Poet of the Resistance

Shiri Lev-Ari
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Shiri Lev-Ari

By his very nature, Meir Wieseltier attracts attention. It is hard not to notice him: A tall man with a mane of white hair and manners and mannerisms of his own. When he gets excited, he speaks loudly, attracting the glances of passersby. Wieseltier, 67, a very Tel Avivian poet, has almost disappeared from the literary scene in recent years. Eight years have gone by since he published his last collection, "Shirim Itiyim" ("Slow Poems"). He hardly ever appears at literary events, poetry readings or festivals. On the shelves of a number of large Tel Aviv bookstores - all of them chains - one won't find any copies of his books. Wieseltier, a winner of the Israel Prize for Poetry, should be there, right between Yona Wallach and Natan Zach, in alphabetical order - but his poetry is absent. This doesn't look right.

"In fact it looks very right to me - according to the accepted norms here. It would seem very strange to me if I walked into a Steimatzky store and saw my books," he says. "The problem is when you live outside of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Let's say that someone in Netanya - which is a very big city, the place where I grew up - is looking for one of my books and doesn't find it. It's a problem because he won't have anywhere to go. But in Tel Aviv, any book lover will already know which store to go to."

You have distanced yourself from the literary scene.

Wieseltier: "The Israeli literary scene has never proved very attractive to me, even less so during the past decade. And if I do attend some event, I usually suffer."

Aren't you keen to publish a new book?

"I should have done that long ago, and I even promised the publishing house three years ago that I would edit a book, but it hasn't worked out."

How do you earn your living?

"Who makes a living from poetry books? I teach at Haifa University and I translate. During this past year I've mainly been living off of my savings."

Wieseltier suffered a stroke last October. Although it was defined as minor, he has suffered many problems since. "Apparently it happened because of high blood pressure and because I was a heavy smoker. I have since quit."

In one of your poems you wrote: "To stop smoking is a stage in the return to smoking."

"Even now I'm saying that I'll take up smoking again in a year and a half. According to medical statistics, if you haven't suffered another stroke two years after having the first, then you in effect revert to being like everyone else with respect to the likelihood of a stroke. It's difficult for me not to smoke, because cigarettes had become an integral part of my concentration process."

It was a "very directed" stroke, he says. "It was as though some demon had sat there and invented a special one for me. I felt dizzy and bad, and it didn't pass. It was evening, I was home alone and I lay down to rest. Suddenly I received a text message and I couldn't read it. I tried to read some other text - and although I could see the letters, I wasn't able to read. I made myself do mental and physical exercises and everything was fine. I thought that maybe the fact that I had spent the previous day working on the computer for many hours had befuddled me and tired my eyes. I went to sleep for a few hours but even after I woke up I couldn't read. Then I went to see a doctor.

"I did a CT scan and they found edema in my brain. The only treatment I was willing to accept was aspirin. Gradually my ability to read returned. Writing wasn't a problem at all - I write all the time. My handwriting didn't change one bit."

In his book "Motzah El-Hayam" ("Exit into the Sea"), Wieseltier wrote: "out of a gluttrered slumber I rise with a love of words / just as an old love suddenly wakes / to smoothe out a crease in my memory. // and already I've said / on the run: form has turned into matter, soul into flesh // and the flesh is trapped - / biology / history / narrative and death" (translation by Shirley Kaufman).

Where do you write your poems?

"There are no particular places. Poems are the children of time, not place, they come from within a conjunction in time. I have written poems at my desk, I have written while riding a bus. Each poem is a different story. I am not worried when I haven't written for a long time. I don't care. I have published 12 books so far and even if I never write another poem in my life - I have written enough. Even what I have already written they haven't really read. I see many things in my poems that others haven't seen."

Soaked in harsh history

In the poem that opens his book "Kach" ("Take It"), he writes: "Take poems but don't read them / do violence to this book: / Spit on it, kick it / wring its neck. // Throw this book in the sea / to see if it can swim. / Hold it over a gas stove / to see if it doesn't burn. / Nail it, saw through it / to see if it resists: // This book is a paper rag / letters like flies - and you / are a rag of flesh, you eat dust, ooze / blood, stare at it, snooze" (translation by Shirley Kaufman).

For 20 years now, Wieseltier has been living in his apartment at 69 Mazeh Street. He lives alone. He doesn't have a relationship at present; "Girlfriends are enough for me," he says. His daughters and his granddaughters live within walking distance. He has a few friends - none of them are poets.

His biography is soaked in the harsh history of the 20th century. He was born in Moscow in 1941. A few months after his birth, his father was sent to fight on the Russian front and was killed. Wieseltier grew up with his mother, grandmother and two sisters. Later they went to live in Novosibirsk; in 1946 they moved to Poland and then to Germany. Wieseltier came to Israel in 1949. At age 18, he moved with his family to the Montefiore neighborhood in Tel Aviv.

Just before his conscription into the army, he published his first two poems in Massa (a literary supplement). Wieseltier did not complete his military service. When he was released, on psychological grounds, he began publishing poems regularly. He belonged to a group of young poets active during the 1960s, who included Yona Wallach and Yair Horowitz. They worked alongside poets like Natan Zach, David Avidan, Yehuda Amichai and Dahlia Ravikovitch.

