Poem of the Week

Our Eyes Are Open but We Cannot See the Unbelievable

'There’s something else going on here' - Poet, playwright and librettist Israel Eliraz died last week. His translator pays tribute.

Israel Eliraz.
Rafi Kotz

(Two untitled poems)

Israel Eliraz

I see how the seen
seeks to be seen
and takes

One step forward

*

Here by the table by the egg by the names by the dishes by
the basket by the horrors by the singed and staggering by the memory
of things by their ripple

As in myth, this morning memory sends questions along
wires of answers

T r u l y, t h e r e’s  s o m e t h i n g   e l s e  g o i n g  o n  h e r e

The everyday is the world’s membrane

From “Halo Yeamen Pashut Yeshno” (The Unbelievable Is Just Here), Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2007. Translated from Hebrew by Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz

Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz.
Courtesy

The translator writes: “The first of these poem sections might summarize the mission of Israel Eliraz’ poetry:  There’s something 'out there.' Although our eyes might be physically open, we might not see it, not the thing in itself. But that thing – be it person, table, or even death – presents itself to us in an act of grace, and our task is to take our own step forward to meet it. Poetry is a witness to the meeting.

“In the second section, Eliraz opens a specific moment to our seeing, himself causing it to 'ripple' and sending us 'questions along wires of answers.'  What we might particularly question is whether the world we perceive when we hardly pay attention, or when we stuff the world into the ready-made boxes in our heads, is all there is to be seen. Or whether, instead, 'there’s something else going on here.' The word I translated as 'membrane' is literally 'grape skin.' The everyday is just the skin.  Underneath is the numinous grape of the world itself.

“The first Eliraz poem I encountered, in a review in Ha’aretz, began 'Every place here / is a path to a place / that is a path.' I was hooked. And I wanted to capitalize 'Place,' as in Hamakom, a rabbinic name for God. Eliraz would object. In a published dialog with Orthodox poet Hava Pinhas-Cohen), he asks, 'Is it possible for language to be purely only this moment and that I am not required to pass on the whole fabric of our culture?  That if I say ''makom'' you immediately run to the Holy Blessed One.?'

“To me, it doesn’t matter whether 'place' is capitalized or not.  Eliraz’ poetry helps me wake up and see the wondrousness of each place, and that is a wondrous gift.

"Israel Eliraz died last Tuesday, March 22, and was buried on Purim, a holiday of sometimes painful hiddenness and of joyous revelation.  His prodigious published output has won him all the major Israeli poetry prizes, as well as a French honorary title. Unfortunately, he’s little known in English, having (so far) only one book (“Via Bethlehem”) available in English translation. For the short while I knew him, he was a gracious teacher and was kind enough to call me friend. May his memory be a blessing.”

A graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Jeremy Schwartz is the rabbi of Temple Bnai Israel in Willimantic, Connecticut. He also translates Hebrew literature, especially poetry, and is a recipient of the American Literary Translators Association Conference Fellowship. He has published translations of works by two pioneers of “secular” Israeli spirituality:  A.D. Gordon and Ari Elon. 

*Bonus: Daniela Spector sings the title poem of “The Unbelievable is Just Here