Promised Land or Punished Land: Three Poets of Israel

Thursday, May 21, 2015

 A Cloud Inhaled Me: Collected Poems
Dennis Silk
Sheep Meadow Press, 2014 

Havoc: New and Selected Poems
Linda Stern Zisquit
Sheep Meadow Press, 2013 

Scorched by the Sun
Moshe Dor; translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Goldberg and Moshe Dor
Word Works, 2012

The harrowing headlines from Israel usually focus on what has happened in the past twenty-four hours; poetry tends to have larger concerns and a far longer memory. Three recent collections by poets who spent a significant part of their lives in Israel delve into the difficulty of living with a backdrop of violence as well as the stress of trying to survive there economically. The poets remain aware that the land they write of was the stuff of dreams for centuries upon centuries, and for many people, it still is. At every turn, politics is intertwined with ordinary life—walking through the Old City of Jerusalem, observing destitute people who insist on living near holy places, listening to music as it wafts through the kitchen—and finding a way to sing despite the presence and burning memory of war.

Two of the three collections were written in English, and one was translated into English. Americans may not realize that there is an active English-speaking literary community in Israel; Bar-Ilan University now offers an MFA in creative writing, taught in English. Israel has three official languages—Hebrew, Arabic and English—and this is reflected not only in its trilingual street signs, but also in its literary output. The Helicon Society runs a poetry school in both Hebrew and Arabic, and some English-language poets, such as Karen Alkalay-Gut, who taught at Tel Aviv University for many years, also translate from both Hebrew and Arabic into English. At the moment there is a controversial bill proposing to strip Arabic of its second-language status, but no one is proposing to get rid of English. Instead, some prominent Hebrew writers are embracing English; the novelist Amoz Oz and his historian daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger, for instance, published Jews and Words in English, and then it was translated into Hebrew. There is, then, an ongoing and growing dialogue between English, the lingua franca of the world, and the far older languages and textures of the Middle East. These three recent poetry collections reflect that fascinating conversation.


Dennis Silk (1928–98), whose book A Cloud Inhaled Me: Collected Poems was just published by Sheep Meadow Press, was a well-known personality in Jerusalem; a London-born poet and translator, he also wrote prose and experimental theater pieces. “Silk belongs to the now rare, if not extinct breed of autodidacts, undiplomaed and unaffiliated to any school other than the singing school of verse,” the poet Gabriel Levin writes in the introduction. Levin details how Silk left England and moved into a shack overlooking the old city of Jerusalem and “situated quite literally on the seam running between Israel and the pre-1967 border with Jordan.”

In that shack, Levin’s introduction explains, Silk hosted a parade of literary luminaries who visited Jerusalem in the 1960s and 1970s, including Robert Frost, Jorge Luis Borges, W. H. Auden, Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, and Saul Bellow. Silk wrote in his native language, English, describing a difficult Jerusalem, the one known to people who actually live there. Silk’s poem “Guide to Jerusalem” begins:

Jerusalem is a limestone cracked
by destitution, it is a beggar rattling
his tray for money or Messiah.
Here the past walks with a religious stoop at twilight,
talking to itself overmuch.
And the prophets are all dead;
the pious in their conventicles
are not consumed by any rapid fire
fetched down by the former travelling angels.
No bush burns in streets as narrow as doctrine. 

             Silk famously called an early sequence of poems “The Punished Land,” a play on “promised land.” His nine-word poem “Meal,” from a collection published in 1964, reinforces this idea:

Palestine earth
in my palm
eats the life line. 

            Other Silk poems have a wider span, detailing the isolation of living in the Middle East, where it sometimes seems the world does not care what happens to its inhabitants. Here is “The Jacket” in its entirety:

I will lie in the corner of my room,
a cast-off jacket,
and long for the discipline of a hanger.
There’ll be encounters with chairs,
a stone floor like the sea. 

Strange the eye of verse registers this.

In some glassy sense I am not here
yet I already lie here
buttonless and entire. 

