Monday, December 28, 2009

Stepping on Orozco

I spent a few hours at New York's Museum of Modern Art checking out the Gabriel Orozco retrospective. Given all the hype and coverage, how could I not? To that point, here are a couple of the glowing critiques given by The New Yorker and The New York Times. Anyway, proving that I do actually agree with the critics once in a while, I quite loved it--it was funny and, at times, beautiful (e.g., the whale skeleton tattooed with seemingly-organic graphite abstractisms, the etched ceramic shells). Though there were a few found objects that I puzzled over (see the "Empty White Shoe Box" photo).

In honor of Orozco, and my experience with his white shoebox, I wrote a quick and slightly silly poem. Anyway, the exhibit is worth the trip but try and go at odd times to avoid the school kids and tourists. And no critiquing the poem, please, it's only for this page!

Modern Art

            It makes one appreciate the space around an artwork
            as much as the art itself.
                      - From, Dec 23, 2009

The guard grabbed my arm the moment I stumbled
on the small white box on the floor, crushing
one of its sides. Though it wasn’t until he whispered,
Good God!, that my eyes found the very tiny sign
on the wall behind, which read “Empty
Shoe Box,” Courtesy Marion Goodman Gallery, New York,
naming the object I’d just destroyed as Art.

It wasn’t my fault. A group of gangly girls
most likely on a school trip giddy with the scent
of each other or with being thirteen had pushed
past me, almost over me. Of course, I’d been absorbed
in a hunt for my glasses, one hand
holding the mouth of my messenger bag away
from my body, the other wrist-deep
in its depths. You see, I can’t really read
without them, actually without glasses
even familiar faces look fuzzy these days.

So perhaps it wasn’t odd that I overlooked
the white box on the floor
next to an equally white wall. I read later
that in ‘93, Gabriel Orozco, the artist, ran hours
through Venice’s dark flooded streets searching
for a similar box, after someone,
like me, kicked it during its first exhibition.

Less than two minutes later, a woman
in a black suit with creased edges and unexpected
purple punk hair emerged from a door etched
into a far wall. She held a brown paper bag
in one hand. The woman stepped quickly over
to us and without speaking to me
or the guards, reached down and picked up
the dented white box, tucked it under her left arm.

Then she reached into her brown paper bag,
extracted another white box exactly the same,
sans dent. She placed the box carefully
on the floor, turned it a few degrees
to the left, then stood and, still without saying
a word, returned through the door in the wall,
clicking it softly behind her. I wonder
what she told Marion Goodman.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Open Letters--Small Publishing of Big Translations

Speaking of today's New York Times Arts section, there was a long lovely article on a small, year-old press called Open Letter Books that does nothing BUT translation. The press, affiliated with the University of Rochester in New York, publishes 10-12 books a year and has an online literary website called Three Percent. Get it, 3%? Because translations account for only about 3% of the US book market.

Open Letter's list includes authors from all over the world--South Africa, Chile, Spain, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, France, region seems excluded and though there are no Middle Eastern or Asian writers, I'm sure we'll see representation as the publishing house evolves. Right? The concentration so far has also been largely fiction and essays, though they said to expect some poetry soon. I'm looking forward to that as well.

Anyway, for $100 you can receive all 10 of a year's publications, which seems a pretty good deal though given how much is already begging to be read on my shelves, I'm not sure I want to add to my pile without a thorough perusal. Their books DO have beautiful covers, so perhaps just looking at them might be worth the investment.

Check it out and kudos to what seems a really fascinating press.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

More Translation Please

In my last post, I was complaining a bit about the narrowness of translations of not only novels but also poetry into English. So, rather than complain, I thought I would highlight a couple of translation awards. Perhaps an idea for a late Christmas present or something to bring in the New Year?

First, there is the Popescu Prize for Poetry in Translation, which is a biennial prize awarded by the UK’s Poetry Society. You can think of the UK Poetry Society as analogous to the US Poetry Foundation. On their website, the UK Poetry Society call the Popescu a “prize for poetry translation” and, further down, a “prize for European poetry translation” featuring “poetry translated from another European language into English”. This year the Popescu went to Professor Randall Couch for his translation of Gabriela Mistral’s Madwomen. Of course Mistral is Chilean. The prize really is an honor for both the author and translator, though I’m not sure the Chileans enjoy having works by one of their own classified as ‘European.’

Of as much interest is the shortlist for the prize. I’m particularly intrigued by two authors I’ve never heard of: Elena Shvarts and Oktay Rifat. Without these translations, perhaps I never would have.

Of course there’s also the annual PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, which is conferred every spring in New York. The award recognizes book-length translations of poetry from any language into English published during the current calendar year, and is judged by a single translator of poetry.

Two PEN award winners I have particularly loved are Peter Cole’s translation of Aharon Shabtai’s J'Accuse; and Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld’s translation Open Closed Open by Yehuda Amichai. They could not be more oppositional in terms of tone--Shabtai is politically on the faaaaar left while Amichai was, I'd say, more middle left. There are no right wing Israeli poets, or rather, there are no well published right wing Israeli poets.

Anyway, I know that translation, perhaps more so in poetry than in novels, is almost impossible. A better word might be transliteration, representing words in one language into another. Moreover, a good translation depends as much on the talent of the translator as on the talent of the originating writer. But that doesn’t mean we ignore them. And it doesn’t mean that all is lost in the translated work. Rather, I believe that the act of reaching out, of trying to grasp another’s experience, another’s words, even if slightly garbled, broadens our own experience. How can we forego that?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Where are the Translations?

I’ve been browsing bookstores in New York, which has become an even greater pleasure since living in Israel, where there are no English language bookstores and the English language section of most Israeli bookstores is taken up by bestsellers and books on Jewish/Israeli themes. One point struck me—the volume of poetry books that are translations from other languages. Of course this includes such classics and required reading by authors like Beowolf, Chaucer, Dante, Homer, as well as what might be called translation candy (so good no one can resist and that seems to find its way into everyone’s stocking at some point) from Rilke, Rumi, Neruda, etc.

But taking up a lot of shelf space were fairly recent translations of Durs Grunbein, Adam Zagajewski, Jorge Luis Borges, Mahmoud Darwish, C.P. Cavafy. Not that any of these poets are likely to displace the Steven Kings and Dan Browns of the poetry world. Yes, you know who I mean—Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, and Billy Collins. Although I think all three of these poets have great merit. And what would my father give me every three years if not Billy Collin’s latest book of poems?

So I spent a few minutes congratulating readers of poetry for their broader interest. Certainly Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury, couldn't have mean poetry readers when he said last year, "The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature." Engdahl went on, "That ignorance is restraining." Well, maybe, maybe not. Because after my few minutes of satisfaction, I couldn’t help but note the lack of contemporary translation. Yes, there was another translation of Rilke, another of Darwish, but what of the thousands of poets writing around the world right now, today?

Of course I know the difficulty of translation, especially when most local poets in their respective countries have yet to garner a large enough body of work (not to mention local audience) to have translators outside their borders take note. Still. To that point, I want to shout out about a couple of blogs that highlight translations and works (in English) being produced outside US borders. Two I like are ShadowKnifePen, which always has interesting news and anecdotes of South American poets, and Absinthe Minded, which focuses on European poetry.

