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This white will drive me out of my mind
like the unicorn I saw on a tapestry
a pure white unicorn on flowers and leaves
making a virgin crazy with remote gentleness
this white will yet drive me mad.
From Yona Wallach, “Let the Words: Selected Poems,” translated by Linda Stern Zisquit, The Sheep Meadow Press, 2006. Reprinted by permission of the translator.
Had Yona Wallach survived the breast cancer that she chose not to treat – and that ultimately killed her in 1985 – she would have been 70 years old on June 10.
Wallach, a controversial diva of Hebrew poetry, attracted censure, admirers and lovers for her eroticism, blasphemy and experimental Hebrew. She is best known for provocative works with fluid gender boundaries like “Jonathan,” from her first book, “Things” (1966); and “Tefillin,” from “Wild Light” (1983), in which a female speaker imagines donning phylacteries in a violent sexual context.
Wallach's translator Linda Zisquit, who never had the chance to meet Wallach, writes: “Her father was killed in the War of Independence. He was a founder of the town where she was born. Kiryat Ono … She never left Hebrew, never left Israel. Had bouts of madness. A Tel Aviv poet who admitted herself to the Talbieh Hospital in Jerusalem to observe her states of mind under hallucinogens.”
“As White” (from “Things”) quietly contemplates an image in an art book. The work is probably from the 15th century: “The Lady and the Unicorn,” a series of six tapestries now housed at the Middle Ages National Museum in Paris.
Most likely it refers to the tapestry depicting sight, an image in which a lady is directly engaged with the mythical beast; it is touching her as she looks at it and holds a mirror to its face.
Wallach might also have been reading Hebrew translations of Rainer Maria Rilke's poetry and prose – there are descriptions of all six tapestries in “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge,” and Rilke's “Unicorn Sonnet” specifically addresses the “Sight” tapestry.
The unicorn and insanity each appear twice in Wallach’s short poem, and “white” three times. The unicorn is probably something very like Rilke’s “animal that doesn’t exist” – impossible perfection. Insanity bedeviled and interested Wallach. And what is “white”? Is it blank paper? Despite its relative economy, this poem seethes with issues of creativity, sanity, self and sexuality.