‘If I Grew Fat, Very Fat, I Would Be Further From My Skeleton, From Death’

Israeli poet Agi Mishol’s poem ‘Until This Movie Ends’ is now translated into English for the first time. ‘I thought that if I grew fat, very fat, I would be further from my skeleton, from death,’ she says

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הנדריק גולזיוס אמנות
The Fall of Man, Hendrik Goltzius, 1616.Credit: National Gallery of Art
Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden

“Until this Movie Ends”

by Agi Mishol

Until this movie ends

She eats so as not to be.

Too close to her bones,

And for a moment it seems

That bread can cover the pit,

That the fruit she bit

Could transmute into life inside her

She is eating

Until this movie ends

Or the insanity crumples

Or the ship at long last

Enters port or the ant

Enters the lamp’s

Circle of light,

And the minerals

Secreted in Earth’s belly

Seep out of the ground water

Through the trunk, branches and fruit

And can transmute

Into love inside her.

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden, from “Kefel” (“Envelope”), Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 2020

Food is with us beyond nourishment, celebration, perpetuation of cultural values or the simple pleasure of the company of friends and family. Food is also a means for assuaging anxiety. Food is comfort; food is an antidote to stress. Excessive eating is at least doing something when no other action seems to help, in an attempt to turn misery into something resembling serenity, producing at best fool’s gold.

This poem was written during the difficult days of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an email prior to the translation, Agi Mishol wrote: “I thought that if I grew fat, very fat, I would be further away from my skeleton, from death.”

Indeed, food is necessary for staving off death – necessary, but not sufficient, and an excess of food can also lead to death or ill-health, as we are exhorted by some of our mothers, the president of Egypt, nearly all medical professionals and numerous diet gurus.

This is very much a soundtrack of our era, but it is not new: Shakespeare, for one, has Portia’s maid Nerissa comment toward the end of the 16th century in “The Merchant of Venice” (act 1, scene 2): “They are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing.”

The poem’s title in Hebrew, “Ad shehaseret hazeh yegamer,” refers to a common expression of scorn or dismissal, “hu chai beseret” – someone who “is living in a movie,” i.e., living a life of illusion or delusion.

Film actor-director Natalie Portman introduced the English-speaking world to the term in a February 2017 Vanity Fair video on Hebrew slang. The Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon hastened to fill in the blanks, explaining that the use of the phrase began in the early 2000s and may be connected to the Hebrew phrases “eating movies” (being incredibly delusional) or “entered the movies” (a reference to the strong experience felt after taking drugs).

Natalie Portman teaches Hebrew slang.

The poem depicts the pervasive sense of disassociation and depersonalization during the pandemic, when life was not entirely real as people’s worlds were turned upside down and inside out – or rather, outside in. The drug of choice here is food.

To “cover the pit” goes back to Exodus 21:33-34, a discussion of liability: “And if a man shall open a pit, or if a man shall dig a pit and not cover it, and an ox or an ass fall therein, the owner of the pit shall make it good; he shall give money unto the owner of them, and the dead beast shall be his.”

If she covers the pit, she will not become a repository of dead and expensively acquired meat – hopes, dreams and creativity – in that the specified domesticated animals were means of production. Moreover, in the strange kind of reasoning depicted in the poem, it would indeed be an act of good citizenship to eat enough bread to cover the pit and not cause damage to anyone else: She isn’t just eating for her own satiation and self-protection, but also for the general good. She is convincing herself that this eating is very moral.

Though the Hebrew words of “the fruit she bit” do not reflect the specific biblical language about Eve eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the picture does evoke that story: “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof.”

Back then, too, there was self-justification, according to the account in Genesis 3, because it is good to desire wisdom, isn’t it? The consequence of defiantly biting into the fruit and the way it can transmute into love and life inside her – a pregnancy trope, a big tummy trope – is the punishment of “In pain shalt thou bring forth children.”

The ship stuck outside of port could well be a reference to actual shipping news during the pandemic: a months-long backup of ships at the Israeli ports, causing huge inconvenience and supply-chain problems and price increases. “Merchandise, products and raw materials aren’t arriving on time, which is undermining Israel’s reputation as an exporter, hurting production and burdening cargo owners with extra payments,” leading manufacturers complained to then-Transportation Minister Miri Regev.

In the magical thinking here, the comforting but not entirely correct idea is that when the ships come in and the “movie” ends, the fear of death will also end. As humans, we know that it will not.

In the redeeming final image, the subterranean forces of nature rise through the body and make love possible. Water is the place where life begins, both in the history of our planet and in the womb. At long last, this connection with the most basic building blocks of our existence – hydrogen, oxygen, the essential minerals Earth gives us – can provide true comfort and the resolution of how one thing can turn into another: through the implacable chemistry of the planet, not the wishful alchemy of the edible.

Agi Mishol has published 16 books of poetry and has received the Prime Minister’s Prize, the Yehuda Amichai Poetry Prize and the Newman Hebrew Literature Prize, as well as honorary degrees from Tel Aviv University, Rehovot’s Weizmann Institute of Science and Ramat Gan’s Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and the 2019 Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award in Poland.

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