The Invention of Solitude

One seldom meets a poet-translator like Sabina Messeg - if one ever meets her at all.

Aviva Lori
Aviva Lori
Aviva Lori
Aviva Lori

Sabina Messeg swiftly climbs the ancient tel in Klil, the ecological community in the Galilee where she has lived for the past 10 years, picks up some pottery fragments from the ground, clambers down into the water cistern and then points to a big oak tree and says, "This is home."

Messeg, 60, is a poet and translator who needs a sense of home in order to write. And in order to turn a place into a home, she needs a special personal space and no constraints on her time. She needs to have quiet all around, to have no visitors, for the place to be close to nature, aesthetic, with character and history. Solitude, as an existential condition.

So it's not surprising that Messeg's literary output has not been as substantial as one might imagine. She has written six books for adults, translated five and, under a pseudonym - Adula - has written and translated 13 books of poetry and prose for children. Particularly lauded were Messeg's translations of Sylvia Plath's "Ariel" and "Three Women" (published last year by Hakibbutz Hameuchad), and of Ted Hughes' "The Thought-Fox" (published seven years ago by Schocken Press).

Messeg has recently published two new books: "Klil," a book of poetry published by Even Hoshen Press, and a translation of "The River Beyond the Fjord" (Keshev Press), by Norwegian poet Olav Hauge, which she translated with the help of her sister-in-law Hannah May-Svendal. Messeg is married to artist Aharon Messeg, whose illustrations adorn "Klil." For the past year, she has been living, temporarily, in Tel Aviv. "There are advantages to the city," she admits. "I can be in touch with people. People come over, you can get things moving."

Keeping in touch with people hasn't been one of her fortes. "I disappear for long periods," she acknowledges. "When Menachem Peri [editor of Hasifriya Hahadasha publishing] didn't receive the translation of Plath's book on time, he didn't know where to look for me." When he finally found her and asked her to write an epilogue for the book, she disappeared again - this time for three years. All in all, says Messeg, she translated Plath into Hebrew over a period of 25 years.

"In order to understand [Plath and her husband Ted Hughes] and their world, I read a whole library of books, everything that was ever written about them. I dove into the complexity of their lives, and of their thinking," she explains. "I think that in order to understand a poet it's not enough to translate word for word: You have to create the poem anew, to experience it and the experiences that the poet experienced. And you also need maturity. I apparently had to grow and to live and experience all kinds of things in order to know how to interpret them."

Messeg's own poems are nature poems in the romantic sense of the word. Songs of love and passion to the wind, the water, the earth, and the people who work it. "I want to bring out the non-urban side of the poetry," she says. "To be an alternative to urban poetry. I want to prove that nature poetry is not soft and romantic poetry, but ecological poetry. By ecology I mean your home, your environment. It's the hottest thing in America now. It hasn't reached here yet. I feel like even my closest friends don't really understand what I'm after."

Romantic fantasy

Sabina Messeg was born in Bulgaria to a Bulgarian mother and Greek father. Her parents married in 1939 and immigrated to Israel in 1948, when Sabina was five, and lived in the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa. They had two more sons.

It was a highly educated family imbued with European culture; the parents spoke French between them and felt lost among the new immigrants who populated Jaffa at the time. Messeg's father had a rubber factory back in Sofia, and had planned to build a similar factory here, but his money was lost on the way and he was forced to work as a construction worker. "It did him in emotionally," says Messeg. "Later he became the treasurer of the kibbutz federation."

Her mother, she recalls, was a beautiful woman - blond, gentle and intelligent. She gave private lessons in French at first, and when that didn't bring in enough money, she went to work as a seamstress. She also did not integrate well in Jaffa. "I always dreamed of writing and of earning a lot of money so I could save her from my wicked father and from poverty," says Messeg.

Financial frustrations and absorption difficulties made her home an unpleasant place. Her father, says Messeg, was a tough and violent man. Her two brothers ran away from home, and she herself fled to a cave on the seashore. There, in the cave that she found for herself, she learned how to do two things: to be alone and to write.

"That's when - I recall the exact moment - my consciousness was born," she explains. "I would sit on the steps in school, alone - I wasn't really a part of the girls' talk and I didn't really play ball with the boys - and then I realized that I wasn't really alone, that there was someone else inside me and that the discussion taking place between us was more important than what happens between me and my parents, or me and my teachers. From then on, I started to be alone with myself. That was the beginning of my solitude."

