Friday, November 6, 2009

The Amazing Dahlia Ravikovitch

I want to celebrate a recently released translation of Israeli poet Dahlia Ravikovitch, translated by the duo of Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld, called Hovering at Low Altitude, The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch. Both have been translating Hebrew poetry into English for decades (check out their wonderful translations of Yehuda Amichai). Ravikovitch is considered in Israel to be one of the leading women poets of the past one hundred years, actually one of the leading Hebrew language poets period. I’ve read Ravikovitch’s work in translation before (The Window, published in 1989, and also translated by Chana Bloch is a shorter book but contains many of her best poems), but this latest release is much more comprehensive.

Dahlia Ravikovitch, similar to many poets writing in Hebrew in the 60s and 70s, adopted colloquial speech in her poems and wrote entirely in open verse. However, unlike some of her contemporaries (e.g., Natan Zach, Yehuda Amichai), who often wrote of the crisis of Israel, Ravikovitch's early writing was personal, dealing with depression, self-loathing, womanhood, motherhood, love and the lack of it. She was perhaps the first female poet that spoke of 'the body' and its objectification, albeit usually in cloaked terms (e.g., the poem "Clockwork Doll"). With that said, she was not a confessional poet, and many of her poems are personae, written in second or third voice, or directed at situations outside her own. She also wrote movingly about Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, often from the perspective of a woman. In reviews and analyses, Ravikovitch is often discussed as being a political poet, but it wasn’t until after Israel’s 1982 invasion into Lebanon, the last fourth of her life, that that the Palestinian and Middle East conflict became a central themes of her work. After the massacre of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila, carried out by the Christian Lebanese phalanges unleashed in the camps by the Israeli army, she wrote:

Over the sewage ponds of Sabra and Shatila
there you passed a considerable number of people on
from the land of the living to the land of the dead
night after night
first shots
then hangings
and then slaughter with knives
. . . and our sweet soldiers
they have asked nothing for themselves
they wanted so badly
to go home in peace.

This poem, whose title translates as 'You Can't Kill a Baby Twice' appears in her 1995 collection Col Ha-Shirim Ad Co ('All the Poems So Far'). As this excerpt illustrates, Ravikovitch’s work conveyed not only her compassion for the plight of the ‘other’ but her understanding of how the conflict affected Israel and Israelis. Her work in all cases, political or not, rode close to the vein. Her friends referred to her as 'a woman with no skin and bare nerves.' She died in 2005, reportedly of suicide.

I love her work and, for those searching for another Israeli voice (yes, we all know Amichai) Ravikovitch is a place to start.

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