Back from Oblivion: The Nature of 'Word' in Yona Wallach's Poetry *

Article excerpt

"Words are working tools opening gates for consciousness" Yona Wallach, Mofa`, 134

Yona Wallach (1944-1985) is both a major poet and an outstanding personality in the history of Hebrew literature. Challenged by the enigmatic nature of her poetry, literary critics tend to attribute its obscurities to the modernist and postmodernist milieu from which she emerged, deeming it essentially indecipherable. Presenting a close reading of two of Wallach's meta-poetic poems: "Precisely" (Bediyuk Nimrats), a four part poem from her 1969 collection Shenai Ganim (Two Gardens), and "Let the Words" (Ten la-Milim) that opens the 1985 collection Tsurot (Forms), this study exposes the traditional, essentially Romantic foundation of her work. It features Wallach's struggle with the enduring philosophical question pertaining to the origin of language and words' meaning while highlighting her deep-rooted faith in the inherently natural character of language and words' propensity to directly reveal the essence of things.

In Israel, Yona Wallach is both a major poet and a well-known personality. The novelty of her poems captivated the literary world as soon as they began to appear in various periodicals and magazines in the mid 1960s. (1) Her popularity soared after her untimely death in 1985 at age 41 following a protracted illness. Mourning her loss, many critics proceeded to praise her ever surprising, ever amazing, forever spirited poetry. Words like mysticism, religion, prophecy, passion, sex and madness were frequently attached to her name and to her poetry. (2) By the 1990s, particularly after the publication of a collection of Wallach's poetry by Hilit Yeshurun in 1992, (3) and a biography by the journalist Igal Sarna in 1993, (4) literary critics began to realize that it was time to cast aside the mythical approaches to Wallach's poetry and began pressing for a serious and mature reading of her wonderful poems. (5)

While her poetry is generally celebrated for its "combination of elements of rock and roll, Jungian psychology, and street slang in a body of work known for its break-neck pace and insistent sexuality," (6) many scholars believe that Wallach's main contribution to modern Hebrew poetics pertains to her creative use of the language, particularly her ingenious ability to flex it for her highly subjective expression. (7) This extreme subjectivity produces, in Michael Riffaterre's words, a poetic matrix laden with "textual ungrammaticalities [that] displace, distort, or cancel altogether the sense of reality as we know it." (8) As a result, her poetry is quite elusive but not indecipherable, as many argue. (9) Most certainly, only graphomaniacs take their secrets to their graves, as Meir Wieseltier maintains, and Wallach's work (as well as other cryptic Israeli literary works of the 50's and 60's) can be cracked and interpreted from within her own texts. (10)

Set to investigate Yona Wallach's way of transforming words from conventional linguistic "signs" to "living symbols" that authentically represent the poet's personal discernment of her inner world, (11) this study will focus on two key poems in which she spells out her critical perception of "word." Wallach's own texts evince that she was never a "modernist" writer submitting to a vacillating "kaleidoscopic" world, as Dorit Zilberman maintains, (12) or a "postmodernist" ready to relinquish her authentic pursuit of individuality and selfhood, as Lily Rattok argues. (13) The analysis will show that unlike modernist or postmodernist artists, Wallach never abandoned her attempt to represent a world justified by the convictions and sensibility of an individual. (14) On the contrary, her poetic enterprise is deeply rooted in the ever-romantic belief that words can correspond to one's own feelings bediyuk nimrats [precisely].

Precisely (15)


1 Hello, you seem very familiar to me,

2 I lived with you about two years ago

3 I saw you almost every day

4 until your visage was almost erased,

5 when people live together very often

6 visage is destroyed, except when

7 a face is particularly festive

8 and you do not have a face like that. …