If you know of any, please dash off an e-mail to me. I’d love to take a look.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The People Spoke

I watched “People Speak” on The History Channel last night. I loved it. Some won’t agree. Howard Zinn, is, to say the least, a controversial figure, even an instigator. Many call him Marxist, socialist, anarchist, even liar. As one blogger put it today:

“Zinn has spent a lifetime teaching college students about the evils of capitalism, the promise of Marxism, and his version of American history – a history that has, in his view, been kept from students. His controversial 1980-book The People’s History of the United States paints traditional American history as a façade – one that has grotesquely immortalized flawed leaders and is based on principles that victimize the common man. In 2004, Zinn wrote a companion book entitled Voices Of A People’s History Of The United States, which includes speeches and writings from many of the people featured in The People’s History.

How could you put this forward as HISTORY? It's political commentary without attribution.”

History is written by the victors. I’m not sure who wrote that but it’s true and in America’s case, ‘victors’ include those in political and financial control, those who fund, publish, market the books we study in grade school.

With that in mind, I found Zinn’s program interesting, entertaining, even inspiring. I’ve read Zinn’s “The People’s History,” and yes, as the blogger writes, Zinn suggests that the history told in school, in books, is not the whole truth, but I think what Zinn is actually asking us to do is to view all accepted history with skepticism. There is no one history and for each group, perhaps for each person, it will be different. America’s history is certainly not always heroic. For many peoples, it was filled with tragedy and horror. But part of America’s greatness, I think, is that we are able to still hear voices telling those histories and recognize them. Zinn’s is one of the voices, and he puts forward the case for an alternate history, or at least versions of alternate histories, which I believe are no less true than those I read in my sixth grade history book.

In People Speak, various actors and celebrities recite the words of historical figures such as Susan B. Anthony, Langston Hughes, Cesar Chavez. Yes, Zinn sometimes seems a little heavy handed in his dismissal of the ‘accepted’ history but the words, poems, songs, speeches he evinces should be heard. Here is one I particularly loved, a speech given by the African American abolitionist and woman's rights activist Sojourner Truth in 1851 at The Ohio Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. It’s not the version on Zinn’s program, but equally spellbinding:

As a citizen of Israel, I’ll add that Israel is similarly experiencing the painful recognition of alternate histories. There is valid Palestinian anger to the Israel Palestinian conflict—towns were razed, people killed, intent sometimes verged on evil. Israel is beginning the painful recognition that their truth is not the Palestinians. Revisionist historians who write about Israeli transgressions such as Benny Morris have gained widespread recognition, films such as Beaufort and Waltz With Bashir, which present the moral ambiguity of Israel’s history, were wildly popular and won many awards. Anyway, in both cases, that of the US and Israel, history moves, as it must.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Re-considering My Retreat

It’s been three weeks since I took ownership of this condo in New York and it still feels like a hotel. The sheets creased from their boxes, the towels sloughing off the small pills of newness, indecision regarding where to hang a picture, place a lamp, even the perfection of the wood floors and newly painted walls feel strange. Like a new car, it won’t be until I make that first ugly scratch in the wood or the first long black scuff along the base of the walls (and not immediately spend hours trying to erase it) that I’ll feel it’s mine. I also need neighbors! Only myself and five others in the nine stories. I know I’ll miss the absolute quiet of the mornings but I want to hear a few footsteps, doors slam, an argument at an unseemly hour of the night.

I go back to Israel in January (for anyone wondering, I’ll split my time between NY and Tel Aviv). I haven’t studied a word of Hebrew, opened up an Israeli newspaper, answered an e-mail from an Israeli friend in three weeks. Yes, I know. I claim that my deliberate ignorance is a form of hermetic retreat. I needed a few weeks away from the always-terrible news to regroup. Don’t we all sometimes need to block out what bothers us most? If not to give our emotions a rest, than to strengthen our ability to evaluate, understand, fight, whatever… its onslaught.

But I am re-entering the world of poetry (and this blog). Tonight Marie Howe, Mark Doty (two of my favorites) along with Dale Peck and Kate Walbert read at an event sponsored by The Writer’s Studio. Tomorrow, perhaps, perhaps I won't turn off the news and let news of Israel trickle in.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Loving Every Version of Rilke

Someone once wrote that Rilke is ‘easy,’ that readers who enjoy Rilke’s emotional and excessive words exist on some plane whose borders don’t reach the deeper, the more complex, (dare I say it) the harder shores of what some consider today’s most important poetry. Rilke, some say, is poetry light. Compounding the perceived infraction is that the innumerable versions of Rilke’s poetry, translated from its original German largely by folks who speak little or no German, bear little resemblance to Rilke’s abstract verse. So, whatever the reader is enjoying isn’t actually what Rilke intended. At least according to Marjorie Perloff. Well, I have loved Rilke for most of my life and can remember the first night I read his Duino Elegies, the shiver it sent over my skin.

In the introduction to a new enormous translation of Rilke by Edward Snow, poet Adam Zagajewski claims that Rilke is probably more widely read in the United States than in Germany. Ange Mlinko, who penned a wonderful essay about Snow’s volume, thinks this fact implies something about Americans' fascination with existential homelessness and self-invention and drift. Perhaps. It’s hard to remember that in his time, Rilke was not well known, and lived mostly on the largesse of second-tier aristocrats. He was homeless. But as Mlinko goes on, “It was out of his experience of homelessness that Rilke fashioned a persona who speaks with an elegiac voice not for himself but for the world of consciousness, which migrated here into animals (often cats), there into objects (roses, sculptures)”.

I also think Rilke’s draw also relates to America’s more spiritual bent, our drive to see meaning, a unity, under and between our lives. We Americans are an optimistic bunch. Arguing a bit with Zagajewski, Mlinko writes, “We read Rilke for a vocabulary that transcends our little, individual languages to a universal (and premodern) figural vocabulary of the lyric. If it is an illusion, it is an optimistically American one--and still generative”. I love this poem, “Autumn Day,” translated by Stephen Mitchell (whose translations of Rilke I still go to most). Like so many of Rilke’s poems, it is both celebration and lament.


Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.
Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander along the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

- Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Stephen Mitchell

Rilke’s philosophy is one that stands in opposition to that igniting much of post modern poetry and its pessimistic fragmentation, which suggests that any meaning, any reality, is illusion. Rilke’s poetry yearns and strives toward some sort of visibility with full knowledge that visibility may prove impossible. It is that striving, that yearning, that, I think, resonates with many readers, including myself. Should I care whether the finger drawing down my spine is Rilke’s or Stephen Mitchell’s or Edward Snow’s? I can’t say that I do, it just gives me one more reason to read yet another translation.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

New York and Viggo Mortensen

I’ve been in Manhattan the past two weeks, closing on a small condo that lies on the intersection between Hell’s Kitchen and Upper West Side. Why? To be closer to family and friends is one reason. But more importantly, to put some distance between myself and Israel. I still ‘live’ in Israel, but have a feeling I’ll be spending more time in Manhattan. How I balance work and writing poetry and marriage and caring for family (and my lovely dog) is still to be determined.

By the way, the reason to see The Road (the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s book of the same title), is to gaze on the face of Viggo Mortensen. Mortensen plays the ‘The Man,’ the lead character of the film. He is fifty years old in real life but in the film, looks older. His face is cracked by the tragedies of the film as he watches the world and humanity slowly die. But his face, his eyes, are mesmerizing, and I couldn’t look away. I suppose if the world fell apart in slow motion it would look like his face. I think also that growing old might not be so bad if one had such a beautiful visage as Mortensen to gaze at every day. Yes, I know, I have a crush.

