Reading Material

Maya Bejerano has collected her poems in a thick new anthology entitled `Frequencies.' Maybe this is a type of death in the middle of life, she says.

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
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Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

Maya Bejerano is going through a phase - which is how she explains her decision at age 56 to collect all her poems in one thick volume. Asked if she isn't a bit young for such an anthology, Bejerano giggles nervously and clutches the heavy book, entitled "Tederim" ("Frequencies"), 424 pages in hardcover, to her chest. "It has nothing to do with my chronological age. It's a move that attests to maturity and to my inner consolidation."

Then she is quiet for a moment and appears troubled. "Maybe it's a desire to look at myself from some height and distance. To observe the things I've done from another perspective. I wanted to put myself on the shelf in a different way, not with my thin volumes of poetry. But with a big, thick book to which I've added poems and texts that were never published before. Maybe the publication of `my oeuvre' is a type of death in the middle of life.

"A book like this represents a kind of cessation. I'm in the last third of my life and I wanted to be in control. My attitude toward aging isn't making me panic, and I don't have a tendency to dwell on the past, but I wanted to publish my writings before I end up ill or dying. So I went to Uzi Shavit, the director of Hakibbutz Hameuchad Press, and I told him that I want to collect my writings, and he agreed. I wanted a smaller, soft-cover book. It turned out to be pretty big. Maybe there's a desire here for it not to be the kind of book you take to bed to read, but a book that makes you sit at the table."

What about the possibility that it might look a little megalomaniacal? Bejerano: "Actually, there's some anxiety in this. Anxiety that things are getting lost, that the continuity of my poetry isn't being seen. I had the feeling that I was getting a little lost. The multitude of young poets and the new voices and styles made me want to put myself out there with an anthology, including the new poems at the end of the book, instead of just doing a separate book. Maybe it's a desire to expose myself in a different way. This book is like a change of residence for the poems and it's done something to them. I hope I won't regret it."

When Bejerano says she's going through a phase in her life, she means she's moving to another type of writing, to prose, which she has also written in the past. She has a new cycle of stories that will soon be published and plans to continue writing plays as well. She will soon start promoting a play she wrote about the whole Yamit affair entitled "Tekes yom hazikaron shel ir gan ha'eden tismit" ("Memorial Ceremony for Tismit, the City of Paradise"; in Hebrew, the name "Yamit" is contained in the letters of "Tismit").

Poetry and prose

Poet and writer Maya Bejerano (she was awarded the 2002 Bialik Prize, the 1988 and 1994 Bernstein Prizes and many others) sees herself as following the path of David Avidan and Yona Wallach. She produced the poems in "Ibudei Netunim" ("Data Processing"), which earned her fame, when she was in her early twenties and lived in Jerusalem. At the time, she was working at the Civil Service Commission and trying to come up with a system for categorizing the books that had accumulated there. One day she came across the term "automatic data processing." It appealed to her, and resonated with the image of Kafka the clerk and literary genius.

"Frequencies" is her 11th book. It includes all 61 poems from "Data Processing" as well as those from other books, starting from "Bat ya'ena" ("Ostrich"), published in 1978, all the way through "Hayofi hu ka'as" ("Beauty is Rage") from 2001 (she decided not to include poems from her 2000 book, "Dorsei laila" - "Night Predators"). "Frequencies" also includes recent poems, such as "Sheinkin shel ma'alah" ("Sheinkin's Heavens") from a new poem cycle of the same name, which appears in its entirety and deals with the myth surrounding Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv.

The book also contains some political poems, and in the last section, includes a mixture of poems and prose excerpts from journals that she calls "Parparei hol" ("Sand Butterflies.")

"It was important to me to include a frequency of diary-type prose, which I usually do not publish. I have 12 thick volumes of personal journals in which I scribble something every couple of days, since the time I was a soldier. It felt right to reveal some of this material, to give the reader keys to understanding the rest of the book, which covers periods in which I underwent big changes. I'm still of sound mind and it seemed important to me to reveal this as a person conducting a dialogue with an audience and with myself."

Does this talk of still being of "sound mind" and about the last stage in life imply a fear of the possibility that you'll become irrelevant as a poet?

