The Music of Her Soul

The appearance in English of lifetime of poetry by Dalia Ravikovitch gives readers an opportunity to follow the artistic and moral evolution of this great writer.

Hovering at a Low Altitude The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch, by Dahlia Ravikovitch (translated and with an introduction by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld). W.W. Norton, 272 pages, $29.95

There are two myths lurking in this extraordinary volume of poetry that has arrived with the spring of 2009. There is the poet's lifelong chronic depression, to which her sudden death in 2005 provides a kind of grimly fitting closure - if indeed, as this first story goes, the death was a suicide. Then there is the story of the woman whose early voice, ostensibly compliant with the dictates of the male-dominated Hebrew Literary Republic, became suddenly charged in the early 1980s with both political and feminist fervor. But finally, there is the story that is the only one worth telling: that of a consummate poet, who has been released from the confines of an adoring but small nation of Hebrew readers and, through the alchemy performed by two gifted translators, is now available to all lovers of poetry and the music of the human soul.

It may be necessary to dispatch the first two narratives in order to clear away the cobwebs that have formed around the third. We learn from the informative and nuanced introduction that the coroner's report attributed Dahlia Ravikovitch's sudden death to heart failure. We learn that it was not the (first) Lebanon war in 1982 that transformed Ravikovitch into a political poet, though it may have sharpened and focused her attention; and we learn that her early poetry was hardly devoid of feminist sensibilities, though these may be easier to parse in the later poetry.

Fortunate enough to have been mentored and embraced by such critics and writers as Baruch Kurzweil and Lea Goldberg, Dahlia Ravikovitch was one of the youngest poets of the Statehood Generation. Born near Tel Aviv in 1936, she grew with the state and, like Yehuda Amichai, shifted with the changes in its physical and moral contours. She would become the object of ongoing public scrutiny as well as public affection, winning all the prestigious literary awards, culminating in the coveted Israel Prize, which she received in 1998 as "a central pillar of Hebrew lyric poetry during the 50 years of statehood."

The intricate pas de deux that evolved over those five decades between the public and the private Dahlia can be traced through the successive volumes of poetry represented in this volume. The two loves of her life, her father and her son - the former run over and killed by a drunken Greek soldier in the British army when Dahlia was 6, and the latter taken from her when he was 11 and she lost custody - are at the center of some of her most haunted, yet simplest, poems:

On the road at night there stands the man Who once upon a time was my father ... Night after night he stands alone in his place And I must go down and stand in that place ... ("On the road at night there stands the man") *** What I want is not a lot, just Ido back here each Shabbat and white puff pastry from the baker's shop ... ("More on the Matter of Ido")

The second poem, actually a very late one, recapitulates the deceptive simplicity and acquiescence to the rules of gender that characterized Ravikovitch's early poems. Here, as in another conformist conceit from her first book of poetry, "The Love of an Orange" (1959), lies one possible reason for her instant popularity as an accomplished - but presumably unprovocative - poet:

"Clockwork Doll" [Buba memukhenet] I was a clockwork doll, but then That night I turned round and around And fell on my face, cracked on the ground, And they tried to piece me together again. Then once more I was a proper doll [buba metukenet] And all my manner was nice and polite. But I became damaged goods that night, A fractured twig poised for a fall.

This poem, according to the translators, "literalizes the stereotype of the 'doll,' which in both Hebrew and English slang of the 1950s refers to a pretty young woman, but grants her the sorry fate of Humpty Dumpty." Returning to this theme a decade later in the poem "The Marionette" (196?9), Ravikovitch creates a speaker who still revels in the safety of her bonds - "the threads that wreathe my life / are genuine silk" - but is then revealed to be Don Giovanni's deluded lover, Donna Elvira. And yet, she concludes:

In the twentieth century, on a precious gray dawn, how fortunate to be a marionette. This woman is not responsible for her actions, the judges opine. Her fragile heart is gray as the dawn, her body hangs by a thread.