She went to high school in Bat Yam, was a good student and began to attract notice for her poems that appeared in youth magazines. Her relationship with her father also improved then. "The fact that I was suddenly an outstanding student and reading English gave me an opening to connect with my father. He had a big library in English and all the books that everyone else read in Hebrew, I read in English. I could ask him questions and it gave me privileges - I got my own room. But my parents' way of life, where they were talking about money all the time, didn't appeal to me."

Her youthful rebellion took the form of a romantic fantasy. Inspired by the poems of Rahel and Shlonsky, she searched for a simple life, close to the land. And not just any land, but land on the shore of the Kinneret. "I was in [the Zionist youth movement] Hashomer Hatzair, and at age 16 I came to the Kinneret for the first time, and when I saw it, it took my breath away. It was a climactic experience. At that moment, I understood that I would return here and I told myself, I'll return here with my beloved."

She met her beloved in the air force, at army heaquarters in Tel Aviv: Aharon Messeg, a handsome man of Iraqi background, from Kfar Shalem. "Originally, I thought that I wouldn't get married or have children so I'd be free for a life of poetry and nature," she says. In the meantime, her poems were published in the Haaretz literary supplement and she received a scholarship to attend Radcliffe University in Boston. But she wanted to stay in Israel and write about it - and she'd also just met Aharon.

They married in 1963. "We've been together since I was 19. I felt that marrying him wouldn't be enslaving myself, it would be like freedom, that we would be able to do what we wanted and also, at the same time, get away from our parents' homes. He went along with my desire to live on the land and not in the city."

The couple's "land" was in the religious moshav of Hemed, not far from the airport in Lod. She began studying Hebrew and English literature at Tel Aviv University (which she gave up after a couple of years); he concentrated on being an artist. "He's an autodidact," she says. "Every painting is self-teaching, and that's what makes him very original. He didn't have any need to relate to any particular school of painting."

Little house on the moshav

Their home on the moshav became a temple of ascetic, isolated life. Two people who chose to dedicate themselves exclusively to each other and to their artistic pursuits. By day they slept, and by night they worked, or took moonlit strolls. Aharon painted and Sabina wrote, or read poems out loud and simultaneously translated them for him, and then they would discuss and analyze the poems. They lived modestly, grew vegetables in the garden and saved change for the bus in a glass jar. They earned a living from the occasional publication of her poems, and then from his paintings, which are still in demand today, especially among collectors.

Four years of this moshav life passed before Aharon began exhibiting his paintings. "We lived in total isolation. Even our families weren't allowed to come visit," recalls Sabina. "In the fifth year, he had a show of his work and then he started to become known."

After five years of being married, Messeg decided that she did want children, after all. Their three children were born one year after the other. Yael, 33, married and a mother of two, lives on Moshav Migdal; Tamar, 32, a painter, married with a son, lives in Hemed; and Nimrod, 31, an artisan, is married and lives in Spain.

"I always thought that I was rebelling against the establishment. After the Six-Day War, I realized that the establishment is so weak that there's no one to rebel against, and then I also wanted a home in the true sense of the word - full of children, in other words - and I said that it's not so important to write another poem. It's more important to turn life into a poem. In those years, my daily energy went into the house and not into writing. I turned our home life into something with inspiration."

Inspiration, according to Messeg, comes from a life without doctors, antibiotics, candy, television, a car or extracurricular activities for the children. She gave the children herbal baths instead of antibiotics and rubbed their bodies with cold towels if they had a fever. "The children complained that because they were never sick, they never got to miss school," she says. During school breaks, they would go to the Kinneret, pitch a tent by the lake and stay there for as long as possible, living off the fish they caught.

Your children didn't want to be like all the other children?

Messeg: "Even though they went to elementary school in Bnei Brak, like all the children of the moshav, and I lit candles on Friday night - and still do - and we didn't travel on Shabbat because we didn't want the children to have to lie ... Despite all of this, they still felt different from the religious children. But meanwhile, we started to find a circle of friends, other loners like us, and their children, and they didn't feel so different among them. If they wanted to watch `Little House on the Prairie' on television, they went to the neighbors. When they were young, it was fine. When they reached high school, they started to rebel."

Her children attended secular high schools in Kiryat Ono rather than the religious high schools that the other children from their moshav attended.

After 10 years of renting, they bought a house in Hemed, on a 17-dunam (4.25-acre) plot. Messeg says that they were able to do this thanks to the sales of Aharon's paintings. "Even today, when we need money, we sell a painting," she says. "Because not that many of his paintings are on the market, the prices he gets are high. Aharon could be a rich man, but he doesn't care about that and immediately spends the money."

