Locked down? Open up to… 3 exceptional contemporary Israeli poets
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Yonatan Berg, Shimon Adaf and Hagit Grossman in English

Locked down? Open up to… 3 exceptional contemporary Israeli poets

Two new collections have been released in recent months, and one slightly older poem serves as an anthem for these times

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

From left: Israeli poets Yonatan Berg, Shimon Adaf, and Hagit Grossman. (Micol Levi Yaron, Courtesy Wesleyan University Press; Ronen Lalena; Dina Gona)
From left: Israeli poets Yonatan Berg, Shimon Adaf, and Hagit Grossman. (Micol Levi Yaron, Courtesy Wesleyan University Press; Ronen Lalena; Dina Gona)

The taste and pungency of certain verses of poetry stay with us forever. Whether it’s Abraham Lincoln as the captain “fallen cold and dead” or the two paths in a wood, one having the better claim “because it was grassy and wanted wear,” the scenes endure, the cadences trotting on; a balm in a time of trouble.

Thankfully, in recent months, two new collections of Israeli poetry in English have been released, and another, not-so-new poem could serve as an anthem for this period in time.

I suggest you start with Yonatan Berg’s terrific “Frayed Light,” which was a finalist for the 2019 Jewish Book Award. (Disclosure: I’m friendly with Berg and the poet-translator, Joanna Chen.)

Raised in Psagot, a settlement north of Jerusalem, perched on a hilltop just above the Palestinian city of Ramallah, Berg offers us an unforgettable view of youth, of combat service in the army, time spent traveling, and, perhaps most pleasantly surprising to this reader, an emotional kinship with, and understanding of, biblical characters and stories.

Here’s Berg, in mid-poem, speaking from within the mind of Sarah the matriarch, staring daggers at Abraham’s second wife, Hagar:

Suddenly strong, I stride toward her,
My hand fisted, laughter erased, disappearing behind the last tent while
I take hold of him, lean into him
As his eyes follow her. She is already thirsty,
Containing her sons, who wait in the trenches for mine.

In a different poem, “Abraham,” Berg flips the story of the patriarch’s departure from Ur and the Midrashic tale of idol smashing to his own departure from his settlement, “leaving for a land made of music.”

‘Frayed Light’ by Israeli poet Yonatan Berg. (Photo Credit: Stephen White, Copyright: Anselm Kiefer)

In another riffing off the Tower of Babel story, he opens by saying: “Nothing prepares you for being foreign.” The rest, in Chen’s pitch-perfect translation, is so beautiful I’ll leave it for you to discover.

There are gems throughout. The second poem in the collection, for example, starts like this: “We travel the silk road of evening, tobacco and desire flickering between our hands.”

Psalms on a hot Saturday afternoon in the Sephardi synagogue, he tells us, are cool as the mouth of a cave, where “praises cover the decay” and “the unfamiliar flow, permanent inside us, of a weak, white light, like an unknown morning” starts to glow.

His father, whom he describes with great compassion, “does not sleep at night, his face is an ancient ship, relaxing its sails as the home port appears.” And on the first page, in the very first poem, entitled “Letter to the Reader,” he declares: “How I love the sound of glass hitting the floor of the room.”

Perhaps. But this collection is no rupturing; it’s an honest, heartfelt exploration that, like the work of Yehuda Amichai, is curious about the flags of laundry hung by the neighbor-enemies and, though it’s steeped in stories of the ancient and the holy, its gaze is averted from the old citadels and the Roman arches and turned toward the humane, toward people trudging home with fruits and vegetables for their families.

As Amichai famously wrote, only then will redemption come.

‘Aviva–No’ by Shimon Adaf

‘Aviva – No,’ by Israeli poet Shimon Adaf. (Courtesy of Alice James Books)

Shimon Adaf’s newest collection, “Aviva—No,” was longlisted earlier this month for the Best Translated Book Award 2020. Robert Alter, the great translator of the Bible, said it “may be the finest set of Hebrew poems on the death of a sibling since those of Shmuel Hanagid.”

Adaf, born almost 1,000 years after the vizier from Granada, in the border town of Sderot, has written seven books of prose. This is his third volume of poetry.

Covering the excruciating vacillation of grief after the death of his beloved sister, Aviva, it is, in Yael Segalovitz’s stunning translation, an arrestingly beautiful, if more challenging collection.

The first two lines of the first poem, denoted simply by the number 1, situate us:

I’m in a state of how does it go and I shall call it Aviva-no I shall call it sisterless/ and I shall speak of it with straightforwardness not by way of verse but by pain.

Adaf, like Berg, (though in very different surroundings) was raised religious.

There are many allusions to prayer and Mishnaic texts but none as piercing, to me, as Poem 8. This is the first stanza of the haunting, accusatory lament:

With what else should I praise thee, Lord, when I have praised with a rose’s tap, with a cascade
of nightingales at dusk, with treetops trimmed by skies of tin, wrought from light, with the lightning’s
strain dissolving the horizon, on the internet, Hallel,
in those hallucinatory depths Your apparition ascends, on the phone’s display I praised thee, with a
text message: call me now,
and I praised thee with my brother’s answer, with his city-splitting howl, boring through the ear:
You have to come. Aviva, Aviva is dead.

In a voice equipped with an acrobatic register, and one that, as Segalovitch suggests in an introductory essay, sometimes sounds like Job, Adaf charts a full year of mourning.

The journey alongside him, as he writes in poem 26, is “a lash of mercy.”

Hagit Grossman ‘On Friendship’

Lastly, if there’s one work of art that’s been foremost on my mind during these long weeks of social distancing, it’s a quiet, stirring poem by Hagit Grossman, an Israeli poet and novelist whose first collection of poetry in English, “Trembling of the City,” was released in 2016.

The poem “On Friendship” describes one of life’s simplest joys: inviting a friend up off the street.

It was published in The New Yorker in February 2016, in Benjamin Balint’s translation. (Disclosure: Balint is a friend and I’ve worked with Grossman and translated some of her work.) Read it and listen to it here.

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