But as the demands of the public square became more pressing, the private seemed to shrink back in shame along with the poet's psychological, ethical and aesthetic accommodations. Poems written, however ironically, in a compliant or passive mode in the 1950s or '60s could, by the 1980s, no longer serve to ventriloquize the poet's passions. By the winter of 1982-'83, when Ravikovitch published "Hovering at a Low Altitude," the Lebanon war had indeed released the forces of protest that would change the political and cultural map of Israel. ?(Although the record shows that she had submitted the poem for publication in the literary journal Hadarim before the invasion of Lebanon, it was published afterward and quoted in many forums that protested that war, Israeli militarism and the occupation.) No more threads holding one up or cherries adorning one's hat, no more windows separating the self from the object of one's gaze ("Me - I didn't do a thing. / ... Whatever was needed / I saw in that window") ("The Window"). No more "Cinderella in the Kitchen," who "went sailing off in her mind for distances / that can't be measured / can't be explained," her "point of view ... uncommonly remote/ as if she lived on Mars, / the planet of war. And she clenched her fists and said: / I'm going off to war // then dozed off in bed" ("Cinderella in the Kitchen").

'I am not here'

In what was to become Ravikovitch's signature poem, even the "simple method" that the poet had so cleverly devised, of being present and not present at the same time, of "hovering at a low altitude," will no longer suffice. "I am not here" - that is the way this searing poem opens, as an unwitnessed scene is enacted "on those craggy eastern hills / streaked with ice / where grass doesn't grow." The poem speaks, as it were, without its narrator, revealing a "little shepherd girl / with a herd of goats," who "emerges suddenly / from an unseen tent. / She won't live out the day, that girl, / in the pasture."

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.

Maybe hovering with no strings attached provides more autonomy than the floppy dependence of a doll or a marionette, but it is not enough. The man who "looks innocent enough" (one of us? one of them?) "makes his way up the mountain," unremarked and undeterred: There is "not another soul around [and] there's no place to hide in the mountains." 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. *** And I, "I am not here ... I haven't seen a thing."

The "little shepherd girl" is a complex trope of the Jewish return to the Holy Land. She served in a variety of Hebrew representations - literary and visual - as both the quintessential "primitive" other and the primordial self. But the romantic reprise of the one who cannot be distinguished from Rebecca at the well or Sarah in her tent also occludes the autochthonous Arab girl who lives in the place designated in early Zionist rhetoric as a "land without a people." With every decade after 1948, and especially after 1967, she became more invisible, until the Sabra and Chatila massacre in 1982, when Israeli soldiers literally turned their backs on her. She appears in this paradoxical poem "suddenly from an unseen tent" as the fragile but devastating indictment of a country of the blind. But there is yet another move: From being emblematic of the self and/or the other, she becomes an unmarked subject, "the girl," "the little one" - hayalda, haktana - that is, quite simply, human.

The placement of "Hovering at a Low Altitude" two-thirds of the way through this collection highlights the evolution of Ravikovitch's poetics from the many - at times exotic, at times domestic - forms of escapism into a clear self-indictment and indictment of all the other absent presences. Every well-meaning Israeli recognizes the genteel passivity or despair that protects us from the horrors committed in our name: the protection of walls high enough to obscure vision or of projections far enough to carry us to the "fringes of the sun" or to the "ends of thought" (as Ravikovitch writes in "The Blue West"); cable channels that carry only good news; and the exonerating sigh over the morning newspaper that precedes the day's normal pursuits.

?Resisting 'Tel Aviv cool'

Although these poems become increasingly site-specific as their political message becomes more explicit, the "I" often remains in a non-specified locus. Ravikovitch lived most of her life in Tel Aviv, struggling against what the translators call "Tel Aviv cool" or a "Tel Aviv state of mind" ("my thoughts, soft as down, cushion me comfortably"), which buffers good intentions with layers of downy self-protection. That there is a kind of localism in Israeli letters may be rather surprising, given the small size of the country, though over the past few decades it has come down to the dichotomy between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Dahlia Ravikovitch belongs to both. When she approaches Jerusalem, she applies the kind of resistance to its centripetal force that writers of Jerusalem like Amichai and Agnon achieved over a lifetime of writing: "In Jerusalem I had my days of roses ... I came to her young and came back years later ... And my longings flooded me like the sea, / sawed in my head like a cricket, / swarmed like a hornets' nest / so delirious was I" ("Deep Unto Deep"). The very introduction of longing in the place that is meant to fulfill all longings, the outrageous simile of the sea applied in the most land-locked city in the world, are all forms of poetic distancing from the deadly pull of the "Great Mountain" ("Who Art Thou, O Great Mountain").

