Tuesday, February 23, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Plagiarism in Any Other Language

Yet another case of writerly plagiarism is making the headlines. This time it's a German. Actually as reported in Salon today, it's a German kid--17-year-old wunderkind novelist Helene Hegemann--who wrote an apparently best-selling tale of drugging and clubbing, "Axolotl Roadkill."

According to Salon writer, Laura Miller: What smells off in this instance is precisely Hegemann's claim to be using her borrowings to advance a cutting-edge concept of artistry. The daughter of an avant-garde dramatist, she says she practices "intertextuality" and explains, "Very many artists use this technique ... by organically including parts in my text, I am entering into a dialogue with the author."

OK, I’ll buy that to a degree. I often incorporate other writer’s words in epigraphs and sometimes directly into the body of a poem. In recent poems, I’ve riffed off words by Anne Carson, James Schuyler, Jorge Luis Borges. BUT I always credit the original writer either below the related epigraph, in notes at the bottom of the page, or sometimes in the poem itself. I mean, to some extent, we are all in dialogue with other writers, and often with other artists including painters, sculptors, musicians. More broadly, every poem has provenance, whether it is a sonnet or free verse. By writing poetry, by writing fiction, we acknowledge our writerly forefathers and mothers. Hopefully, we take those words in a new direction. What we aim for is not necessarily originality, but to quote Miller who quotes Roger McCrum from The Guardian, authenticity.

But authenticity requires at its most basic level, honesty. As Miller goes on, Hegemann has already, and rather stupidly, cut herself off from that option by declaring that she intended to write a collaboration from the very beginning, only she just forgot to mention it before this. Right.

Miller raises the question whether it is a generational issue—the ‘younger’ generation considers plagiarism OK, whether it’s in the interests of art or passing freshman English. I don’t buy that either. Seventeen is not too young to go to jail for shoplifting a pair of socks from Sears and it’s not too young to ‘get’ that lifting whole paragraphs from other works is stealing.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Too Many Poets Writing About Poetry?

But isn’t all art about art to some degree? Yesterday, Slate writer Chris Wilson was bitching that a significant number poems published in The New Yorker over the past few two have been about poetry. He counts 316 poems from January 2008  until now and, of those, 84—27 percent of the whole lot—mentioned poetry, including 32 that used the P word explicitly and 15 that mentioned writing in the title.

In Wilson’s estimation, this reveals not only poetry’s apparent narcissism, but reveals that poets, at least those chosen by New Yorker’s estimable poetry editor Paul Muldoon, can’t find anything else to write about.

Two quick thoughts. First, 73% of the poems during this period were about something else. Second, The New Yorker always has a focus on things writerly. And painterly. And designerly. And theaterly. OK, I’m making words up, but my point is that the character of The New Yorker is one in which artistic introspection, or extrospection, is a standard. Yes, I made another word up. But just this year, The New Yorker printed essays on writers (J.D. Salinger), on fashion designers (Kate and Laura Mulleavy), on theater (Second City), on celebrities (Phyllis Diller), on artists (Kiki Smith), singers (Kalefa Sanneh). And this wasn’t even in The Critics section of the magazine, which of course is entirely composed of reviews on art, book, theater, television, etc.

I guess my point is that if Wilson wants to rail against poets being too meta, he picked an easy target. Perhaps I’ll write a poem about it.

P.S., I posted some of this on Wilson's Slate page. I hope he doesn't yell at me.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Publication and Outside Forces

I found out a few days ago that my manuscript, Bathsheba Transatlantic, was awarded The Philip Levine Prize in Poetry. Anhingo Press is actually going to publish the book sometime in late Fall of this year. I suppose there must be some form of hope when one enters a contest (otherwise the Lotto might be a better place to invest the $25 reading fee), but at least in my case, my hope didn't mitigate the immense surprise I felt when CSU Fresno called to tell me I'd won. I literally fell to my knees.

I don't believe in the God described in the Judeo-Christian bibles, and I admit little familiarity with other versions. But at that moment I genuinely wanted some higher power to thank. I felt such gratitude and joy! I suppose it is in such extreme moments of emotion that one looks for outside forces. Of course my best friend said that my desire to seek causality outside myself is rooted in my gender. A man would ascribe any such success to their own powers. A woman sees another hand. Maybe.

