Poem of the Week / Dahlia Ravikovitch Sets Sail

'Many Waters' is the last poem Ravikovitch published in Haaretz in her lifetime. Here, the poet is a ship without an anchor.

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Many Waters

Dahlia Ravikovitch

A ship

Is floating without an anchor.

It has a sail

But at sea there is no wind.

The sea is expanding

Spilling into the ocean.

From horizon to horizon

There is no shade.

The ship is antique

From the fifteenth century.

It has no motor.

It has set sail for India.

The bread is moldy.

An epidemic has broken out.

The sail is torn.

The water has run out.

Maybe a boat full of natives will come

Bringing corn

Or something to swallow.

The captain has despaired

and he jumps into the water.

He is better off drowning.

Meanwhile he floats

Near the ship.

The first mate looks through the telescope.

There is no India and no bread.

There is no meat and no fish.

One sailor has bitten down on a rotten plank.

The hunger is terrible.

The ship will never arrive anywhere.

This ship is the Dahlia Maria

and she will sink today.

She is sinking today.

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden


The first eight lines of the poem could be the description of a still picture, a painting perhaps. Only about a third of the way into the poem is the first clue to the identity of the ship introduced: It is “from the fifteenth century.” By the time we get to the line “There is no India,” we know the reference is to the story of Christopher Columbus, who set out in 1492 to “discover India” in the three ships the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria: On Christmas night of 1492, following a drunken celebration by the crew, the Santa Maria ran aground and was wrecked off Haiti.

There is no “I” in the poem, no identifiable speaker, and as a result the description seems detached – but this is deceptive. At the end of the poem, the ruse of the ship as an extended metaphor for a human being, specifically the poet herself, is revealed in the identification between the poet and Columbus’ flagship: “The ship is the Dahlia Maria.”

“Many Waters” is the last poem Ravikovitch published in Haaretz (Tarbut Vesifrut, September 26, 2003) in her lifetime. She was found dead in her Tel Aviv apartment on August 21, 2005; it was known at the time the poem was published that the poet suffered from severe depression, a mental state that is depicted clearly as the poem progresses.

Another translation of this poem and many more of Ravikovitch’s poems are included in “Hovering at a Low Altitude,” translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld, W.W. Norton and Company, 2009. A review of the collection, as well as biographical information and an assessment of the poet’s place in modern Hebrew culture, by Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, can be found here.


* The title of this poem comes from The Song of Songs 8:7 – “Many waters cannot quench love, / Neither can the floods drown it.” Here, the poet turns the verse inside out and seems to say that drowning will occur where there is no love. What is the poet saying here about the source? 

Illustration of Dahlia Ravikovitch by Eran Wolkowski.
16th-century engraving. A ship the type of the Santa Maria.Credit: Wikipedia

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