It’s a Bird, It’s a Clown, It’s Not Agnes

Flying over Europe, the sea and deserts, the first and second generations of the Holocaust experience dreamlike transformations in Agi Mishol’s poem.

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How is a Holocaust survivor father like a dolphin? He is a mammal submerged in a different element from most.
How is a Holocaust survivor father like a dolphin? He is a mammal submerged in a different element from most. Credit: Dr. Aviad Scheinin

Holocaust, Remembrance, Independence

Agi Mishol

How we flew –
Not from Gadera to Rehovot or up the Castel
en route to Jerusalem, like in those dreams, but
outside of the stratosphere: my father, myself
and that blurry one called Agnes,
who in nineteen fifty changed her name
to Agi, and since then this hollow girl has tailed
my father, who was her father as well.

We flew –
Not like Haaretz newspapers that land every morning,
spreading their flimsy wings on the table,
but forking with swimming motions beyond the stratosphere
until we suddenly dove, wings compressed,
into an air pocket, Europe revealed to us
and afterwards, deserts and seas.

Had I not flown I would have put off my shoes   
in the name of my skilled body, remembering its movements
still in chaos after climbing, ascending like a lizard
from the waters while still a bird,
taking off through clouds to slash across an entire continent.

Now I have touched I can never forget,
and even if from afar we look like swallows
copulating as we glide,
we are just a father and daughter. 

He pushes me on with his dolphin snout,
covers me with a clown's costume
so no one will peek at
the mother in me.

And I, Agi Mishol, second generation,
light these flames of words
that are not weapons and do not deter.

From Agi Mishol, “Less like a Dove,” translated from Hebrew by Joanna Chen, Shearsman Books, London, forthcoming June 2016

The title "Holocaust, Remembrance, Independence" names the public rites of transformation in Israel that recount its foundation story.

Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day, last week, commemorates how European Nazis slaughtered Jews.

On Memorial Day for the Fallen of Israel's Wars, Wednesday of this week, Israelis (with the exception of most of Arab citizens, whose remembrances of the events in question are different and some ultra-Orthodox Jews, who don’t see this as “part of their tradition”) remember the impeccably moral fight in 1948 against the Arab armies, proving that Jews need not go as sheep to the slaughter.  

Independence Day (Thursday) celebrates the establishment of the state of Israel – a transformation of the Biblical Promised Land into a modern country with all the problems of being a Jewish and democratic state -- which has continued not only to fight Arabs in a series of wars, and to contend with terror attacks since then, but also with anti-Semitism in Europe and beyond.

Along the way, Israeli Jews have been transformed from diaspora foreign-language speaking weaklings who went like sheep to the slaughter into proud Hebrew-speaking warriors and high-tech experts.

This is the story in a nutshell, though of course it is much more complicated and nuanced

Agi Mishol. Credit: Iris Nesher

The dream-like poem grapples with this transformation story in terms of relationships between a father and a child.

Born in post-war Transylvania to Hungarian-speaking Holocaust survivors, Agi Mishol grew up in Gedera and has published more than 10 books of poetry. As translator Joanna Chen comments: “This poem is incredibly personal, as Mishol reveals her roots, her father and mother, and how her relationship to them has colored her world. Yet it is also a poem about the essence of the Israeli nation, its own roots and essential ceremonies, and Mishol's relationship to them.”

Stanza 1 begins with three persons flying, like superheroes or angels and almost echoing the Holy Trinity – “my father, myself and that blurry one called Agnes.”

Agnes, the common Hungarian name the poet was given in Europe, means “pure" in Greek and "lamb" in Latin; the poet, unslaughtered, chooses to be identified by a nickname that is part-way between the original name and a more – but not entirely –  Israeli-sounding name.

In stanza 2, they “plunge” from “beyond the stratosphere” (the “high” of the state of Israel) back into Europe – not literally, but into the deep gloom of silence and secrecy that characterized many survivor households.

Stanza 3 begins with the idea that had she not taken this dream journey with her father, she would have been physically and mentally much more instinctual and less conflicted about Europe (“slashing" across an entire continent, but because of the connection with her father, she will fulfil the commandment ordained by Holocaust Remembrance Day and not forget).

They “look like swallows copulating.” Incestuous? Perhaps in the way Freudians say happens in all families, but definitely an image of things not being what they seem to be – “we are just a father and a daughter.” The father becomes a dolphin – a Holocaust survivor is a mammal mostly submerged in a different element. The clown’s costume suggests the expectation common to many second-generation children that she will make everyone happy, sparing her mother’s sadness, yet there is nothing sadder than clowns.

The final verse echoes the official Independence Eve torch-lighting ceremony by outstanding representatives of Israeli society.

Citing the formula used at this rite, Mishol reiterates the name Agi she chose in the first stanza as her self-definition to replace her birth identity – but the “hollow girl” Agnes in stanza 1 remains attached to the father, encapsulating the dilemma of the “blurry” link between Israel today and the diaspora past. The “flames of words” are Hebrew poetry, which does not want to kill or deter anyone.

*Third generation bonus: Maya Mishol sings Agi’s poem “Station Train.”

Maya Mishol sings Agis poem Station Train"Credit: YouTube