.” Giora nods and says: “I think she’s lucky to have me.” Then he smiles and returns to the fields.
Agi: “He doesn’t go around in my poetry circles. He has his own circles. When there’s an event in my honor, he comes of course, but literature isn’t his thing. He reads my books and knows about my writing because there’s no escaping it, because I’m a talker. But I think it’s liberating this way. I wouldn’t be able to live with another poet. If I lived with another poet he would see me too much. He would invade my space. I can’t have someone seeing me all the time.”
It sounds like a replay of your relationship with your parents − your inner world and your engagement with language is off-limits to your spouse.
“That’s true. A psychologist once told me the same thing. Our bond is more emotional than verbal. It’s a repetition of a pattern where I live with people who hear me but don’t enter with me into the same world. That way it stays protected. It always goes back to childhood. It’s an experience of loneliness and isolation. My writing is a closed world.”
And you like it that way?
“Very much. It’s a source of great joy, this aloneness. A girlfriend once said to me: The best situation is to be married with children, and home all by yourself,” she laughs. “Marriage is a very long road for two people. Living with one person is a challenge. As the years go by, husbands become more like relatives. The attentiveness that you have as a young couple in love is very strong. Everything the other person says interests you. In marriage this feeling fades after a while. And a person searches for this kind of attention, because you want to be seen and heard. You can’t live without this attentiveness.”
Your love poems are very open.
“When I come to a crossroads and I have to be true to the poem or true to life, regardless of what people will say and all that, then my loyalty is always to the poem. I never censor anything. If the poem requires truth then I am loyal to the poem even at the cost of life or gossip or anything like that. Giora and I have been living together for 40 years and that’s a very long time. In these years Giora has learned to know me and my needs. It’s not always easy for him but we have this friendship between us.”
A skewered bird
A week later we met at the Helicon School of Poetry in Tel Aviv. For the past year, since school founder Amir Or retired, Mishol has been running it together with writer Dror Burstein. “We’re a steering committee,” she explains. “He’s responsible for the Helicon journal and publishing house, and I’m responsible for the school, the workshops and the content.”
Mishol is presiding over an editing workshop for advanced students, with poets Dori Manor and Noam Partom as guests. At the break she asks a student for a cigarette and goes out to the corridor to smoke.
“You can only be a young poet once,” she says. “I’ve always enjoyed my encounters with them over the years. It reminds me of myself. I know what a sensitive and vulnerable existence it can be. With experience, I’ve come to be able to identify that poet ‘core’ in a person and to help bring it out into the world. Not to force it, but to enable it. And to be there to teach.”
Can poetry be taught?
“Nobody is going to become a poet because he took a workshop. Bialik didn’t go to a workshop, and Lea Goldberg didn’t go to one. It’s not a pipeline that you enter on one side and come out the other side a poet. At the start of every workshop I say that whoever can escape should do so. It can be very frustrating and agonizing. I think that workshops can help develop sensitivities, make someone into a better, more sensitive reader. If somebody’s got what it takes to be a poet, a workshop can help expand his knowledge, give him a collection of tools. But it can’t give him the essential skill. It can’t teach him metaphorical thinking.”
Do you feel under-appreciated in the poetry world?
“The moment someone becomes prominent, there are always some who want to throw stones [at him]. So that has happened to me too on occasion. There are people who don’t like my poetry and who say mean things about me without really knowing me. Interestingly, in the literary world, which is supposed to be so civilized, the venom and violence can be quite intense. I’m far from feeling oppressed though. Awards are important for young poets who need recognition, or for poets on the decline who are concerned now with summing up their work.
“I’m at a good place somewhere in the middle. I’m very proud of the Amichai Prize for poetry that I received because Amichai was my teacher and his poetry has always been a part of my life. I admit that every so often I do hope to win a particular prize, like the Prime Minister’s Prize, which would make it possible to take a year off to devote solely to writing, but then I don’t get it.”