Bejerano: "I'm not afraid of becoming irrelevant. Poems that I wrote 30 years ago are still relevant today. Out of confidence and a desire to emphasize that my poetry is relevant alongside the voices of new poets, I built and edited `Frequencies.' For one thing, to argue that poems are relevant even if they speak in rhyme and about a return to the classic forms and structures. I believe that a future generation will relate again and again to the poems of `Data Processing' because they relate to the perception of time and space in the modern and postmodern world. I'm frustrated with the poetry criticism in Israel. There aren't enough public platforms for poetry and there aren't enough poetry sections in the newspapers, and those that do exist aren't big enough. They've been shrunk to where they're unrecognizable. There isn't enough continuous reviewing of Hebrew poetry. Yes, there is some `high' intellectual criticism, but my sense is that something remains unclear and odd in my connection with the audience."

Decrease in intensity

"Good poetry is the private code of the personality, and the pain of its dismissal is equivalent to the dismissal of the physical existence of its owner," Bejerano writes in one of the prose sections of "Frequencies." She goes on to say: "The word is a delicate substance that the person manufactures within his body in a marvelous way, like the plants, with the help of the light and the earth, manufacture their chlorophyll, their mysterious food; leaf processing is like word processing."

This week, she added: "There's a decrease in the intensity of my writing. I write isolated poems and the writing isn't continuous anymore. I write haiku poems and then I wait. Haiku is a unique type of Japanese poetry that I started writing about two years ago. I have 32 haiku poems and I'm waiting until I have enough to publish. Haiku is a minimalist and modest type of writing. In the past, I was very dynamic and active in my poetry. I would wander around Jerusalem and write, but something in my outlook toward the world and toward the language changed and suddenly these haiku poems burst out of me."

About seven years ago, Bejerano purchased an apartment on Ha'avoda Street in central Tel Aviv, near Sheinkin Street. She says a change has occurred in her since she moved there from Bat Yam. She also moved in with her companion of the last decade, Eliezer Eshet, a 59-year-old agricultural consultant and divorced father whom she met when he was a student at a poetry workshop she gave. "I was terribly confused. I'd moved back to Tel Aviv and I thought I was already back on my feet and then everything fell apart and I swayed between confusion and fear, and anxiety and unease. My parents are no longer alive and their home in Bat Yam, where I grew up, which was a financial and emotional support all these years, was gone. My only sister, Tali Adam, lives in Atlanta with her family, and I found myself in a state where I couldn't hear myself and everything around me was loud and deafening. When I came to live here I didn't know anything about Sheinkin being a mythological area.

"There were three of us in the apartment - myself and my daughter, who is now 21 and was an adolescent then, and Eliezer, and there was a lot of tension. I felt that it was affecting my creativity and I was confused and wrote much less. The sociopolitical situation also contributed to my feeling of disquiet and it all burst inside. Later on, Eliezer moved out and today I realize that the same tensions were bothering me. I wrote a story about all of this, and a play, too, which I'll publish one day."

It's hard for Bejerano to detach herself from daily events here. To make a living, she works in the Beit Ariella library in the bibliographical department. She used to work with the public, but now sits in her own little office and quietly enters information from each day's newspapers into the computer according to subject. "It's hard work because of the hard daily reality. There have been times when I really started crying. I wrote more than a few poems after reading articles about tragedies and about the intifada. I'm full of admiration for poets who write poems about the intifada ... It's hard for me to write directly about [it] and so I wrote through the prism of a work of art or the media."

In one poem, she constructed an imaginary television program on which the dead are interviewed and speak "in one tongue ... the tongue of the uprooted truth," and the anchorwoman also interviews the dead who are to come.

"In `Frequencies,' there is one direct political poem that I wrote after the terror attack on Dizengoff Street on Purim in 1996, and it talks about a young Palestinian on the way to blow himself up in Tel Aviv. His blood mixes with ours and this mixture is a blood pact that must be transformed into a pact of peace and love. But this mixture is also erotic because the connection between the bloods creates passion and powerful and impulsive feelings."

Diary as photo album

"Frequencies" opens with the proclamation, "My soul is a secret orchestra ... I only know myself as the symphony," a quote from "The Book of Disquiet" by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, Bejerano's favorite writer.

Why do you write?

