Monday, June 21, 2010

David Grossman Awarded German Peace Prize

Today, the Israeli novelist was announced winner of 2010 Book Trade Peace Prize by Germany’s book publishers association for his efforts in ending conflict between Israel, Palestinians. Tragically and some might say ironically, Grossman's youngest son Uri was killed during the Second Lebanon War when a Hezbollah missile his tank. Grossman at first supported that war, but later, and even before his son was killed, protested it.

Anyway, here's a short poem that incorporates elements (or doesn't) from that terrible event as well as Grossman's most-recent novel "To the End of the Land", which was takes on the story of a woman travelling through Israel, and was influenced by the death of his son.


The famous author writes a story
about a woman whose son fights
at the front. The woman, who’s begun dreaming
of deserts, leaves her husband

and a small cerulean pool
in the garden. She starts walking, believing
if she’s not home to answer
the door, her son remains untouched.

Awakened in the middle of night
by military officers, the famous author
learns his youngest child, a tank
commander, disappeared

during a fierce battle that same
afternoon. A woman sits
at an empty bus stop between
nondescript towns. She’s waiting

but not for a bus; the bus company
quit the unprofitable route
years earlier. There are no cars, no signs
of anyone. When asked how death

affects his writing, the famous author
said, I do not speak of that. In her
dream, the desert is flat and dry. She lights
everything on fire.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Killjoy of Contemporary Poetry

In case you wanted another take on the state of contemporary poetry, its current killjoy, William Logan, reviews the current works of six poets (C.K. Williams, Tony Hoagland, Don Paterson, Keith Douglas, Derek Walcott, and Anne Carson) in June’s New Criterion. Perhaps there is a part of me that takes delight in William Logan’s nonstop bashing and snide contempt for much of contemporary poetry. God knows, I would not want to have his jaded eye trained on my work (Oh Oh Oh, if only my work would warrant such a look!) Mostly though, I find Logan’s tireless criticism wearisome. Perhaps it’s just me, but I prefer to have a critic point out what works in a poem than what falls flat.

In Logan’s world, almost all of contemporary poetry is just not quite right. Williams is too moralizing: “What but poetic deafness could make so many passages read like sociology texts.” On the other hands, Hoagland is too concerned with consumerism: “Hoagland is the Updike of American trash, forgetting nothing—but he hasn’t figured out how to recycle rubbish into art.” Likewise, Patterson is too sentimental: “The book ought to come with linen handkerchiefs from the broken mills of Glasgow or Aberdeen.” The dead war-poet Douglas can’t write a good line: “You need to go a long way to find the good lines in these poems, and when you do they’re surrounded by bad ones.” Meanwhile, Walcott can’t stop writing the same line, “I wish that in almost every book the flash of the sea weren’t compared to coins or the surface to a sheet of tin or the flight of birds to arrows.”

The only poet he saves praise for is Anne Carson, whose latest poetic effort Nox literally weighs in at two pounds and thirty dollars. I very much admire Anne Carson’s work though haven’t read Nox (I’m waiting for the ‘paperback’ edition). I found Plainwater and Eros, The Bittersweet, excruciatingly beautiful and over the top smart. Nox, which was written in large part as elegy to Carson’s disappeared brother, is also a meditation on Catullus 101, likewise a lament for a lost brother though written by the 1st Century BC poet Catullus. Does it seem surprising that Logan saves his praise for the one poet whose work hearkens back two thousand years? But I’ll reserve my take on Carson’s work until I’ve read it, which I admit, I’m looking forward to,

Granted, Logan has an unerring ability to hone in on a poet’s weakest lines and faults. Moreover, Logan’s critical prose is beautifully written if not uplifting. Finally, I suppose poetry needs at least one curmudgeon if only to balance the praise most poet/critics tend to heap on one another’s work. But his criticism won’t stop my reading of any of the poets whose work he derides, and, of course, I won’t stop reading his criticism. Sigh.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Vanity of Buying a Book

In Israel, book sales are up, though not all book sellers see it as a reflection of increased reading:

The CEO of Sifri bookstores, Aryeh Almog, said rising literacy led to increased reading, but stressed that "buying books today is a symptom of the newly rich, who buy books so they will not be suspected of a lack of comprehension." Or as Ziva Alfasi, one of the owners of the Lyric bookstores, said: "Books are a kind of fad. A few years ago, people would bring a vase or a useful kitchen accessory as a gift; today, when you go to a birthday party, dinner or even a wedding, people bring a book."