I loved the movie and the book, but I will tell you that my father and husband both found it boring. So, be your own judge.

Friday, November 13, 2009

One Writer for Every Nation?

I was a bit dumbstruck when an acquaintance of mine, who lives in New York, said she ‘knew’ Israeli literature well—she’d read at least two books of poems by Yehuda Amichai and the autobiography by Amos Oz. As though Israeli literature stopped and started with two male Ashkenazi writers, both of them Jerusalemites, and both of them born before Israel was even a recognized country. I gently reminded her that there were hordes, hordes of men and women writing in Hebrew, Arabic, English that are also “Israeli” writers. I’ve read quite a few of them (and the bookstore shelves still overflow), most in translation, and wouldn’t begin to assume any deep knowledge. Appreciation is more the word.

But then the cultural elite (who are they?) always searches for the voice that represents a particular region, nation, even continent. In South America, it was Borges (who's Argentinian) and Garcia Marquez (who's Columbian), at least until Chilean writer Roberto Bolano assumed the crown. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE Bolano, having consumed Savage Detectives, 2666 (although the fourth of the fifth sections was a bit of a gory slog), and most recently The Skating Rink (even if one reviewer calls it ‘Bolana for beginners'). Like his predecessors, Bolano, especially after his 2003 death from liver failure, has become more myth than man. In this article his good friend, Horacio Castellanos Moya, said he believes, "Bolano would have found it amusing to know they (the cultural elite) would call him the James Dean, the Jim Morrison, or the Jack Kerouac of Latin American literature". (I love this picture of Bolano smoking that cigarette--such a bad boy!) In a similar vein, the award-winning Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe has spoken out about his dislike at being labeled "the father of modern African literature". “I don't want to be singled out as the one behind it because there were many of us – many, many of us," he said when asked about the title.

I suppose though, for those of us presented with the 1000s of books published each year with only enough time to read a fraction of those, that we manage to crack the binding of even a few works by those from other cultures is something to be applauded. So, while I might chastise my friend for suggesting that Amichai and Oz represent the whole of Israeli literature, their works are amazing, and that she has found time to read them, love them, well, that is more that can be said for most. Isn’t it?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Literary Sexism

So, a few days ago Publisher’s Weekly came out with their Best Books of 2009. There are some yummy books on the list for sure but as several folks have pointed out, no women writers made it to the exalted list. PW did pat themselves on the back for noticing the omission with the words: “We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz. We gave fair chance to the “big” books of the year, but made them stand on their own two feet. It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male”. Good for them.

That no females appeared on the list bothered me as much for the fact that I didn’t even notice until a few others pointed it out, than for the actual omission. I mean 2009 was a good year for women writers. I am neck deep in books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Margaret Atwood. And while I’m perhaps not the best judge, Women in Letters and Literary Arts put out their own list of great 2009 reads by women writers. in retrospect, I think maybe one of them might have made PW’s list.

Anyway, back to me, as Lizzie Skurnick, a contributor to Politics Daily, wrote in regards to the PW snub: “But that's the problem with sexism. It doesn't happen because people -- male or female -- think women suck. It happens for the same reason a sommelier always pours a little more in a man's wine glass (check it!), or that that big, hearty man in the suit seems like he'd be a better manager. It's not that women shouldn't be up for the big awards. It's just that when it comes down to the wire, we just kinda feel like men . . . I don't know . . . deserve them”.

Am I also guilty of such perceptions? Yikes. Back to Adichie and Atwood.

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.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Living is No Laughing Matter

Two days ago, International PEN Congress Issues Eleven Resolutions on Free Expression. Unlike writers in countries such as China, Cuba, Iran, Turkey, many countries in South America and Asia, we read and write with few restrictions put on our pen. Something we should all remember.

Here’s poem by Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet called On Living. Hikmet was a Turkish poet, essayist, novelist repeatedly arrested for his political beliefs and spent much of his adult life in prison or in exile. This poem speaks to his lyrical genius and poetic optimism. It is one of my favorites. I've only committed the last amazing stanza to memory, but am working on the rest.


Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example-
I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.
Living is no laughing matter:
you must take it seriously,
so much so and to such a degree
that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
your back to the wall,
or else in a laboratory
in your white coat and safety glasses,
you can die for people-
even for people whose faces you've never seen,
even though you know living
is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you'll plant olive trees-
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don't believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.


Let's say you're seriously ill, need surgery -
which is to say we might not get
from the white table.
Even though it's impossible not to feel sad
about going a little too soon,
we'll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we'll look out the window to see it's raining,
or still wait anxiously
for the latest newscast ...
Let's say we're at the front-
for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
we might fall on our face, dead.
We'll know this with a curious anger,
but we'll still worry ourselves to death
about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
Let's say we're in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
before the iron doors will open.
We'll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind-
I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
we must live as if we will never die.


This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet-
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space ...
You must grieve for this right now
-you have to feel this sorrow now-
for the world must be loved this much
if you're going to say ``I lived'' ...

February, 1948
Trans. Randy Blasing and Mutlu

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Blank Page

As I was surfing the Internet (or rather trying to distract myself from the blank page in front of me), I came across this piece of video art by Israeli artist Ariel Schlesinger. It captured my inability to put a single word on the page, the enervation, the attention/inattention I was paying to the page, the feeling of being on the cusp of inspiration only to have the flash snuffed out.

As one reviewer of her work wrote way way back in 2008 (doesn’t that seem a long time ago): Schlesinger’s works are weird science for the sake of the beautifully uncanny. In Forever Young (2005), a single ash burns perpetually in a cracked ashtray at the gallery entrance. A soggy cardboard box, Zu Erinnern und Zu Vergessen (To Remember and To Forget, 2008), holds a shallow puddle of water that somehow never seeps out onto the gallery floor. Rolls of masking tape, joined – like Siamese twins – at their cardboard cores, stand on a pedestal in Untitled (Masking Tape) (2008). Doesn’t that make you want to see more? Lots of her conceptual video is online on YouTube or other sources. Check it out.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Another Whiff of Ozymandias

As if I didn’t already believe in synchronicity, the Poetry Daily Newsletter dated October 26, 2009 (today!) that I subscribe to from, included a link to the web-based presentation of “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Petra and its 2000 plus year old relics and carvings echo Shelley's poem. I include here a photo I took of a Petran carving only two days ago (see my previous blog for more info on Petra). All that remains of the man, perhaps he was a king, perhaps just an ordinary traveller, is his bottom half. Still, the stone caftan of the man seems to wave in the breeze and up close one can make out the outline of toes. Here’s the Shelley poem from the link and some reflective text as written by poet Jon Pineda:

by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Jon Pineda Comments:

Given the current state of the economy, I felt Shelley’s “Ozymandias” would be a poignant poem to revisit, especially with the way in which the reader becomes the final witness to the “colossal Wreck, boundless and bare.” At the start, the poem quickly moves from the announced first person to the detailed account of the “traveller” (who goes on to reveal the various details of the “shattered” ruler’s monument). This subtle shift is, in some ways, a relinquishing of responsibility for the unfolding narrative.