Bejerano: "I can't not write. When I'm not writing, I don't know who I am. I can't function smoothly. I can't see myself only as a person with an external appearance. I don't perceive the inner part of me without writing. In one of the pieces in `Frequencies,' I wrote that writing is like looking into the mirror of the soul. I want to know who I am. I still don't know because the self is not defined or stable. There is a kernel of identity, certainly. If I can open a diary that I wrote five years ago and relate to it, then the diary functions like a photo album, it documents me. The poet Pessoa greatly influenced me and I see him as a spiritual brother. Of course, he was a giant compared to me, but I would very much like to meet him in the next world." Pessoa wrote: "The poet is a pretender / He feigns so completely / That he manages to feign pain / the pain that he really feels."

"Writing is a kind of pretending," Bejerano says. "Poetry gives verbal attire to an elusive and dark world. It's a kind of pretending because it's not the thing itself, but the words that express it. In `Data Processing,' there's an escape from and a breaking down of language. But I'm also searching for my own language, searching for the true frequencies. When I started writing at age 20, I didn't want a ready-made language and I didn't want wise poetry with all kinds of insights. I wanted to touch the present."

At age 18 she made a conscious decision to be a writer. She wrote her first poem at age 16 and already knew then that she wasn't like everyone else. "I was searching for something other than the usual biography. I didn't want to get married and have a family. I felt that I was going to build a different biography for myself and have a different type of relationship with people, to sense the time in a different way. I experimented with myself and put myself in risky situations. I wandered for hours in all kinds of places and wasted time. I had powerful inner impulses. At age 19 and a half, I broke up with my boyfriend who wanted to marry me. I could have pursued a career in academia, but I decided not to. I avoided the big careerist frameworks. I went for something simpler, being a librarian, so I could concentrate on the main thing."

In 1970, when she was 21, she published her first poem in Masa, the literary supplement of the now-defunct newspaper Davar. She was studying philosophy and literature at Bar-Ilan University at the time, because she wanted to study with cultural critic Baruch Kurzweil, who committed suicide in 1972. "I was in love with him. I was overwhelmed by him as an intellectual and as a literary person. When I wanted to show him poems, he said he'd be glad to host me if I brought him an alcoholic drink. He was my teacher in the last two or three years of his life. I saw him two weeks before he killed himself; we took a little walk around the campus. It was vacation and the campus was empty.

"I asked him why he wasn't going away on vacation and he said that he wasn't feeling well at all. He mentioned that he felt repulsion and scorn toward himself and the students. But on the other hand, he always carefully prepared the lessons for his classes. He had a big influence on me. His gloominess, his romanticism, his acting talent. The line he quoted from Robert Musil (`The Man Without Qualities') - `Language is the home of man' - made a deep impression and stayed with me. I see myself as a person who is more connected to philosophy than to poetry. The departure into poetry derived from a line like that of Musil. What made me become a poet is the desire to investigate myself and to confront lines like that and not just leave them on the paper.

"I left academia even though I'd almost finished a master's degree. I preferred to devote myself to roaming about Jerusalem and writing for a few years. I took apart the framework to dedicate my life to this nothing. That is true intellectual life."

She says that her father, Leon Bejerano, was her first teacher. He was born in eastern Bulgaria and came to Israel in 1948 with his wife Leah, straight from the detention camp in Cyprus. He was a violinist in his hometown and a leading member of the Bohemian circle identified with the Hashomer Hatzair movement. The Bejerano couple moved to Kibbutz Elon, north of Nahariya, and their first daughter, Maya, was born there in 1949.

Her parents left Elon when she was just six months old and moved to Kfar Hittin, and later to Yad Mordechai. By the time her grandparents arrived in Israel, the family was living in Moshav Moledet in the center of the country: "We had a house that looked like it was about to fall over. It was very picturesque and surrounded by sand dunes and I remember that there was a tree next to the house that was like paradise for me."

In 1954, the family moved to Jaffa, "to an Arab house that my parents bought for key money from a Jaffa Arab, on Divrei Haim Street. The house is still standing and not long ago I had my picture taken there and I wrote a poem about the crumbling palace of my childhood. This house meant a lot to me even though everyone gradually left and we were left alone. When I was 11, we moved to Bat Yam."

In her 1999 book, "Enase lga'at batavor bitni" ("Trying to Touch My Belly Button"), Bejerano described her childhood in Jaffa in a heartrending way. The mother is depicted as an angelic figure whose hands give many gentle caresses, while the father's hands hit and beat. He was a hardworking tractor driver by day who taught Maya to play the violin after work. In the poem for which the book is named, she writes that her father hit her on the head with the violin bow when she made a mistake playing a piece. She admits that she was a frail, dreamy and maddening girl, as one of the poems says, but the beatings, she says today, derived from her father's internal distress.