She also gave English lessons on the moshav to make money. "I used to do a storytelling hour at the moshavim in the area, and I had a page in Yedioth Ahronoth that I wrote as Adula, and I also worked a little in Omanut La'am [the `Arts for the People' project] and doing translations, and I also received some royalties. But there were hard times. When the kids were in high school, there were checks that came back."

When the children were in high school, Messeg returned to her poetry phase. She was tired of being a hostess, she missed the quiet and solitude, and began searching for a refuge. She arranged a space for herself in the attic and started writing there. That's also the period when she began her sojourns, which she continues to undertake, to monasteries. At first, she only went for weekends, together with her husband, and then she started going for longer periods of isolation and separation from the house, so she could write.

"Many of Aharon's paintings were done in the Ein Kerem monastery. We'd go for a weekend, then Aharon would return home and I'd stay. I can't write a little here and a little there. I have to thoroughly immerse myself in something, in the place where the materials speak to me."

Monastery days

These experiences gave rise to her book, "Days in a Monastery." Messeg says that if there is such a thing as past lives, she would certainly have been a nun or hermit in one of them. A mythic connection to Christianity and the pull of the thick walls of the monasteries and of asceticism are an integral part of her life, like an ancient essence that has passed from generation to generation. Her younger brother Dror also became captivated with Christianity. As a youth, he drifted, then got into drugs, tried to find himself, became newly religious, traveled to India and returned from there a believer in Jesus.

"That's how he found the solution to his emotional problems," says Messeg. "He brought it home, to my parents, and convinced them to follow his way, and they converted to Christianity - they were baptized, in other words - and became messianic Jews who believe in Jesus. It answered their needs. They never really felt like they belonged here. They missed European culture, and this process was good for both of them. I'd go with my mother - who died recently - just to be with her, to weekends in the Carmel for women believers. She found her place there, she found peace there. And it softened my father a little. In his old age, he was finally able to get along with my brother."

Today Messeg is an expert on monasteries. She gives literary tours, brings friends for visits and feels at home there, especially with the nuns of the Contemplative order in Ein Kerem. "By contemplating nature, they discover God," she says. "I discovered that I also live that way. I sit somewhere outside, with a cup of coffee, a little classical music, a stack of paper, and start to read a book of poetry, do a little meditation and a little prayer, and that's how I get into a state of contemplation and awe, and then suddenly something comes over me and then the moment comes, the inspiration. And I can write. I started to look into monastic literature and I read that there are special exercises that explain how to arrive at this state of mind. It's very suitable for me."

Until a few years ago, Messeg had never left Israel. Until then, the farthest she had ever gone was Klil, and then Safed. She does not have a driver's license; she uses public transportation or walks. The move to Klil was gradual and began with an encounter with the community's founders, Allen and Susan Afterman, 26 years ago. The Aftermans (a lawyer and an architect), who had left their jobs to embark on a spiritual journey, first met the Messegs as part of a series of meetings with artists and intellectuals in Israel, and a life-long friendship ensued. When the Aftermans came to Israel and bought land in the Galilee from its Druze owners, the Messegs closely followed the community's founding.

"At first, I rented a house from Susan that they'd built, so I could come there sometimes for periods of writing, because I saw that it was hard for us to leave our house in Hemed. I was going there for two years, it was like paradise, I could live a life of solitude at the highest level, in one room with a little loft for sleeping, everything small and symbolic."

The Messegs wanted to leave Hemed, which had become too noisy for their taste, surrounded by highways and interchanges, and they bought a parcel of land in Migdal, overlooking the Kinneret. But the charms of Klil eventually won out and they moved there. "After two years, when Aharon started to come with me, we decided that it suited us better than Migdal," says Sabina.

Their children bought the house in Hemed from them, and 10 years ago the Messegs bought 10 dunams (2.5 acres) in Klil "and we got another 10 dunams, with an olive orchard, as a gift from the Israel Lands Administration. Aharon chose Givat Tarashim, a place where no one had ever lived, and built the house there. He did it all himself."

Today Klil is still not hooked up to the national electrical grid. Nor is there any asphalt there either. Narrow, rutted dirt paths twist between the houses and lots. There is only sky and olive trees and rocky hilltops as far as the eye can see. On a clear day, one can even see a bit of the sea. Forty-five families live in this community, officially designated as a mitzpeh, hilltop settlement. The Messegs' house is L-shaped. One section serves as their living quarters and the other as a painting studio. In the center is a yard with fruit trees and a vegetable garden. It's all very simple and modest.