By the end of the poem, it is the reader who is left to not only sift through the “decay,” but to be equally consumed by it as well. In rejoining the remnants of the mocking sculpture with the sterile bravado of the “King of Kings,/ Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” the reader is (to further the irony) put to work by the ruler, rebuilding again the affecting presence of the ego, all while the insipid structure of the void beckons in those “lone and level sands stretch[ing] far away.”

About Jon Pineda:

Jon Pineda is the author of Birthmark (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), winner of the Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry Open Competition, and The Translator's Diary (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2008), winner of the 2007 Green Rose Prize. His memoir, Sleep in Me, is forthcoming in 2010 from the University of Nebraska Press. He currently teaches in the MFA program in Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte, and this June, he will be on faculty at the Tinker Mountain Writers' Workshop held on campus at Hollins University.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Whiff of Ozymandias

I just finished the first of two days in Jordan. Most of it was spent exploring Petra, which is an ancient city constructed around 100 BC by the Nabateans (no, I'd never heard of them either!). Petra is located in southwestern Jordan about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of the Dead Sea and the border crossing with Israel. The excavated city (and there is apparently more underneath the sand and rock) extends along the eastern flank of a great rift valley that runs from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba called Wadi Araba for a good 10 kilometers. It remained unknown to westerners until it was ‘discovered’ by a Swiss explorer in 1812.

I had read many resources on Petra and seen countless pictures, but it is impossible to be prepared for the staggering beauty and scale of the actual site. The ‘buildings’ are not actually built, but carved into the sheer rock faces of mountains of rust-colored sandstone. According to our guide, a Jordanian, the artisans would first construct enormous piles of sand alongside the mountain they wished to chisel. As they completed work, they would cart the sand to a new location, working top down versus bottom up.

At the height of its power, the city reportedly held around 10,000 inhabitants. Our guide told us that he believed there were over 100,000 known tombs in the valley, which would include generations of deaths. According to what I’ve read, the Nabateans believed that the soul departed from the body and continued to live after death, so it should therefore continue to be fed and clothed by its living descendants. In fact, one’s house became one’s tomb, which is why there are so many available tombs at Petra. It gave me an eerie feeling to be surrounded by so many buried bodies.

Petra remained a trading hub until around 300 AD or so even after the Romans conquered the city early in the millenium. But after trading routes migrated and after an earthquake destroyed much of the water infrastructure, Petra gradually disappeared from records.

A somewhat well-known poem about Petra, written in 1845 by John William Burgon, an English Anglican divine was awarded the British Newdigate Prize that same year. Proving that it is indeed possible to imaginatively travel without leaving the comfort of one's armchair (although not as much fun!), Burgon had only heard Petra described and never set foot in Jordan or the city. The poem is 350 lines long in rhymed couplets, and to my ear, fairly bland. It doesn’t approach the unburied majesty of the city, but here is an excerpt nonetheless:

It seems no work of Man's creative hand,
by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,
match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
a rose-red city half as old as time.

But, I will say that I do like that last line!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Meir Shalev in Queens, NY

On November 15, Meir Shalev, one of Israel’s leading writers of nonfiction and fiction, will be the featured speaker at the 14th Annual Author’s Café of the Central Queens YM & YWHA in Forest Hills. The event kicks off at 2PM. Blue Mountain was the first of Shalev’s books I read, not long after I came to Israel. I adored the book’s three generations of Israeli-Ukranians, but did find some of the characters flat. I think it was the translation, because his most recent book, A Pigeon and a Boy is fabulous (here's a review, also). The book weaves past and present together, telling two stories—one of a slightly bizarre pigeon handler from Israel’s early years, and the second of his son, an Israeli tour guide going through a bit of a mid life crisis. There is a bit of history, Jewish culture, and some really fabulous characters. But that summation sells the book short, and I’d recommend the book and, if you’re in the area, a listen to the author.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Real" Religion

Religion can be beautiful—the ritual, biblical poetry, and certainly it has inspired some of the most breath-taking works of art known to us. BUT, religion can also be brutal and its history reflects many of humankind’s basest impulses. As for the Christian Bible, whether one believes the text is received truth or largely human embellishment (as I do), even fabrication, to ignore the vile and violent means that half of the story, the human story, is lost.

So it is with some relish, I note two recent attempts at underscoring the ‘real’ of religion, or at least of Christianity. The first is an exhibit at London’s National Gallery called The Sacred Made Real and largely revolves around Spanish paintings (e.g., Velasquez and Zurbaron) of the 17th century. As you can see by the illustration I’ve included, the art looks almost contemporary, at least from the distance of my 17 inch computer screen. I hope to make it to London to see it up close.

The second effort I want to note is an illustrated Book of Genesis just released by controversial artist Robert Crumb. Not surprisingly (Crumb is the creator of Fritz the Cat, a sexually graphic "underground" comic strip) and according to reviews I’ve seen, the book is shock-your-grandmother explicit. The book depicts, as recorded in the Bible, people actually having sex (e.g., Lot does indeed have incestuous sex with his two daughters) and there is a lot of violence. Of course, these pictures have been greeted by hostility by most church leaders, but that they accurately depict the goings-on in Genesis cannot be denied.

I'm keeping my eye out for a cheap flight to London this Fall, and I am definitely ordering Robert Crumb's book, if just to support the author.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Other Stories

I often worry that I am so inculcated into the secular Israeli world, into the westernized version of the Middle East, that I fail to see details of what surrounds me. I’m not sure I will ever get to a ‘truth,’ I mean there are tens, hundreds of versions of not only what happened, but what is happening day to day in the Israel that I encounter. My Jewish husband and his children have a story, I have another, the Arab Israelis, the Palestinians, Syrians, the Bedouins, the Druze, the various tribal and family groups that pass undetected under my insensitive radar have still others.

Chimamanda Adichie, the award-winning Nigerian novelist and short story writer, captures my concern more eloquently that I could ever voice it in a talk she gave a few months ago at TED. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a small nonprofit group that holds conferences and provides a forum for lectures and talks by thinkers, politicians, artists, you name it. There is a web site where many of the talks are available for free. And they are great! Adichie’s was just released this week.

Anyway, back to Adichi, she talked about how her early readings of books by western authors led her to believe at a young age that there was only ‘one story’ as reflected by literature. That one story, at least early on, revolved around white foreigners doing and saying things that didn’t encompass aspects of her life. Her life, and indeed Nigeria's or even Africa's, was not one that found its way into literature. It was only later after reading books by African writers that she grew convinced that she had a story to tell, that she had African stories to tell. But, what was more interesting, was that she revealed her story often was built on its own stereotypes—stereotypes about those of other classes and countries, stereotypes of others that resided outside her relatively small world. Stereotypes, she says, are often not wrong, just incomplete. It is only by recognizing our own stereotypes and attempting to step around them, we gain some fuller version of the world. My prose here fails to capture the fluency of her talk and I hope you give the video a listen. As she said at the end of her talk, when we reject the idea that there is a single story about any place or people, we regain a kind of paradise.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Acts That Go Unnoticed

I read this on Paul Lisicky’s blog (a great poet and teacher). I don’t know him but read his blog often for its beautiful photographs, poems, and prose. It is from a few days ago:

The Women of Lockerbie

Listening to the radio one day, I heard about a play written by Deborah Baley Brevoort, called The Women of Lockerbie. One day in December the sky exploded and the remains of Pan Am Flight 103 fell upon Lockerbie, Scotland. Among the many horrors one stood out for its seeming insignificance: what to do about the 11,000 articles of clothing belonging to the victims? The clothing, of course, was filthy and stained with jet fuel, clothing that carried the stench of death; the authorities called the clothes "contaminated" and decided that it must be incinerated. But the women of Lockerbie prevailed upon the U.S. government to release the clothing to them. Over one year’s time, 11,000 items of clothing were washed in streams before being packed and shipped back to the families.

