Stars Bark in a Microcosm of This Place

Agi Mishol finds big questions in her backyard where dogs gnaw a rabbit’s skull.

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Stars: the Big Dog, the Rabbit and the Dove and the Awl.  From 'Urania's Mirror,' a set of constellation cards published in London, ca. 1825. The Library of Congress.
Stars: the Big Dog, the Rabbit and the Dove and the Awl. From 'Urania's Mirror,' a set of constellation cards published in London, ca. 1825. The Library of Congress.

For Now

Agi Mishol

The days resemble one another
the cat’s sharp claws rest
deep in her paws

in the yard the dogs
gnaw a rabbit’s skull
and my shadow grows very long

at night the stars come out of their kennel
I listen to the barking but
I have no answer

Agi Moshol.Credit: Kobi Kalmanovitz

spring is still putting its makeup on
under the soil.

From Malakh Haheder, Shirim 2005 – 2015 (“Domestic Angel, Poems 2005-2015”), Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House – Bialik Institute, 2015. Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden

Scholars note that after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israeli literature moved its focus from the collective to the individual. However, if you scrunch up your eyes and squint just so, in many Israeli poems today the soul can also be read as a microcosm of the place.

Take this poem, for example. In an in-between time, almost twilight, not exactly spring, literally like now and not yet the “Israeli spring”, “the days resemble one another” – no visible change.

Embodied in domesticated animals, nature’s potential for violence is partly dormant, just as it is in the country for now – “the cat’s sharp claws rest /deep in her paws,” but inevitably they will come out to pounce and kill, while in the meantime the dogs (predators? watchdogs? our best friends?) “gnaw a rabbit’s skull.”

The lengthening shadow introduces the poet as both observer and participant: an increasing presence but ultimately the shadow will merge into darkness. The same applies to the state and its influence on the world in general, Middle East and the Jewish world in particular – but it too may be facing dark times ahead.

Indeed the darkness comes, in a surprising image as “at night the stars come out of their kennel,” not just the Sirius the Dog Star, Canis Major (the Big Dog), Canis Minor (the Smaller Dog) and Canes Venatici (the Hunting Dogs) – but also all the familiar personalities, animals and objects in the named constellations  as well as all the stars with which only astronomers are on intimate terms.

A very large part of the universe, they make a huge noise – not harmonic music of the spheres but rather “barking.” What they bark is apparently questions, and the poet says: “I have no answer.” And indeed poetry in our era has more questions than answers.

The poem might have ended here, but MIshol takes it one step further to “beneath the soil,” where “spring is still putting on its makeup.” The operative word is “still” – nothing is fully realized as yet; something is about to happen.

A leading poet of her generation, Mishol was born to Hungarian-speaking Holocaust survivors and came to Israel as a child. She has been publishing poetry since 1972 and lives on a farm near Gedera.

*Musing: *Will the spring be naturally beautiful or the grimaces of a painted face?