So against the persistent claim that politics is not fertile ground for the lyrical voice - the claim that became the back door through which a number of "lyrical" women poets were admitted into the Hebrew Literary Republic - Ravikovitch's poetic career stands as the best defense. What her writing illustrates is that the lyrical voice is not incompatible with the political - partly because, as Chana Kronfeld and Chana Bloch elucidate in the introduction and elsewhere, the biblical lyric that is a foundation of both Ravikovitch's poetics and her politics had already undermined the presumed dichotomy between the two.

The Book of Psalms is the primary authorizing text for both the Hebrew religious imagination and the lyrical voice. It is even more accessible - or inevitable - when it returns to the very sites where it was first sounded. The action in "Hovering" implicitly occurs in Lebanon - the only place on the Hebrew map where craggy hills are streaked with ice, but also, the poet is saying, the place that is exile, outside (the non-border of) Israel. "You Can't Kill a Baby Twice" is set in a place of both geographical and rhetorical specificity:

By the wastewaters of Sabra and Shatila, there you transported human beings, respectable quantities of human beings, from the animal kingdom to kingdom come.

Even the English ear should catch the intertextual presence of Psalm 137 ("by the waters of Babylon") in this ingenious, King James-inflected translation. As the psalm most resonant with both collective and personal passion, 137 is constitutive of Hebrew consciousness and Jewish ritual. But the unforgetful mind will also remember that this psalm ends with a call for vengeance that comes uncannily close to that described in Ravikovitch's poem, envisioning a recall so total that, when the exiles return, they will happily dash "fair Babylon's" babies against the rocks. Maybe that is how you kill a baby twice.

There is another story that should be told before we close this volume: the journey of these poems from Hebrew into English, marked by the general challenges of translating modern Hebrew poetry and the specific challenges of Ravikovitch's poetry. One can only lament the fact that this edition is not bilingual and thus does not afford the reader conversant with Hebrew the opportunity to appreciate the enormous achievement of these acts of translation, which are in the first place suffused with love. The two Chanas, one a gifted poet in her own right and the other a scholar of Hebrew and Yiddish literature and a pillar of what has come to be known as "the Berkeley school" of Jewish literary studies, worked very closely with the poet on these translations until just days before her death. Their intimacy with her can be sensed in their frequent reference to her as "Dahlia" - which also grants her honorary status with other female Hebrew poets known affectionately by their given names: Rachel, Zelda, Yocheved bat Miriam, Rivka Miriam.

These translations are informed not only by the authorizing presence of the poet herself and by the translators' wealth of knowledge of the classical and contemporary poetry and literature that are Ravikovitch's subtexts and intertexts, but also by an unerring eye that manages to find equivalences for the rhymes and off-rhymes that punctuate her poetry. In one particularly chilling example from the poem "Shir Eres" ("Lullaby"), the off-rhyme that juxtaposes the soft figure of a grandmother and her lullaby with the dark recesses of the Jabalya refugee camp, where ongoing acts of resistance to the occupation alternate with repressive measures by the Israel Defense Forces, the Hebrew text - "yashiru ema ve-savta / zemer atik ve-nugeh / ba-mitham ha-afel be-jibalya" - becomes: "Mama and Grandma / a mournful old tune / will sing in Jabalya's cordon of gloom" (emphasis mine). Current events, crafted by reference to Yiddish cradle songs and Hebrew scriptures - once again to Psalm 137, but also to Lamentations, Deuteronomy, Samuel and Jeremiah - are elucidated in the footnotes and in the resonant English translation. These allusions and the rhymes that bind them in a tentative embrace redefine the tragic irony of two mismatched entities as the intertwined fates of twins still struggling, after all these years, in their mother's womb.

Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, author of "Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination" (2000?), teaches comparative literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is the recipient of a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship for her project on "Jerusalem and the Poetics of Return."