When asked why they had done this, one Lockerbie woman explained that every act of evil must be turned into an act of love.

Until recently I didn’t know anything about this clothing or the women of Lockerbie who washed it, but right now I am wondering what their thoughts are this week, and, more importantly, what they are doing. It seems urgent to me to find out.

I googled the story. Here you can find a brief London Times news item with additional information about the play Paul mentions that was written and produced based on the women of Lockerbie story.

I suppose the story especially touched me after having watched how Libya “heroically” received one of the architects of the Lockerbie bombing a few weeks ago after Britain released him for health reasons. Or perhaps I just find their act beautiful.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Damien Hirst Really Can't Paint

At first reading, I was a bit relieved, even a bit, OK, euphoric that the London Times trashed Damien Hirst’s newest art exhibit at the Wallace. The paintings as the critic states are “dreadful.” From the illustrations I’ve seen online, they resemble the velvet paintings my brother and I crafted during early adolescence. At the same time, I admire Hirst's return to actual painting, versus managing a warehouse of assistants who turned out replicas of his work. As has been much reported, the majority of the thousands of works Hirst ‘created’ over the past few years has been at the hands of some anonymous apprentice. Granted other artists use assistants, especially for large installations, but Hirst turned help to factory hands.

Hirst won’t be surprised at the responses. In an interview 10 days before the show opened, the interviewer asked, “How do you think the new paintings will be received?” Hirst's response? “I’m expecting to get slagged off,” he says under his breath, as if it would tempt fate to say it louder. “But you know what Warhol said, ‘If critics say they don’t like something, just make more.’ ”

Some of my snide euphoria may be because Hirst has made millions from his art. Just last year, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, Hirst’s sale of 223 works at Sotheby’s, raised £111m. For that sale, Hirst cut out his long-time galleries (and their respective margin) from the sale. The move did seem openly mercenary especially as Hirst didn’t need the money and a few of the galleries supported him when he was a nobody.

But, for Hirst, art might not have a goal more profound than profit. “There are lots of ways of measuring success beyond the financial,” explains Hirst. “It’s not really the money that I like, it’s the language of money. People understand money. There are people who might have dismissed my work who can’t any more.”

Well, maybe, but it sounds like this time around, money or no money, his art is being dissed if not dismissed.

Here's a short poem by Jennifer Harding titled "poem for the alter identity of damien hirst:"

he saw his friend
as a man who could talk openly
about his heart.
until one day,
he told himself that perhaps
he was mistaken
concerning the presumption put into his head.
making believe he knows alot
when in fact
he knows nothing.

Monday, October 12, 2009

My Life on Camera

This week we installed six, yes six, video cameras outside our Tel Aviv home. The cameras aren’t to scare away terrorists, Arab or otherwise, but more to scare away local homegrown thieves. We’ve had a few break-ins in the neighborhood over the past six months, one in which the housekeeper was tied up and gagged for eight hours. This kind of thing had been rare—there is a policeman in the neighborhood and lots of stay-at-home moms and nannies. Perhaps the downturn in the economy is the culprit, perhaps the word got out that it was actually a fairly relaxed spot for thievery. I mean most of the nannies are part time and most of the stay-at-home moms aren’t home.

The local security polled the neighborhood and asked those of us that could to install cameras. The cameras not only record the entire perimeter of our house for our viewing pleasure, but feed into the local police department. Many agreed to participate and, for some reason, so did we. I hate them. Keep in mind we already had a centrally monitored alarm system. So we are now pretty much locked down. Every time I pass in or out of the house, play with the dog in the grass, sit outside in the evening with a glass of wine, I realize that my every movement is being recorded. I am absolutely sure that no one is interested or cares what goes on around my house, but still, the idea is unnerving.

My husband says I’ll get used to them. I’m not so sure. And anyway, a part of me hopes not. The idea that I’d suddenly find 24/7 monitoring the new normal is perhaps even more disconcerting.

In honor of my new life on camera, here’s a newly posted poem by the fabulous Heather McHugh from Narrative Magazine.

Webcam the World

GET ALL OF IT. Set up the shots
at every angle; run them online
24-7. Get beautiful stuff (like
scenery and greenery and style)
and get the ugliness (like cruelty
and quackery and rue).
There’s nothing
unastonishing—but get that, too. We have

to save it all, now that we can, and while.
Do close-ups with electron microscopes
and vaster pans with planetcams.
It may be getting close
to our last chance—
how many

millipedes or elephants are left?
How many minutes for mind-blinded men?
Use every lens you can—get Dubliners
in fisticuffs, the last Beijinger with
an abacus, the boy in Addis Ababa who feeds
the starving dog. And don’t forget the cows

in neck-irons, when barns begin
to burn. The rollickers at clubs,
the frolickers at forage—take it all,
the space you need: it’s curved. Let
mileage be footage, let years be light. Get
goggles for the hermitage, and shades for whorage.
Don’t be boggled by totality: we’re here to save the world

without exception. It will serve

as its own storage.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Herta Muller Twitters

The newest literary Nobel Laureate, Mutter twitters!. I couldn't resist sending this:

Herta Muller: "I believe that literature always goes precisely where the damage to a person has been done." And I salute the ambiguity of this statement as I'm not sure if she means as a balm, or as a knife twisted in the wound. Haven't we all experienced it both ways?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Obama's Down Payment for Peace

OK, Barack Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize doesn’t have a lot to do with literature (of course everything has a little to do with literature), except it is a twist to the story, for sure. It must be the first time the Nobel Peace Prize has gone for good intentions and charisma. I mean, I adore Obama, he is my President, and I feel proud America elected him. But really, he hasn't accomplished much in the peace department just yet. I know here in the Middle East, his award was greeted with a singular, "What are you kidding me?"

Nominations for the Peace Prize closed February 1, which means that Obama was nominated after a scant 10 days in office. Granted, it was a good ten days, and the judges were allowed to consider the 270 or so that followed, but not a lot of Obama’s vision has been realized. My first thought was that it had a bit to do with how much the international community despised George Bush and his policies. So why not give a big fat smooch as well as $1.4 million to his successor to prove it? Another more optimistic follow-up thought was that it's the committee's way of endorsing Obama's vision and their way of placing a hopeful stake in the ground. It would be nice to think the award would help close a few deals, but speaking from the Middle East, I don't think folks here really care.

But why does Obama need this? So far, the award has been greeted with nothing but confused pride by those who admire Obama, and sneers and ridicule by those who don't. Even Obama seems a bit confused.

As the New Republic best puts it, "at best, then, the award is a mixed blessing." That’s why Obama should consider the advice of Alex Massie from The Spectator, and others and, in a gesture of his humility, refuse to accept it. It would be the right thing to do in principle. It might also be smart politics.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Surprise! The Nobel in Lit Goes to a European!

Herta Muller? OK, I guess not a lot of her prose/poetry has been translated into English, but Herta Muller? I guess the good news is that it didn't go to Bob Dylan, who had 25-1 odds. I was really hoping for Amos Oz (who had same 3-1 odds as Herta) or Philip Roth or Joyce Carol Oates or Adonis or at least a non-European.

