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.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Truth in Video and Poetry

Jaffa (pronounced Yafo in Hebrew) is one of the oldest cities in Israel. It is also one of the only integrated Jewish/Arab towns in the country. However, there are two Jaffas—the one the tourists see and the one in which its inhabitants live. The second city, the second Jaffa, is not integrated and is separated by two truths--that of its Arab inhabitants and that of its Jewish.

I recently visited the Herzeliya Museum in Israel, which is a small museum located in a seaside town near Tel Aviv. The museum featured an exhibit titled “Men in the Sun,” which encompasses the work of twelve Arab-Israeli artists. One that particularly aroused me was a video piece by two artists—Scandar Copti and Rabia Buchari—called “Truth” (2003). In the piece, two Palestinians from Jaffa visit non-touristy sites (a water tower, a demolished vodka factory, a graveyard) and recount the ‘history’ of the places as if they were tour guides. However, their ‘history’ is fiction (or is it?) as potentially viewed by those living a different truth than the one recounted by the media and government.

You can view a few samples from Copti and Buchari's fabulous video installation online.

It inspired me to write a short poem:

Holy Site

She told the boy it was a water tower.
Concrete gray and green, it rises forty feet
on iron legs, egg-shaped lank and warped, its body
curves like a turned bell, the roof rusted through, it
holds water though only four feet deep, the rest, pours
as if molten from its metal shell. No one remembers
the year it was built, but it’s been standing there
a long time. At night, the boy hears the concrete fall
in wet chunks, the low wind that whines
through its wide cuts. And he can barely
sleep. In summer, the boy swims
in the dark water. He goes all the way under.
She never stops him though the water infested
with bird shit and invisible worms
will, by winter, tattoo itself in small red Os
on the inside of the boy’s wrists. And she won’t
repeat the whispers: it’s a messiah’s cup, a chalice
disguised as a tower, the water tinged brown
by something other than iron. The barbed wire
fence, the steel barriers, the danger signs
all a hoax. So that no one comes. What good
would it do? Even if the pilgrims appear
with antidote, even if a single dose could cure
the fatigue and fever. None of it’s for him.

Anyway, I suppose the idea behind the video and my poem revolves around ‘Truth.’ How is truth generated and for whom is it really true?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Exile as Inspiration

For poets as diverse as Ovid and Dante to Brodsky and Milosz, exile has often been their lot. The pain can be excruciating as the exiled, cut off from familiar culture and landscape, as well as from families and associates, lives in a state of dislocation and dispossession. Dante writes in “Paradiso” from The Divine Comedy:

. . . You will leave everything you love most:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first. You will know how salty
another’s bread tastes and how hard it
is to ascend and descend
another’s stairs . . .

At the same time, the discomfort of living in, even visiting, another land or culture can become an imaginative action that liberates the creative mind. This proved true not only for those poets forced into exile like those listed above, but also for a number of our most revered poets who chose, yes chose, to leave their birthplaces and set up house in foreign lands. Think of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Seamus Heaney. Moreover, exile does not have to be permanent, but can be temporary and even illusory, as is the case for the traveler, who, who, because of curiosity and or deep interest in other worlds, ventures out of his or her homeland into other lands. The strange lens, held up to the eye, dislocates the familiar, no matter the reason.

For me, a non-Jewish American woman, now living in Israel married to a Jewish Israeli with four children, such has been the case. Integration seems impossible. Assimilation seems impossible. Conformity is impossible. It is only through poetry, my own and perhaps more importantly, others, that have I managed to gain insight into this country and its many political and religious issues. It is only through writing and reading poetry that I have managed to find some compromise and accommodation. It is only through poetry that I have grown to love and appreciate the myriad peoples that populate and provoke this troubled part of the world.

Agha Shahid Ali, the fabulous Kashmiri-American poet wrote in his poem “Stationery,”

The moon did not become the sun.
It just fell on the desert
in great sheets, reams
of silver handmade by you.
The night is your cottage industry now,
the day is your brisk emporium.
The world is full of paper.
Write to me.

I love that: "The world is full of paper. / Write to me.".