"He had very serious worries and something aggressive grew out of these tensions. When I was in second grade, he taught me to play the violin, and I was good at it and we played together and it was wonderful, but there was something compulsive in him, a kind of perfectionism. He would make a daily program for me of when to do homework, when to play and when to practice. On the one hand, it gave me confidence, but on the other, I wanted to break this order. If I messed up at school and got a negative note from the teacher, he'd hit me.

"A secret Maya developed in me, something subversive that says: Just wait, when I leave here and get away from your authority, then I'll be the real me. I called this character Klil ("crown") and she was supposed to be a figure that no one could touch. My father used to hit me because he wanted everything to be perfect. He was frustrated as an intellectual who was supposed to have studied law and then came here and had difficulty with Hebrew. He eventually did a course and became an X-ray technician."

`Semantic breakthrough'

Menachem Ben was the first to read her poems, in 1974, and he was the one who connected her with Gabriel Moked, who published them in the journal Akhshav.

Bejerano: "Moked saw my `Data Processing' poems as a semantic breakthrough. The series began with a few poems that I wanted to submit to a literary competition. I planned to write about 10, and then I realized that I'm like someone who wants to go fishing and hooks a shark that pulls him in further and further. I almost had to be committed. I was on the verge of losing my sanity. I was 24 and I'd split up with a guy that I loved. He kicked me in an insulting way as if I were insane and unworthy the day before he left on a mission on behalf of the Jewish Agency. I felt like I was nothing.

"I didn't have money or a job. Basically I had nothing and I'd also been dumped. I said to myself: One day, I'll show you how far I'll go, and then I wrote the poem `Penelope and Odysseus' (which appears in `Frequencies'). The theme of the poem is that Odysseus' journey is contingent on the anchor he has at home, and Penelope is the anchor. My boyfriend didn't return to Israel and we never saw each other again. That evening of our breakup, everyone could see that I'd been dumped and since I have a masochistic tendency to drink the cup of bitterness, I drew strength from this poison. ... After he abandoned me, I fell apart. I packed a suitcase and went back to my parents' home and got into bed. They took care of me and I owe them my being a poet because they let me run my life as I wished. My writing gave me everything."

Bejerano married Lev Schwartzman, a mathematician who came to Israel from Russia. They lived in Bat Yam and divorced in 1988 when their daughter Ayala, now a 21-year-old student, was five. Motherhood was good for Bejerano. "When I became a mother, I knew that I wanted to get out of the situation of being alone in the world with my sensations and emotions."

Bejerano has written a good number of love poems over the years. "Leviathan," published in 1990, was written in the wake of a relationship with a man 13 years her junior. She was on the verge of divorce from her husband at the time and thought that love would triumph over the age difference, but they split up after two years. "I broke down afterward. I'd lost a friend with whom I could talk about everything. It was a very tough loss."

Most of the time Bejerano is alone, but she isn't ready to give up on having a companion: "It's important to me to have a relationship with someone I can be with, even though in reality I'm alone most of the time. Maybe I feel this way because I have existential anxiety, and the need for another person who is a friend I can talk to is so vital. A person I can trust and believe in, on the spiritual-emotional level, too. And there are times when I would like financial assistance. Today I support myself on my own. I was a narcissist for many years. Not anymore. I'm responsible for everything that I do. I don't live at other people's expense. I don't live only for myself and I'm not preoccupied with self-observation all the time. I've lost that self-love I had when I was 20. I see myself less and less as the center of the world. In my poems, I focus on myself, but also on the environment."

You once said in an interview that you're jealous of Yona Wallach's great fame.

"I don't feel anything like that now. I don't have any jealousy. Maybe I published `Frequencies' in order to prop myself up. Physically, it gives me a sense of substantiality. I enjoy holding the book and looking at it. It gives me a feeling that I've accomplished something. Sometimes I feel like I have nothing, that I haven't done anything, that it all evaporates. So my books are on the shelf, but I don't look at them every day. The new book gives a feeling of substantiality. Maybe because of its size. Maybe it's the combination of the poems and the texts at the end that reveal something fundamental and intimate. So far I haven't had the courage to read it. I just peek, I leaf through a few pages and then close it."

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