Oh well, the Nobel is not supposed to honor “the world’s best writer.” The guidelines, as described in Alfred Nobel's will, say that the award must go to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Perhaps that's why my idealism keeps faltering--no Herta Muller in my kit bag.

Oh, and one more thing, doesn't she look exactly like Madeline Kahn from the movie Young Frankenstein?

Of course, the onus is now on me to track down some of her work. And, I also admit, she and her work sounds pretty damn interesting. Here’s an excerpt and short description of one of her few books translated into English, “Everything I Possess I Carry With Me”:

‘I know you’ll come back’. These are the words the grandmother of seventeen-year-old Leopold Auberg says to him the night he is collected by Russian soldiers for deportation to a labour camp in the Ukraine. From the very first page of this compelling new novel it becomes clear that Müller is an author who wields an extraordinary power over words. Equally astonishing is her convincing handling of such a serious subject: extensive research and collaboration with the late Romanian-German poet Oskar Pastior about his experiences in the Gulag have given this work a life force of its own.

As the reader joins the young narrator his family are helping him pack his few belongings together into an old gramophone case, trying to overcome their fear and helplessness at his departure. He is herded onto a cattle train with other camp internees and undergoes the gruelling and exhausting journey to the Gulag. Once in the camp, the stereotypical issues the reader may expect to be confronted with are barely mentioned, here the focus is on the smaller – and at first glance insignificant – details which threaten the internees’ dignity and emphasise the control they have lost over their lives. Most startling is the way in which the author subverts the reader’s conceptions of what would be imagined to be the worst elements, such as the unrelenting hunger which consumes Leopold: ultimately this is what keeps him alive, acting as his connection with the world. When they are released from the camp the reader expects elation, but instead they are frightened: despite its harsh and bleak conditions the camp has become their world, its walls their safety, its oppressions their routines.

This is truly a remarkable novel. The language is poetic and masterful, but also joyous in its simplicity and imagery: a young woman in the camp – who had been discovered through the footprints outside her hideaway back home – claims that she will never forgive the snow. Every other substance would have swallowed the evidence of her existence – water, sand, dirt – but the freshly fallen snow can never be a silent accomplice. Müller has a highly individual voice, and this novel, which also shines a light on a fascinating but still neglected aspect of German history, deserves to be brought to the attention of an international readership.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Egypt Wants its Stuff Back

Today’s Associated Press reported that Egypt’s antiquities department has severed ties with France's Louvre museum because it has refused to return what are described as stolen artifacts. The objects in question are four or five (the number is in dispute) fragments of a fresco discovered in the ancient tomb of a nobleman called Tetaki, near the famed temple city of Luxor. Egypt described the four fragments as paintings of a nobleman's journey to the afterlife chipped from the walls of the tomb by thieves in the 1980s. The pieces were taken to France in 2002 or 2003, although France says it wasn’t until last year that it found they might have been taken out illegally. Well.

Egypt has been trying for years to get museums to return objects it says were ‘stolen,’ and not just from France. Included in Egypt’s list are the bust of Nefertiti — wife of the famed monotheistic Pharaoh Akhenaten — and the Rosetta Stone, a basalt slab with an inscription that was the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. The bust of Nerfertiti is in Berlin's Egyptian Museum; the Rosetta Stone is in the British Museum in London. The head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities Zahi Hawass said Egypt also was seeking "unique artifacts" from at least 10 museums around the world, including the Louvre in Paris and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. In one of the more high profile and acrimonious fights, Hawass has repeatedly requested the return of a 3,200-year-old golden mask of a noblewoman from the St. Louis Art Museum. Of course, most of the objects were taken out during the 1800s and early 1900s when European archaeologists made the discoveries and colonialism was rampant throughout the Middle East. This doesn’t excuse what in some circles might be called thievery, and it’s hard to argue for western country’s right to these valuable Egyptian artifacts especially if they were taken out in shady circumstances. It’s even harder to argue France’s right to the fresco fragments. Last time I checked, France no longer stakes a claim to the Middle East.

I will say that, I strongly remember seeing some of the ancient Egyptian papyrus texts housed in Berlin’s Egyptian Museum last year.  I do hope Egypt, if it receives these precious artifacts back, decides to actively share them with the rest of the world. It is in these texts we find evidence of some of the first written autobiography, poetry, stories and song. They are breathtaking and still seem somehow alive. Which is why, I suppose, anyone would want them close to home.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Art of Condoms

Art has been way under-used as a way to sell stuff. Take condoms, for instance. Who wants to buy a condom in a plain vanilla (or purple) wrapper? But encased in Rembrandt, Rodin, or a steamy photograph by Richard Avendon—well, sign me up! Not only do I get to prevent the spread of STDs and pregnancy, but I also receive a ‘free’ slice of culture. I'd go for the Rubens' Adam and Eve.

I guess the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid gets it, and according to The Guardian, where I saw the sales strategy described, the museum believes that while it may not be the first time condoms have been used in art, it may be the first time that art has been used to sell condoms.

The condoms in question are to go on sale at the museum shop, in packets specially decorated with works to be featured in the museum's Tears of Eros exhibition later this month. Potential wrapper art include works by Rodin, Rubens, Maillais and Bernini.

It’s not exactly poetry, but there must be a poem in there somewhere.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Kafka in Israel

In today's Ha-Aretz magazine, another chapter was revealed regarding a potential (and unresearched) treasure trove of documents and letters written by Franz Kafka and others close to him. The stash reached Israel in 1939 after Max Brod, a close friend of Kafka and to whom the documents were left after Kafka’s death from tuberculosis, escaped Prague just ahead of the Nazis, and reached Palestine via Romania.

There are a few important details. First, Kafka directed Brod in his last will to burn all the papers, leave nothing intact. Brod, of course, ignored this plea. We can argue what was right or wrong, but if Kafka's will had been executed according to his instructions, his major novels - "The Trial", "The Castle" and "Amerika" - and most of his short stories would have been lost to the world. Second, Brod, who died in 1968, left the remaining papers to Esther Hoffe, his close friend, assistant, and perhaps lover, with the direction to deposit them in an appropriate archive so that they could be saved for posterity and available for study. She did none of this. Instead, she hid the documents, sold them intermittently for high sums (an original version of “The Trial” was sold in 1988 to the German Literary Archives for a reported $1.98 million), and refused all orders to share them with Israeli authorities or institutions. Israel, should have, in my opinion, put here in jail for what in essence is theft, but, for 35 years, she held everyone off. Her daughter now continues her terrible legacy.

Nobody knows for sure what the estate contains. In the 1970s, there were letters, drawings and manuscripts by Kafka himself, but these may have been sold off over the years. Still, among the thousands of documents that remain, there are certainly items that illuminate unknown aspects of the life of the great writer. And who knows what condition they’re in? Israeli animal authorities were called in by neighbors because the stench of the tens of cats fed by Eva Hoffe in her apartment was so overpowering. Hopefully, Ms. Hoffe isn't using shredded Kafka as kitty litter.

Apparently, few people outside knew about what was happening. Authorities on German literature across the world, who have been researching Kafka's writings for years and were asked what they thought about the trial, were surprised to hear about it. Why isn’t Israel doing something about this tragedy? How can one woman continue to defy the Israeli courts and common decency? Kafka would have been appalled (or then again, he might have found the entire situation deliciously funny.)

