"Azimuth," by Rachel Tzvia Back, Sheep Meadow Press, 104 pages, $12.95
You are right to stay away.
Those prayers on the doorpost
will protect no one.
As to why we remain:
we're busy now
behind bolted doors
for the season that will not pass
Staying - here or away - is one of the concerns of the restlessly seeking speaking voice of Rachel Tzvia Back's "Azimuth." Getting one's bearings, finding one's way, and the impossibility of achieving either of these, is the shared experience of speaker and reader, both "still/stunned to be so far from Eden."
The poems are framed by two interestingly opposed usages of the title term. In its Arabic origin, "azimuth" describes "journeying without any sign of the way and without any track," while in its English incorporation, it is a term of precise astronomical measurement. The poems in this collection map the ways we live our lives within this tension between the total absence of the unmarked way and the illusory seduction of external remedy.
Within this geography of lived lives, the personal and the political echo and mirror each other in a painful intimacy always riddled by the unknowable. Thus the poet reminds us of our fated restlessness, locating it in the essential indeterminacy of human existence and the equally compelling longing for resolution and rest.
Far from home at home no one
speaks now of exiles
that will end
Endless exile - at home and far from home - is the perspective and perhaps, too, the habitation of this American-Israeli poet, whose poems were first collected last year in Hebrew translation (by Hebrew poets Aharon Shabtai and Zali Gurevitch, Kibbutz Hameuchad Press). Rachel Tzvia Back is a poet and scholar who writes in her native English, lives with her family in a village in the Lower Galilee, and lectures in English literature at Tel Aviv University and at the Oranim School of Education of the Kibbutz Movement.
Exile also characterizes our most intimate relationships, as these poems reveal. "Where grief hovers" lets us glimpse, together with a man grieving for his dying love, the ineluctable fact of "all he never knew/of her, now will never know." Also central to the concerns of these poems is the imperative of the attempt to know the unknowable. We are reminded that
A faith that asks
no questions, is fed
Keeps its eyes
and ears closed
through the telling.
Moving through many named and unnamed locations (Jerusalem, Gaza, deserts, foreign cities, bare rocky mountainsides), these poems are often specifically situated in the cruel intimacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its seemingly endless loss. The poems engage in recursive conversations with each other.
The final poem's "why here" asks again what has been asked and answered variously, repeatedly and insufficiently throughout, always to be asked again, like picking at a scab, perhaps the only mark on the unmarked landscape of this azimuth.
This is a journey described with grace and a generous embrace by a questioning and compelling voice, lyrical and keening, local and transcendent, in poems which, like all great poetry, are more to be experienced than read.
Dr. Nita Shechet is a lecturer in gender studies and English at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at the David Yellin Teachers College.