With Lea, in Limbo

Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden
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Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden

"Selected Poetry and Drama" by Lea Goldberg; poetry translated and introduced by Rachel Zvia Back; drama translated by T. Carmi and introduced by Matti Megged, Toby Press, New Milford, Conn. and London, $14.95

For the Protestant John Milton, Limbo was "a Paradise of fools," and one of the last things that Cardinal Ratzinger did before he became Pope Benedict XVI, and infallible, was to head a committee of theologians that discussed the possibility of eliminating limbo from Catholic Church doctrine.

Limbo, which derives from the Latin word for "edge" or "border," and is related to "limnal," is a medieval theological construct for the place in the cosmos where unbaptized babies spend eternity, not unhappily but not in perfect communion with God either. However, the Vatican cannot abolish limbo for us. Limbo is a good description of the "neither here nor there" where so many of us in the State of Israel exist (though not, of course, for eternity), in a "Paradise of fools," between the culture from which we came and the culture in which we live. Perhaps we are happy sometimes, as Lea Goldberg says in one of her poems (below), but there is never perfect communion.

Counting Jews who were born in other countries and Arab Israelis who were born here into a culture and language different from the dominant Hebrew language and culture, nearly half of us experience considerable segments of our lives in languages other than Hebrew. No matter what language we may be using at any given moment, many of our thoughts and assumptions, both conscious and unconscious, are from elsewhere. We hover in a state of perpetual suspension.

In "Pine," the first section of her long poem "Trees" in the collection "Lightening in the Morning" (1955), Goldberg writes: "Perhaps only the migrating birds know ... / suspended as they are between earth and sky ... / this heartache of two homelands" (page 91).

Lea Goldberg was born in 1911 in East Prussia and spent her early years in Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania, where she attended the Hebrew Gymnasium, adding fluent Hebrew to her Russian mother-tongue and fluent German. She began her university studies in Kovno, and then went on to study in Berlin and Bonn, completing a doctorate in Semitic studies in 1933. She came to Palestine on a "certificate" from the British Mandate in 1935, and in 1936 brought over her mother, with whom she lived for the rest her life until Lea died of cancer in 1970.

Goldberg was separated from her father at the age of six when he became mentally ill. The psychologically inclined might speculate that as a result, she never formed a long-term relationship with a man, though there were frustrated love stories. She lived in Tel Aviv from 1935 to 1952, working at various literary jobs, and then moved to Jerusalem to take up a position as lecturer in European literature at the Hebrew University, where she eventually became a professor and where, according to Rachel Zvia Beck's informative and learned introduction, she "was an extravagantly popular lecturer with hundreds of students flocking to her lectures, which she delivered in a voice characterized as strange and smoke-filled" (page 13).

I can attest to the veracity of this observation, having taken one of her courses in 1966-1967. The class notes I took in a simultaneous and possibly erroneous translation are lost, but I remember being awed both by her erudition and what only can be described as her fragile toughness. I never knew whether I wanted to wad her protectively in cotton or follow her fearlessly into the thick of battles with ideas.

Memories of memories

Then the aerials on the city's roofs were

like the masts of Columbus' ships

and every raven that perched on their tips

announced a new continent.

And the kit-bags of travelers walked the streets

and the language of a foreign land

cut through the heat of the day

like the blade of a cold knife.

How could the air of the small city

bear so many

childhood memories, wilted loves,

rooms which were emptied somewhere?

Like pictures blackening in a camera,

the clear cold nights reversed

rainy summer nights across the sea

and shadowy mornings of great cities.

And the sound of footsteps behind your back

drum the marching songs of foreign troops

and it seems - if you but turn your head

there is your hometown church floating on the sea.

In "Tel Aviv 1935" (page 134) - the first section of a long poem called "The Shortest Journey," published in her 1964 collection "With This Night" - Goldberg writes about her first year in this country, in a work that demonstrates many of the themes and devices in her poetry that are exemplified in this collection. She did not share the prevailing agricultural Zionist ethos of most of the founding generation, but rather was very much an urban person and persona. Many of the other poems also refer to cities, streets, cafes and the like, as for example "From the Songs of My Beloved Land," of which the penultimate stanza (page 109) is: "And so I'll walk every street and corner, / every market and yard, alley and park, and from the ruins of your walls I'll gather / every small stone as a keepsake." (Readers might be familiar with Chava Alberstein's haunting rendition of this poem in Hebrew, "Mishirei eretz ahavati," to music by Dafna Eilat, arranged by Alex Weiss).