Check out "The Trial," starring Tim Roth as Joseph K! Fabulous.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

UNESCO Chooses Common Sense

I had pushed it out of my mind, but it was with some relief that I read today former Bulgarian foreign minister Irina Bokova was elected to become the first woman director-general of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). She had been, I believe, considered a long shot. No doubt she benefited from a backlash against her major opponent, Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosny, who has been accused of anti-Semitism for his virulent public denunciation of Israeli culture. "To prove his anti-Zionist credentials at home," wrote Raymond Stock in Foreign Policy, "Hosni told the Egyptian parliament that he would 'burn right in front of you' any Israeli books found in the country's libraries." I think it would have been wonderful to have someone from an Arab country elected, but in Israel and in many places, his nomination was greeted with shock.

UNESCO’s mandate is to promote international co-operation among its 193 Member States and six Associate Members in the fields of education, science, culture and communication. The organization has, I believe, about a $1 billion budget and is responsible for locating and preserving sites of cultural significance around the world. It is an important organization and does some really great work. Hosny’s defeat will leave behind bitterness among the Arab and developing nations who supported him. However as Marty Peretz writes in New Republic, “A book burner was not the preferred symbol of leadership for an institution with a cultural mandate. Many true Arab intellectuals were mortified by Hosni's views.” Officially Israel stayed mum about Hosny's nomination and his eventual defeat, but I do think the latter was greeted with the opposite of disappointment. Let's hope Bukova can heal the wounds and that UNESCO can do its work better with less political baggage.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What a Poem Brings

Richard Hugo in his essay “Statements of Faith,” wrote: “Writing is a slow accumulative way of accepting one’s life as valid…”

I don’t really know why, but this statement brought to mind a wonderful poet Juan Felipe Herrera, who earlier this month won the PEN Beyond Margins Award. Here is one of the poems from his recently released Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems (University of Arizona Press, 2008). Herrera is a Chicano poet, the son of migrant workers, and his poetry speaks to that experience without aggrandizing its dislocation and difficulty. This book is fabulous—heartbreaking and funny and straight to the gut honest. Below is one of my favorite of his poems and you can hear Herrera read it at the PEN web site.

Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings

for Charles Fishman

Before you go further,
let me tell you what a poem brings,
first, you must know the secret, there is no poem
to speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries,
yes, it is that easy, a poem, imagine me telling you this,
instead of going day by day against the razors, well,
the judgments, all the tick-tock bronze, a leather jacket
sizing you up, the fashion mall, for example, from
the outside you think you are being entertained,
when you enter, things change, you get caught by surprise,
your mouth goes sour, you get thirsty, your legs grow cold
standing still in the middle of a storm, a poem, of course,
is always open for business too, except, as you can see,
it isn’t exactly business that pulls your spirit into
the alarming waters, there you can bathe, you can play,
you can even join in on the gossip—the mist, that is,
the mist becomes central to your existence.

Monday, September 28, 2009

William Safire Dies, But His Words Goes On

Last night, Pulitzer Prize winner and conservative columnist William Safire died. I admit that I've never been a huge Safire fan. I found much of his writing bombastic and overly intellectualized, his views too conservative for my taste. At the same time, it’s hard not to admire someone of such strong opinions and who has cleaved so tightly to the literary life. He was also a strong supporter of Israel.

In his honor, I’m posting one of his great advice columns from 2005 titled (and reprinted in today's NYTimes), “How to Read a Column.” While he was writing of print, after a re-reading, Safire's words of caution seems as applicable to the wild world of the Internet as to the printed page.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Putting More 'Secular' Into Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is a beautiful night in Israel—cars stop, Israeli television doesn't broadcast, not a single store or restaurant opens, children don their skates and climb onto bicycles to pedal (safely) down the middle of roads, neighbors mill about in intersections.

Some Israelis fast, but all use the opportunity to take a deep breath and reconsider the past year, what the next might hold. Of course, when I say everybody, I largely mean Israeli Jews. Yom Kippur is of course a Jewish holiday. But, all Israelis, Jewish and non-, observe the ‘no-drive’ edict. It’s not a formal law, but no one, I mean NO ONE drives (except in emergencies). Think about it--in a country of over 7 million people, not a single car on the road!

Last year, when a few Israelis ignored what might be called a voluntary law, violence erupted. This year, things were calm.
This is the lovely side of a religious state. And don’t misunderstand, Israel is a religious state. Religion infiltrates education, marriage, civil decisions. My husband, who is Jewish, and I couldn’t marry in Israel because I’m not Jewish. We married in the US, and Israel does recognize all marriages conducted outside its borders. Interestingly, Cyprus does a brisk business in marrying secular Israelis who don’t want to be married by an Orthodox Rabbi. On another sour note, this year, Israel initiated daylight savings a full month before the rest of the world because the ‘religious’ demand it happen before Yom Kippur. Supposedly it makes the fasting a bit easier (so much for torturing one’s soul).

Today's Ha-Aretz (an Israeli daily newspaper considered by many to be left wing) featured a prominent editorial titled “Why Israel must become a secular state: a thought for Yom Kippur.” It’s not a new idea within the secular Israeli community and one supported to various degrees by many Israelis speak with. He writes, “Nowhere else are Jews trying to impose their religious creeds on each other; nowhere else has the conflict between religion and freethinking remained as bitter as in Israel. The involvement of religion in Israeli politics has led to a polarization that is not to be found anywhere else in world Jewry. Far from leading to Kiddush Hashem, the involvement of religion in politics has led to a culture war that is completely unnecessary.” One person told me yesterday, that the worst thing that could happen to Israel would be peace with its neighbors; then we’d have to focus on what’s going on internally. Of course, that’s a fight we’d all prefer.

Of course, after being mistaken for Jewish (I mean my name IS Sarah Fishman) many times, I fully believe Israel is necessary. Antisemitism is alive and well. And we only have to turn on the television, open a newspaper, hear the vitriol coming from Iran to understand. But, isn’t it something more to think about as this year’s Yom Kippur comes to a close?

And, finally, here was a poem I wrote after last year's Yom Kippur violence and after just having returned from a few days in beautiful Akko.

Everyday History

Violent clashes between Jewish and Arab residents of Akko erupted
when an Arab resident of the Old City drove
through a predominantly Jewish area on the eve of Yom Kippur.

If history must be made every day, let it be one
in a car with all four windows rolled down, on the way
to stay in a hotel composed from bones
of what used to be a fortress. Let it be where the air
is pomegranate sweet, where grass grows the color
of crayon on parapets buried six inches deep
in loam and fertilizer. If history must be made
every day, let it be in a place where metal shutters
don’t function, but polyester pillows stuffed in windows
muffle the men singing karaoke in Arabic and Hebrew
well enough for sleeping, where the only museum refuses
to display anything airport security might confuse
with a weapon. Let it be one where locals gather
on carpets to eat khummus and salad, whistle
at women (especially those wearing caftans, brightly
patterned scarves) and the women understand
that if one of them walked up, history might be made
even that day. If history’s got to be made, let it be
the place where every one-legged policeman gets paid,
where cats crouch in the shadows waiting for scraps
they know are coming their way, any second.