He married Varda Raziel (now) Jacont at a young age, but the marriage did not last long. The two had a daughter, Natalia. Afterward, he was married for 11 years to Etti Wieseltier. They also had a daughter, Marta. Now he has three granddaughters: 15-year-old Dana, Natalia's daughter, as well as 10-year-old Zohar and 6-year-old Maya, Marta's daughters. "I love them, and I think that they love me, too, in some way, though I don't like to boast of the title grandfather," he says.

As noted, he has published 12 books of poetry, among them "Perek Aleph, Perek Bet" ("Chapter 1, Chapter 2") in 1967; "Meah Shirim" ("100 Poems") in 1969; "Take It" in 1973; "Davar Optimi, Asiat Shirim" ("Something Optimistic, the Making of a Poem") in 1976; "Exit to the Sea" in 1981; "Mahsan" ("Storehouse") in 1995; and "Slow Poems" in 2000. Over the years, Wieseltier has translated the best plays of the classic theater by Shakespeare, Moliere and Brecht. In 2000 he was awarded the Israel Prize for Literature. His poems are confrontational, shouting out against moral injustices, political stupidity and human existence that inevitability ends in death.

Do you miss the group of poets of the 1960s?

"A group of poets is good when you're young. Afterward you can remain friends with one of them, maybe two, and even that's a lot. I was a friend of Horowitz's but then he went and died. It's unbelievable, but it's been 20 years since his death. Within 10 years, between 1954 and 1964, a lot of good poets emerged in Israel. This is apparently the result of the energy of the revival, of the establishment of the state and the Hebrew language. That was the first generation of poets who spoke Hebrew at home - at least some of them did. Zach's parents didn't speak Hebrew. I spoke Hebrew with my sister, but with my mother I spoke only Yiddish. Wallach spoke only Hebrew. She, by the way, is the only poet who not only didn't know another language but also never went abroad."

Tel Aviv's suicide

You have a complicated relationship with Tel Aviv, a love-hate relationship.

"I write in Tel Aviv, and I'm very urban," Wieseltier says. "I love nature, but can't stand it for more than three days. I not only love Tel Aviv, I also hate it. Tel Avivians are whores, they sell the city cheaply. It's a city without integrity. If some contractor comes along and offers a brilliant plan to destroy all of Rothschild Boulevard gradually - they will agree because this brings in a lot of money. It isn't the municipality that is to blame, but rather the inhabitants. The municipality wouldn't keep on with this if there were strong resistance. Tel Aviv, after all, is committing suicide. There is no Tel Aviv any more - it's just registered in the municipal minutes. There is a territory called Gush Dan. What's the difference between Tel Aviv's new neighborhoods and Bat Yam? The city's character has become extinct."

The key word when it comes to Wieseltier's view of human existence in general and Israeli society in particular is "resistance." "Existence is resistance," he says. "A dead person doesn't resist anything. They take him away, turn him on his back, on his belly, they put a tube up his bottom and he doesn't object. A living person resists, to the extent that he can. This is the essence of existence - that of a person, a city, a country. But in Israeli society there is no resistance. And therefore Israel is less and less of a country, just as Tel Aviv is less and less of a city.

"Resistance is like a coat whose inner linings are made up of individual will. Today the country doesn't know what it wants. Does it want to be America? We don't have the resources to be America. Does it want to be a country that has okay relations with its neighbors? We aren't acting like that. Does it want to be a nation, in which the minorities consider themselves part of the collective? We aren't acting like that at all. For 60 years now we have been treating the Arabs as though we want them to vanish from the face of the earth. And they aren't going to disappear. If there is no clear will, the urge to live is harmed, and there is no resistance to anything."

What do you love about Israel?

"In a way, I love the Tel Aviv type. Israelis are beautiful to look at, probably because of the genetic mixing. People who want things and have ambitions move to Tel Aviv. They are intelligent in the simple sense of the word. If you remain alive, it isn't boring here."

The status of poetry

Wieseltier is familiar with the young poetry scene in Tel Aviv, but is not especially enthusiastic about it. "A poet first of all needs to write poems - only then can he write a manifesto," he says. Poetry, he adds, must be like a threshold that is broken: "Its status has to be low, so the poets are closer to the truth. If you give poets status, they will become just like all the other shits. This way they can at least write from a correct angle. But don't worry, the status of poetry isn't going to get any better in the near future."

He is angry at the literary prizes, which award such tiny sums of money. He hates the "Poetry on the Road" project (banners with excerpts of poems, hung on several of Tel Aviv's main boulevards), arguing that the portraits of the poets are ugly and that it is wrong to publish extracts from poems and not whole poems.

According to him, Israelis don't like spending money on culture. "The government feels that it only puts money into culture because everyone is scrutinizing it, and it's uncomfortable with that," he says. "The French, by contrast, feel good when they invest in culture, whereas it really hurts an Israeli. He could get an ulcer from it. I know people in culture circles, who throw a fit if they have to pay for a theater ticket. They want an invitation. They are prepared to do very strange things for that."

"We won't manage to do anything. / Short breath / so heart-rending. / Everything we'll tell our children is so pathetic. / So thin is the cord on which past and future are strung" ("Kazar midai" ["Too Short"], from "Take It").