In "Tel Aviv 1935," the location and the time are specific and autobiographical, and the subject matter is the poet's memories. However, the speaker is not "I" and is not anyone in particular. The speaker is disembodiment embodied, the right voice for this poem. In other poems, Goldberg did make effective use of the first person, sometimes as a dramatic character, as in the sonnet sequence "The Love of Teresa De Meun" (some of these sonnets are translated on pages 98-104), written in the voice of a 16th-century French noblewoman of 40, hopelessly in love with her children's young tutor.

Goldberg packs a lot into the simile in the first stanza of "Tel Aviv 1935." The aerials on the rooftops there are like "the masts of Columbus' ships / and every raven that perched on their tips / announced a new continent." In the palimpsest of 1935 and 1492 - Christopher Columbus thought he had found the place he was looking for, but it was really somewhere quite different - the scene is a limbo between "now" and "then," and the "ravens" are Noah's as well as Edgar Allen Poe's.

She makes a similar move of conflating literary time zones, for example, in "A Look at a Bee" (page 144) from the same collection, combining biblical and folktale fields of reference: "How can we crown her with songs of praise? / How can we sing and what? / A small child will come and say: / The Queen has no clothes." The first two lines of this stanza are from various verses in Deuteronomy, 2 Samuel and Psalms; the second two lines slyly modify the story of the emperor's new clothes. Living creatures (and plants) in Goldberg's poetry are never simply naturalistically observed; they always carry symbolic, intertextual and metaphorical kit-bags. In the second stanza, the disembodiment is augmented by the kit-bags - not the travelers themselves - that "walked" the street. Is the "foreign land" here Tel Aviv, or one of the countries from which the many immigrants of the 1930s had come?

At the very center of the poem, stanza 3 is formulated as a question, casting uncertainty into syntax: "The childhood memories, wilted loves, / rooms which were emptied somewhere" cited here are the materials of many of the poems. Like, for example, in "The remains of Life" (page 186): "We were very young / and very poor / our lives a patchwork. / We read books / and in the evening we went dancing ... / and sometimes we were even happy. // We were young without hope / we grew up without faith // we grow old without complaint."

She is a camera

The "wilted loves" are also omnipresent in Goldberg's diaries, published last year in Hebrew by Sifriat Poalim, which are peppered with phrases in French, English, Russian, German and Italian. In their loneliness and lack of resolution, the loves in the poems and the diaries are structurally parallel and emotionally equivalent to the cultural and geographical disjunction. Upon returning to Jerusalem from a trip to Europe early in 1964, for example, she wrote in her diary (page 471, Hebrew): "My return home was like a nightmare: A person who has crossed a long bridge and instead of finding himself on the opposite bank, there he is in the same place he had left ... I try to persuade myself: 'After all, you're not an idiot, and who is he, anyway!' This helps me for a few hours a day, sometimes even an entire day. And afterward it all begins again, and the memory and the humiliation in Siena ..."

"He" was a charming Italian lecturer on whom she had a prolonged, obsessive and unreciprocated crush. In the fourth stanza of "Tel Aviv 1935," Goldberg develops another complex simile. Here and there, clarity and shadow, are "reversed" through the process in the camera. In these lines the persona of the speaker in the poem is likened by implication to a photographer, to someone whose vision of the world (at least in 1935) translates it into black and white and gray, light and shadow. Indeed, apart from "black" and "white" and metallic words like "gold" and "silver," or adjectives like "dark" and "bright," there are only very few color words scattered through Goldberg's poetry.

Like a series of photographs, each of the stanzas of "Tel Aviv 1935," is of the same size and each is a complete sentence. Each stanza is a self-contained image of the city, unconnected to the next by the syntax, specific content, rhyme or other emphatic repetition apart from the shape. Up to this point, the poem is in the past tense, fixed in time. In the final stanza, it jolts into the present tense, and this present that is superimposed on the narrative here and now is also a past, and is elsewhere, and not in its right place: "your hometown church floating on the sea."

