Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Book Review: Hamutal Bar-Yosef and Israel: Grief and Poetry

Grief never ends, at least for some people, perhaps for more people than any of us acknowledge. Moreover, grief is often complicated and sometimes seems outside individual control. In Israel, where the burned out trucks from Israel’s War of Independence still line the way from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, where every year the nation’s children travel to the European sites of the Holocaust, where the entire nation shuts down for Memorial Day (Yom Ha-Zikaron) and Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom Ha-Shoah), memory and the grief attached to memory are impossible to escape. For an American now living in Israel like myself, for someone who is not a Jew, Israel’s national obsession with grief often feels impenetrable. How does a people, how does an individual look forward, when it is of the past that one must constantly be reminded?

The Israeli poet Hamutal Bar-Yosef writes in an essay: Israeli culture demonstrates an unhealthy, even dangerous fixation on grief. Perhaps more troubling, Israeli culture has come to perceive mourning as a permanent state. Regrettably, this cultural approach to bereavement disregards, and even impedes, individual efforts to resume a normal life. Yet it is this same Israeli poet who memorializes her own grief in book after book, whose nine volumes of poetry reflect an almost singular fixation with loss. As Bar-Yosef asks in the poem “What is Impure:” 

What is impure
in touching the dead?
A black magnet
and so seductive
like the hole in a woman’s body—

Bar-Yosef provides no answer in the poem except to say later in the same poem that “you want never to return.”

I suppose it is not surprising that grief remains a central theme in Bar-Yosef’s poetry. It has been so most of her life. She was born in Mandatory Palestine in 1940 on a kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee. During Israel’s War of Independence, she lost her only brother. By the age of eight, she was reportedly writing poetry expressing the trauma of bereavement and the resilience of life. Later, she lost the youngest of her four children to suicide when he was but a teenager.

Hamutal Bar-Yosef is one of Israel’s most prestigious poets and, has received almost every national award. In addition to her nine books of poetry, she has written six books of literary research, short stories, a children’s book, and translated two collections of poetry from Russian into Hebrew. While some of her individual poems have been translated into English, it is only with the 2009 release of a bilingual selection of her poetry called Night, Morning, translated by Rachel Tzvia Back and published by The Sheep Meadow Press, that her work begins to reach a broader English-speaking audience.

Bar-Yosef says in an interview contained at the end of Night, Morning that she enjoys writing sonnets, odes, elegies, that she considers herself a conservative, both politically and poetically. However, the poems in Night, Morning in both their Hebrew and English translations appear entirely in free verse. The omission apparently is deliberate. Bar-Yosef says in the same interview that she and the book’s translator decided to avoid poems whose forms were sophisticated, allusive, or, strangely enough, musical.

What did carry over into the translations was the rich symbolism and metaphor Bar-Yosef often employs, especially in early poems, to tell her story. At times, the symbolism appears, at least to this reader, too easy and provides little added value to the overall collection. For instance, in one early and very short poem “Another Dream,” she writes

I was lying on a pile of diapers under corkscrew
apple peelings while large and small crawling
things climbed all over me and I was
soft and serene.

A dream of apprehension perhaps but nothing in the symbolism to suggest why the reader should care. The short poem that immediately follows called “I Forgot How to Scream,” continues in the same tone:

I lay on my back and whistled
the same empty song
on various flutes,
with glazed eyes studying
how the sheep nibble
each other’s ears.

However, more often, Bar-Yosef’s symbolic richness offers new ways of talking about experience and loss as when she writes in the poem “On the Fence,”

I jumped not into hell, but rather
into the kettle of boiling iron,
I became a bell.
Amicably I answer telephones
keep in shape and clear-minded
enjoy music and food.

This self-description suggests an outward acceptance of grief, the ability to surmount enormous loss and continue with life. Of course, perhaps speaking to God, she then reveals the hidden turmoil:

On the cold irons of will
beyond all true stories
hold me tenderly
and don’t mind the tears.

As earlier suggested, Bar-Yosef believes Israel’s permanent state of grief potentially hinders individual recovery. She echoes these sentiments in a poem titled “The Jackal:”

when outside we hear the waiting
of our wild-haired neighbor, the crazy one

then the howling jackals of our childhood return
to prowl with poisonous fever outside the thin
shutters of the old hut, engulfing us
with the wilderness of their rage and ruin.

It seems to me that in both cases, Israel’s and Bar-Yosef’s, grief can be a form of remembering, a way to make sure that the dead are forever with us. So grief itself provides a form of consolation, but, in Bar-Yosef’s poetry, it can also be the only form of revenge against enormous loss. In a poem called “Tel-Aviv,” Bar-Yosef reacts with violent rage when her grief is temporarily forgotten:

How and when did you strip me of my grief—
Rapist city of balmy winds, whore?

That is not to say that Bar-Yosef doesn’t attempt to find solace, even if any respite from memory proves only temporary. For her, solace is found, not in the people around her, but rather in daily life, in nature and in its returning cycles. In the poem “Hibiscus” she writes:

Lovely Hibiscus!
You have stunned my spirits
with your amazing dimensions
the shining, threatening, laughing purple
of your lips.


O Hibiscus,
you have filled me with burning.
What is yours? What is mine?
And who is the kindling
for the fire?

And two poems later, in “The Sea of Galilee’s Water Level Has Risen,” Bar-Yosef writes:

For years the Kinneret was dying before our eyes,
like an adolescent daughter
refusing to live because of us,
her absent parents

But now, this year,
her face is filling out.
Today the ancient lashes
of our eyes
are moist with joy.

It is the blossoming hibiscus that claims an exclamation point, the rising waters of the Kinneret (the Hebrew name for The Sea of Galilee) after years of drought that draw tears. Perhaps saying that what seems dead through winter can still bloom, what has been emptied by loss can be filled. But only if one allows them to be.

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