Asked what poetry means to her, she responds enthusiastically: “It’s ‘Enemies: A Love Story.’ It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in the sense that I have an outlet. Amichai wrote in one of his poems: ‘Always something is excreted / Sometimes pus, sometimes poetry.’ If I didn’t have poetry then I would always be oozing pus. But I have this possibility through poetry to transform pain into joy, and it’s a blessing that I’m a poet in Hebrew, which is a holy tongue for me.”
In class, Mishol tells her students: “It’s hard to make any absolute pronouncements about poetry. Anything you say about it − the opposite is true too. Poetry cannot be defined or explained. It’s like trying to catch a butterfly in flight.”
‘Planted in the landscape’
“Agi Mishol is without a doubt one of our most popular poets,” says Prof. Uzi Shavit, CEO and editor of the Hakibbutz Hameuchad publishing house, especially given the fact that poetry books are generally not big sellers and bookstores aren’t eager to stock works that aren’t profitable.
How do you explain her popularity?
Shavit: “Her poetry is planted in the Israeli landscape, in Israeli nature. She doesn’t try to create poetry that’s estranged from the reader. She’s not thought of as a political poet, although she doesn’t refrain from relating to social and political issues. You could say that she’s returning to the traditional role of poetry, to the human being and the human condition. This is the center of life in her poetry and it touches a lot of people. Her poetry has clarity and simplicity.
“In terms of where she fits in with the dynasty of Israeli poets, I’d say that she is the successor to Rahel, with the beautiful clarity and simplicity of her work. In the past, critics mistakenly called Rahel’s work’s simplistic. But it’s poetry whose simplicity has much depth and complexity.”
“Agi Mishol has a very broad poetic spectrum,” says poet Haim Gouri. “All flora and fauna near and far, varied and colorful landscapes, love and romance, powerful eroticism, revealing and concealing, being the only child of Holocaust survivors who personally experienced the worst. Because often the child who can’t fall asleep listens in on Mom and Dad’s conversation. It is poetry filled with rich metaphors and ongoing observation of the human condition. An entire world appears in her poetry in miniature. Just a few short lines do the whole job. And Mishol just keeps getting better with time. I think the new book is her best one so far.”
It was only the rat’s tail
A long dead tail
That the cats left on the WELCOME
At the entrance.
Now they are basking in the sun
Licking the paw
Across their face
Very proud of the offering
They laid at my door.
I pick up the tail
That will never wag again
Wrap it in paper
And thank them profusely.
Only inside the house
So as not to offend
I bury it slowly
In the pail.
Translated by Vivian Eden
Ostrich (the poet leafs through drafts)
He created the ostrich from leftover bits of all things of which
He couldn’t say: “It was good.”
He created it at the end of a particularly
Difficult day, exhausted and unfocused.
It was dark. The creatures were running around and
He hadn’t the strength to start new things.
He attached a goat’s legs to a hen’s toes
That were a bit oversized
And attached to rosy thighs a bird’s torso
In a skirt of black plumes.
The proportions hint at a draft of something
He hadn’t the strength to bring
The wings, for example, can’t carry the body
(He had been so focused back when
He created the pomegranate) and the head, if that’s
What you can call a beak and two eyes, is nothing
But a place where the overlong (so be it) neck loses
Perhaps because of this
He felt a need to make amends with some bests:
In addition to being the biggest bird
On this earth and the fastest beast on two legs
Whose feathers adorn hats and boas
And whose eggs are used as bowls
From which lampshades can also be made −
He also granted the ostrich
Quite contrary to the facts
The metaphor of the head in the sand.
Translated by Vivian Eden
My Dog Libby
The old dog has already forgotten who she is.
Can’t hear, can’t see, only her nose
twitches after the tail of a scent.
She stands in the middle of space
like a stone, a tree
a fence − can’t hear, can’t see
her legs already buckling but
she forgets to sit.
“Circling,” says the vet − aimlessly, round and round,
demented like humans
The switch of her life is under my finger
but I’m not sure whether she’s suffering
or I am.
So I just caress her head
and go visit the woman whose life switch is under someone else’s finger.
Translated by Vivian Eden
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