And what are the "foreign troops?" The border police who pulled Goldberg's father off the train to Lithuania in 1917, arrested and tortured him as a "Bolshevik spy?" The Brown Shirts mustering in Europe in 1935? His Britannic Majesty's forces in the service of the Mandate? Perhaps all of these at once, and more. The punch-line force of this stanza comes from a sharp shift in the drama as well as in the grammar: The discourse swings from monologue to dialogue. While there is still no "I" here, but only an eye, suddenly there is a "you" - a masculine, singular you, a specific person whom the speaker has in mind or may be the reader, who is yanked alive into the poem, becoming part of the final shot.

As this poem exemplifies, Lea Goldberg had total command of all the tools that poetic language offers, from grammar and syntax to metaphor and imagery to intertextual resonance.

Shrine to Our Lady

And what about the translations? Some of the notes at the end of the poetry section provided by Rachel Zvia Beck, herself a poet, afford insight into specific points relating to them. In her introduction she writes that "with a strong conviction that Goldberg's own poetic choices were fully considered and conscious, I have chosen as my guiding principle to stay as close as possible to Goldberg's Hebrew originals ... In places where it seems her choices were motivated primarily by the meter or rhyme of the line ... I have allowed myself to deviate from the Hebrew" (page 22).

An admirable principle, and by and large the translator adheres to it successfully. One example from "Tel Aviv 1935": There is only one perfect rhyme-pair in the Hebrew version, and also only one perfect rhyme-pair in the English, but in a different place. Sometimes translation is a lot like chess, moving pieces around on a board; you have to lose some in order to gain tactical advantages. My one quibble with the translation of "Tel Aviv 1935" comes in stanza 2. In Hebrew, the verb is not "cut through," but rather "was stuck (in)" (hayita nin'etzet), which seems a much more oppressive image than a clean slice. However, substituting "heat of the day" for hamsin - which would require either explanation or the awkward and geographically inaccurate use of a meteorological equivalent like "sirocco" or "foehn" - is an effective move, sacrificing local color for swift comprehension.

The title of the book, "Selected Poetry and Drama," is a bit of misnomer: There was really no drama to select from, as the one play included in the book, "Lady of the Castle," is the only drama by Lea Goldberg that was published and produced, initially at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv in 1956 and subsequently in translations into various languages. I haven't seen a copy of the original in Hebrew, but personally, I'd rely fully on the accuracy and effectiveness of any of T. Carmi's many translations, to and from Hebrew.

As Matti Megged notes in his introduction, this play "turns on a known and specific historical matter: the saving of Jewish children from the different places where they had hidden or been hidden by non-Jews during the Nazi regime in Europe, in those cases where the benefactors had no intention of returning the children to their people" (page 239). Megged argues that the "real, inner conflict of the play is not the visible conflict between the emissaries from Israel and Lena, the girl who has been hidden in the Castle, or the Count, its former owner ... The essence of the conflict is the uncompromising conflict between two different spiritual-intellectual worlds" (page 240).

Well, maybe, but from the distance of 50 years, much of the dialogue sounds - I hate to say this - like agit-prop for the post-war Zionist vision and reality: "The past, my dear," says the male emissary, "has many things which watchmaker's sons should also know, and even love. Even [Count] Zabrodsky's past. What to take from this past ... that we'll decide for ourselves ... that's why we can afford to be mediocre and fulfill our obligations silently" (page 273-274). In the final scene, naturally, Lena agrees to leave with the emissaries.

Alas, Lea Goldberg was not infallible. Don't bother to read the play, but do buy this book, for the poetry. In the poems "the conflict between two different spiritual-intellectual worlds" is never neatly resolved - and therein lies their glory. Thanks to this unbalancing balancing act and Goldberg's artistry in her main medium, the poetry is sublime and speaks to anyone who has experienced cultural or emotional limbo. If Israel had a Pope, and if I were she, I would build a floating shrine off the shore of Tel Aviv dedicated to Lea Goldberg, Our Lady of Perpetual Existential Jetlag.