            The sense of lying somewhere “entire” seems fitting for a Collected Poems, and perhaps for a New and Selected Poems as well. Linda Zisquit is an American poet who has lived in Jerusalem since 1978, and the imprint of the city is all over her work—especially in Havoc: New and Selected Poems. Zisquit was mentored by Robert Creeley, and she seems to have been influenced by his cadence and economy of language. She has translated the important Israeli feminist poet Yona Wallach, and also runs an art gallery in Jerusalem. Her early poems show her interest in Jewish texts and themes, as well as the gradations of domestic love. An example is “Ethics of the Fathers,” which is also the title of a famous Jewish text. Here is the short, spare poem in its entirety:

Eat a third, drink a third,
and leave a third for anger.
And after waking rise slowly.
And after lovemaking
rise slowly. And after too much
wine rise slowly. And after
bloodletting rise slowly.
We rise slowly after silence,
taking a breath at a time.
After days bent over the garden,
slight comment about our clothes,
the dust, the daylight.
Shaking off sand and dread,
our bodies rise and learn to speak again. 

            Later poems seem to have a more joyful attitude toward life in Jerusalem, though the poems always have an intelligent and nuanced awareness of its complex daily and ancient realities. Havoc is Zisquit’s strongest book yet, and within it, the most engaging poems are ghazals, a form originating in sixth-century Arabic verse—showing the influence of her geographic neighborhood. Instead of “leaving a third for anger,” there is a sense that “I have shadows and fear / inside a great wave of happiness.” After all these decades, it is clear Zisquit, a mother of five, has chosen the life that she has, and that infuses the ghazals with a depth and a gratefulness that is moving. Here are the opening lines of the ghazal “Hand”:

Music, cooking, smells of kitchen pouring through, a tired hand
and all I want to do is let the song take me, let the hand
go where it will, like two infants struggling inside a womb, one
comes out first and the other trails behind, later to lead, a hand 

of some further power guiding him. And of course his mother’s
love. I saw my younger son on the screen, his smile, his hand-

some face, now on his own, and knew that like the rain about to
fall, he was going somewhere I cannot fathom, but hand 

me any other life and I want mine back, I have shadows and fear
inside a great wave of happiness. Is that word allowed? Whose hand

would erase it?

            Both Silk and Zisquit remained in Jerusalem after immigration, despite its challenges. But for poets who leave the land—sometimes because they are exhausted or disgusted by political and economic reality, and sometimes for more personal reasons like falling in love with a non-Israeli—it is still difficult to erase its deep imprint. This can be seen in the poems of Moshe Dor, a household name in Israel. Dor is a stalwart member of dor hamedina—the generation of the state, or the generation that was in the land in 1948, when Israel was founded. He is best known for a poem that became a hugely popular romantic song and wedding ballad called Erev Shel Shoshanim, or Evening of Roses. It has been performed by the likes of Harry Belafonte. Dor left Israel for the United States (though he has since returned to Israel), and his longing for his homeland marks the poems in Scorched by the Sun, co-translated with the American poet Barbara Goldberg, with whom Dor has long collaborated on translations. Dor himself, it should be noted, is an active translator of American poetry into Hebrew, and it is always a delight to come across his translations in Israeli literary journals. The stronger poems here involve memories of the early days of Israel—the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s—and they function as a witnessing to history. An example is “Silence,” which begins:

We grew up on silence. Because of the oath
sworn over the gun, the lone candle flickering 

in the dark. Because we were a new generation,
praised for holding back—clenched mouths, emotion 

kept under wraps. Reared on lofty sentiments
we created ourselves out of fury, severing 

our umbilical cords with our own teeth.

            The poem goes on to detail a lack of tears when friends died. It was important, in those early years, to remain outwardly tough, to keep fighting. The stereotype of the sabra—a fruit hard and prickly on the outside, yet soft on the inside—comes to mind here. And yet, despite the outer layer of toughness they depict, the “clenched mouths” they describe, the poems are deeply aware of the terribleness of war. Rather than express a particular view of current Israeli politics, the best poems here capture the weariness and despair that all wars create. Here is “There Are Just Wars” in its entirety:

There Are Just Wars

and there are wrong wars
but every war is
anguish and untimely death
and cripples and smitten souls. 

There are wars that break out
in daylight and wars that begin
at night, but every war
is darkness even on sunny days 

and even when flares
turn night into day. 

Spring has arrived here
and walking along our street
I heard the song birds and asked,
“Birds, why are you singing, don’t
you know it’s war?” but they didn’t
heed me and kept on singing. 

            Dor, too, has tried to keep on singing. And that, perhaps, is the hope of all three of these poets, different as they are in temperament and style. Through their decades of active publication, all three have expanded the notion of what “Israeli poetry” is.