I did, however, spend hours crafting notes to the teachers and poets who worked with me over the years. I do worship some of them, or at least their work, or at least their work ethic. Perhaps that counts.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Pop Art and Tony Hoagland's Poetry

This month, Tony Hoagland’s newest book of poems, "Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty," is finally hitting bookstore shelves. It’s been seven years since his last! Of course in our hyper accelerated everything world that only sounds like a long time. Anyway, his books are worth the wait. I just ordered mine. While The New York Times was not clapping with all four hands in its review, I can hardly wait.

As I was browsing the forever engrossing Pop Art section of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, I couldn’t help thinking about why I like Hoagland’s work. Like Pop Art, Tony Hoagland’s poems appropriate reality, pop culture, combine found objects with the constructed. Also like Pop Art, Hoagland’s poems are sleek, sexy, funny, sometimes sad, utilizing a seemingly accessible façade to convey political and emotional messages. His poems, in my mind, are commentaries on the state of poetry as well as being poetry.

Here’s Hoagland’s take on contemporary grocery storing (as excerpted from the NYT review) from a poem called "Dialectical Materialism." I included Tom Wesselman’s painting/collage called Still Life #30 above so you could see some of what I encountered at MOMA.

My god there is so much sorrow in the grocery store!
You would have to be high
on the fumes of the piped-in pan flutes
                      of commodified Peruvian folk music

not to be driven practically crazy
with awe and shame,
not to weep at the scale of subjected matter:

the ripped-up etymologies of kiwi fruit and bratwurst,
the roads paved with dead languages,
the jungles digested by foreign money.

Whether it’s Tony Hoagland, or Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselman, Jasper Johns or Robert Rauschenberg, et al, close readings reveal multiple messages, not all of them easy.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Keren Cytter--Video of Language

If you’re not doing anything Thursday night, Feb 4, I have a suggestion. That night, the Israeli artist Keren Cytter, will be the featured artist at Artist’s Talk on Artists. The weekly events take place at SOHO 20 Chelsea, 547 West 27th Street, Suite 301. It’s typically an interesting program with a back and forth between ATOA’s Director of Programming and Cytter to be followed by questions and answer session with audience.

Cytter is a force. Her films consist of multiple layers of images- conversation, monologue, and narration systematically composed to undermine linguistic conventions and traditional interpretation schemata. Recalling amateur home movies and video diaries, these montages of impressions, memories, and imaginings are poetic and self-referential in composition. Here’s an excerpt form her 2005 “Continuity.”

Of course, Cytter doesn’t cover necessarily new ground--she participates in the type of self-conscious postmodern investigation of form and process, calls into question the blurry line between perception and so-called reality. But the really interesting aspect of Cytter’s work, for me, is how she uses language, both the confusing exchanges between the ‘actors’ as well as language itself. The actors in Cytter’s video often speak languages that she herself does not understand. This from a recent interview, “Language has a lot of impact. People end up determining what the movie is about based on the language. I did a movie about my childhood in Ariel in Dutch, and people thought of it as a Dutch movie. They ignored the fact that there are soldiers and barricades! I was surprised; it was clear to me that this movie is about a different place and culture, but once people heard Dutch they stuck to it.” Fascinating!

Here’s some more from her bio: 2009 was a very busy year for Keren Cytter, who participated in exhibitions at Manifesta, the Venice Biennale, the New Museum and X-Initiative, and premiered in performances at the Tate Modern and Performa. Cytter won the Vodka Absolute Artist Prize, was featured on the cover of Art Review, and listed second in Flash Art’s “2009 Top 100 Emerging Artists”. It seems that the artist is everywhere.

Cytter, 32, who was born in Israel and is now based in Berlin, never stops working. She has made over 50 video art works, a full-length feature film, and many drawings. She began an MFA at the Avni Art School in Tel Aviv, but quit after two years to pursue her own projects, such as painting tree trunks green in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (“I think it’s funny that 10 years later they are still green…the trees must be suffering.” Cytter said.) The artist has also published three novels, a book of crossword puzzles, and six editions of Alexia, an art and sex magazine, before moving to Amsterdam with a scholarship from De Ateliers.