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