Friday, September 25, 2009

In Between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur

In between the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement), we were all treated to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's continuing tirade against Israel and his portrayal of the Holocaust as some mass delusion created by Jews and encouraged by Western governments. All of this from the podium of the United Nations. While many of us inside and outside Israel worry deeply about Ahmadinejad's intentions, we can but hope saner heads and hearts denounce not only his words, but also his deadly intentions toward Israel.

Of course, belief in irrational and extreme ideas goes far beyond the boundaries of Iran or those opposing Jews, the US, or the West. Rationality is not always humankind’s strongest suit. Apparently 1 in 12 (8%) Americans believe President Barack Obama is the anti-Christ. Another 13% aren’t sure. My brother, meanwhile, keeps telling me that Obama is ‘God,’ tongue in cheek to be sure, but my hope is that his assertion provides some counterweight to those other just-as-ludicrous beliefs. Anyway, if you're shocked by those stats, remember just how many Americans think the apocalypse is right around the corner. In a poll from earlier this decade, 17% said they expected the world to end in their lifetime.

So, as I think about those statistics, and as I revisit recent speeches at the United Nations, I'll add my plea to that of Adrienne Rich, one of America's greatest poets (and a Jewish lesbian, to boot, which means she is probably not on Ahmadinejad's short list for a dinner invitation) from a poem she penned in 1950, “At the Jewish New Year,” “May the taste of honey linger / Under the bitterest tongue”.

At the Jewish New Year

For more than five thousand years
This calm September day
With yellow in the leaf
Has lain in the kernel of Time
While the world outside the walls
Has had its turbulent say
And history like a long
Snake has crawled on its way
And is crawling onward still.
And we have little to tell
On this or any feast
Except of the terrible past.
Five thousand years are cast
Down before the wondering child
Who must expiate them all.

Some of us have replied
In the bitterness of youth
Or the qualms of middle-age:
"If Time is unsatisfied,
And all our fathers have suffered
Can never be enough,
Why, then, we choose to forget.
Let our forgetting begin
With those age-old arguments
In which their minds were wound
Like musty phylacteries;
And we choose to forget as well
Those cherished histories
That made our old men fond,
And already are strange to us.

"Or let us, being today
Too rational to cry out,
Or trample underfoot
What after all preserves
A certain savor yet--
Though torn up by the roots--
Let us make our compromise
With the terror and the guilt
And view as curious relics
Once found in daily use
The mythology, the names
That, however, Time has corrupted
Their ancient purity
Still burn like yellow flames,
But their fire is not for us."

And yet, however, we choose
To deny or to remember,
Though on the calendars
We wake and suffer by,
This day is merely one
Of thirty in September--
In the kernel of the mind
The new year must renew
This day, as for our kind
Over five thousand years,
The task of being ourselves.
Whatever we strain to forget,
Our memory must be long.

May the taste of honey linger
Under the bitterest tongue.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Amos Oz for Nobel?

Apparently, Amos Oz, one of Israel’s most influential and well-known writers is on the short list to receive this year’s Nobel Prize.

Oz, as well as being the author of over 26 works of fiction and nonfiction, was one of the first Israelis to advocate a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and also founded the political party Peace Now in the late 70s. More recently, he, along with other dovish leaders and thinkers, founded a new political party with the objective of gathering and solidifying resources aimed at creating peace with the Palestinians. There is a lot more information on Amos Oz available online. And if you haven't read any of his work, I'd recommend "A Tale of Love and Darkness," his memoir of growing up in Jerusalem. Of his fiction, I particularly liked "My Michael," and "To Know a Woman."

In Israel, writers are quite influential politically. David Grossman, A. B. Yehoshua, and Amos Oz are regularly interviewed by the media, reported on, and their opinions widely circulated. Politicians court their opinion, invite them to their homes, and are quick to circulate their views (when such views match their own, of course). When David Grossman lost one of his sons, a tank commander, in the Second Lebanon War, one of the first to visit and offer condolences was the then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert along with his daughter.

Amos Oz is an amazing writer and seems, to me, a thoughtful and compassionate person. I hope he wins. Here is a very interesting and nuanced interview from YouTube, originally aired on Al Jazeera, of Amos Oz from February of this year.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Ugly American Abroad

Here's something I was thinking about today as I double parked on a busy street (which everyone does in Israel as a normal course of running errands)--how living in another country can illuminate aspects of one's character that might go unnoticed or unexpressed in one's home country. For me, this has not always been to the good. For instance, when I lived in Munich, Germany for two years, I found myself unexpectedly flouting what I considered good, normal, civilized behavior. I played music too loudly late at night. I left the door of the apartment building propped open in winter for friends. I jaywalked in all sorts of heavy traffic. I turned my car on in cold weather, leaving it empty and blowing exhaust for long minutes, before finally climbing into its warmth and driving off. Why the uncivilized behavior, the childish flouting of politeness? I suppose because I found Germany a stifling place, convention bound, and conformist. Often, Germans, who have no shyness in such manners, would point out the error of my ways. Sometimes I felt abashed, but there were times, I thumbed my nose.

While some of my behavior was troubling, in retrospect, I find some comfort. I really do admire the clichéd un-convention of the US. I really do admire those who color outside the lines. I’m sure the Munich I experienced is not one everyone found, and I’m sure not all Germans are as hidebound as the ones I normally encountered.

In fact, there WERE some wild nights at local bars, and if you’ve never seen a half-drunk middle-aged man polka at 3AM in green lederhosen, well, you’ve never seen real weirdness.

Probably I contributed a bit (although I’ll defend myself by saying my rudeness really was on the margin) to the reputation of Americans abroad as ‘oafs.’ Of course, Europeans have long considered Americans boorish. A 1878 New York Times article reports that Europeans consider us a “rare combination of vulgarians and toadies; that they are arch-pretenders and wretched snobs; that they are ridiculously anxious to pass for what they are not in culture, breeding, and nationality; that they are, in a word, precisely the kind of folk that any person of common sense and common delicacy would be mortified to meet.” I love that.

And here’s a fabulous poem along the same lines by Molly Peacock, originally published in The Paris Review in 1986. If you want to read it later, it's also on The Poetry Foundation website.

A Hot Day In Agrigento
         - Molly Peacock

Temples look like discarded alphabets.
We loved lying in their shadows lazily
deciphering and resting and laying bets

on what they really were for. Easily
caught by fantasy, we no longer cared
why they were there, just that they were. Happy

to sit down and drink the water we shared
(having lugged our plastic bottle, and hats,
and camera, through the human dung bared

right there in the sun—where else could you get
relief with no toilets?) we guzzled it down
and splashed it on our arms, hands, legs, and necks.

A girl in dirty, expensive clothes found
us with the bottle and asked us for some.
I said no. As she left, a gagging smell wound

its way out from the bottle’s damp lung.
I’ve often been asked to give what I’ve saved,
but under the temple I said no, numbed

against the girl, like one of those bridesmaids
who kept her oil in the Bible story
and was safe for the night. I’d hated those maids

until I became one in my story,
the shape of the character I’d searched for
surprising me as the temples did: See

how golden but pocked they’ve become, nor
are they quite decipherable anymore,
at least to those who forget what they’re for,

which is worship, the greed of prayer.
“So that’s who you are,” my friend said. “Thirsty?”
With him I drank, not quite the maid in the story,

but in her shadow, like letters at rest
in new words on a palimpsest.