Friends in Klil got them interested in studying kabala, and meanwhile Messeg began searching for a place in Safed that she could use as a refuge in which to write. "Susan and Allen took me to Safed, dipped me in the mikveh [ritual bath] of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria and then I found an old house with a window that faces Mount Meron, and for the next eight years I rented it, mostly during the holiday period. I'd connect with the religious people there and learn something from them about our holidays."

That's poetry!

Messeg lives life at her own pace. In the morning, she spreads a mixture of yogurt and cucumber peels on her face. She does yoga. She reads poetry. During periods of writing, she prays for inspiration - and it works, she says. In the summer, she submerses herself in the water cistern, also for inspiration.

You know that you're pampered, don't you?

"That's being a poet. Yes, I'm fortunate that I don't have to teach like most of my friends do. I reduced my needs and I do it all myself. I don't spend money on yoga lessons or on a cosmetician, and I'm very aware of this pampering that Aharon made possible for me."

Three years ago, she traveled to Norway for the first time. Aharon had been ill and his two brothers - who married Norwegian women and live in Oslo - invited him to come rest at their vacation cottages next to a fjord. It was on this visit that Messeg became aware of Norwegian poetry and of that of Olav Hauge, in particular: "I related to everything. Every moment was an experience. I went to his house and I understood him despite the language barrier. He's like me, he lives a solitary life and writes about his close surroundings: the house and the orchard. He's one of his country's greatest poets."

Norway also gradually became home. Their stay there grew longer, Messeg started studying the culture and created a new base for herself from which to write. Though she read the Norwegian poems in English translation, she is currently studying the Norwegian language with the help of her sister-in-law, Hannah, who also knows Hebrew.

`I am Eretz Israel'

In the past year, she has divided her time between Klil and a rented apartment in Tel Aviv, due to her husband's medical needs. She says they'll soon return to Klil, to their wonderful solitude, without television or newspapers. "I don't know everything. Suddenly everybody's happy that the captives were released in Colombia, and I didn't even know that they'd been kidnapped. On the other hand, what will it help me if I do know that?"

You love this country, yet you basically ignore what it's really like.

"I think that Amos Oz said about me that it was as if I'd done `internal emigration' and I think that's totally wrong. I live the real thing. I don't have to see Arabs on television, I connect with Arabs in the real world. I'm part of a group of Druze and Jewish women that meets once every two weeks. At first, it was in the community center in Abu Snan; now we meet in people's homes. I live Eretz Israel, including the Jewish-Arab issue and the religious issues. I am Eretz Israel, I love this country."

Perhaps for the wrong reasons?

"I know a great deal. I know history. My son was in Sayeret Matkal [the General Staff's elite special operations force]. The little details I don't know, but I always want to understand the higher processes. I know that in 1947 we said, `Let's share,' and they didn't want to, and Barak said, `Let's share' and they didn't want to. I was in Oslo when there was a demonstration by Palestinians and the police were very quick to take out their clubs. Would they allow [a situation in which] a person couldn't sit in a cafe? No European country would agree to that. But I believe that it's possible to live with the Arabs, if they will agree not to annihilate us and we shed our paranoia. I see how well we get along here."

Do your friends think the same way?

"My intellectual friends are constantly putting down the state. Poets write about an Arab boy who was killed in the intifada and they don't write about a boy who was killed at the Dolphinarium. My children went there all the time. They could have been there. Our poets ask, `Klil, what's that? You mean that the Land of Israel stretches north of the Yarkon?' I take people on hikes to places in the Golan Heights. My friend, who is a serious person, sees Katzrin for the first time and asks: `This is what they want to give back?' People don't live the land. They live from Tel Aviv to London and Paris, and have the same opinions. Everyone's the same, they don't think for themselves. I think for myself. They see the Land of Israel through the television, through the opinions that come ready-made from the media. I experience it from the field."

And not only that. "I read and I know facts that other people don't know," Messeg claims. "Very few Arabs had roots here. Most came here because they were looking for work, three generations ago, when they fled from Egypt or from Lebanon. The country was almost empty then. They started to multiply after the Turks brought them in as laborers, and then the British, and also the Jewish settlers. Whenever there was work here, such as building railroad tracks, they came as laborers. We need to stop having these feelings of inferiority. There really wasn't a civilization here before, and we also deserve to live someplace."

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