Ah, vanity. But if more books are in people's houses, for whatever reason, perhaps a few more will be read.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Amos Oz Says, "Against Ideas, Israel's Force is Impotent"

Since Monday when Israel boarded the Gaza-bound aid flotilla and the resulting terrible tragedy of nine lost lives, I’ve been ill. Yes, the mission was not without venal objectives. As The Gaza Freedom March stated efore Monday’s confrontation: “A violent response form Israel will breathe new Life into the Palestine solidarity movement, drawing attention to the blockade.” But Israel couldn’t have handed them a more desired response. Throughout the Arab world, the nine killed are called “martyrs.”

Here is an op-ed written by Amos Oz, one of Israel’s most revered writers and a peace activist, which appeared The New York Times and UK’s Guardian, among other places I've reprinted it in full below. I haven't been able to write about it yet, and Oz's words are clear enough.

Against ideas, Israel's force is impotent

Since the six-day war Israel has been fixated on military force. But Hamas is an idea, and no idea has been defeated by force

For 2,000 years the Jews knew the force of force only in the form of lashes to their own backs. For several decades now we have been able to wield force ourselves. Yet this power has, again and again, intoxicated us. Again and again we imagine that we can solve every problem we encounter with force. To a man with a big hammer, says the proverb, every problem looks like a nail.

In the period before the state was founded a large portion of the Jewish population in Palestine did not understand the limits of force and thought that it could be used achieve any goal. Luckily, during Israel's early years leaders such as David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol knew very well that force has its limits and were careful not to go beyond those boundaries. But since the six-day war in 1967 Israel has been fixated on military force. The mantra is: what can't be done by force can be done with even greater force.

Israel's siege of the Gaza Strip is one of the rank products of this view. It originates in the mistaken assumption that Hamas can be defeated by force of arms; or, in more general terms, that the Palestinian problem can be crushed instead of solved.

But Hamas is not just a terror organisation. Hamas is an idea. A desperate and fanatical idea that grew out of the desolation and frustration of many Palestinians. No idea has ever been defeated by force – not by siege, not by bombardment, not by being flattened with tank treads, and not by marine commandos. To defeat an idea you have to offer a better idea, a more attractive and acceptable one. The only way for Israel to edge out Hamas is for it to quickly reach an agreement with the Palestinians on the establishment of an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as defined by the 1967 borders, with its capital in East Jerusalem.

Israel has to sign a peace agreement with Mahmoud Abbas and his government and thus reduce the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a conflict between Israel and the Gaza Strip. That latter conflict can be resolved, in the end, only by negotiating with Hamas or, more reasonably, by the integration of Abbas's Fatah movement with Hamas. Even if Israel seizes a hundred more ships on their way to Gaza, even if Israel sends in troops to occupy the Gaza Strip a hundred more times, no matter how many times Israel deploys its military, police, and covert forces, it cannot solve the problem.

The problem is that we are not alone in this land, and the Palestinians are not alone in this land. We are not alone in Jerusalem and the Palestinians are not alone in Jerusalem. Until we, Israelis and Palestinians, recognise the logical consequences of this simple fact, we will all live in a permanent state of siege – Gaza under an Israeli siege, Israel under an international and Arab siege.

I do not discount the importance of force. Military force is vital to Israel. Without it we would not be able to survive a single day. Woe to the country that discounts the efficacy of force. But we cannot allow ourselves to forget for even a moment that force is effective only as a preventative – to prevent the destruction and conquest of Israel, to protect our lives and freedom. Every attempt to use force not as a preventative, not in self-defence, but instead as a means of smashing problems and squashing ideas, will lead to more disasters – just like the one we brought on ourselves in international waters, on the high seas, opposite Gaza's shores.