Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

Dan Pagis and the Poetry of Displacement

Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

Dan Pagis and the Poetry of Displacement

Article excerpt

It is a curious fact that the three leading Hebrew poets of the generation that began to publish shortly after the founding of the State of Israel were all born in German-speaking Europe-Dan Pagis in Bukovina, Yehuda Amichai in Bavaria, and Nathan Zach in Berlin. Of the three, Pagis's cultural displacement was the most drastic. Zach and Amichai both were brought to Palestine with their families in the mid-1930s, Zach at the age of five and Amichai at the age of twelve. Pagis did not reach Palestine until 1946, after having spent the first part of his adolescence in a Nazi concentration camp. The product of a Germanized Jewish home in what was once an eastern province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he probably never would have known Hebrew, never have had any serious connection with Israel or the Jewish cultural heritage, had he not been expelled from Europe by this ghastly spasm of historical violence and cast, for lack of any other haven, into the Middle East.

In the astonishing space of three or four years, he was publishing poetry in his newly learned language. This rapid determination to become a poet in Hebrew, I venture to guess, was not only a young person's willed act of adaptation but also the manifestation of a psychological need to seek expression in a medium that was itself a radical displacement of his native language. Displacement would remain a governing concept in Pagis's poetry, from the repeated and often flaunted effects of defamiliarization in his imagery, to his eerie refractions of the cataclysm that swept away European Jewry, to the global perspectives of his remarkable "evolutionary" and science-fiction poems, where time is accelerated, distorted, even reversed, and earthly existence is seen characteristically from an immense telescopic distance.

In stressing the role of Hebrew as the poet's linguistic medium of displacement, I do not mean to suggest that Pagis is estranged in any way from the language in which he writes. In fact, the revolution in Hebrew verse that he, Amichai, and Zach helped bring about was above all the perfection of a natural-sounding colloquial norm for Hebrew poetry. Perhaps it may have been easier for them to do this because as children suddenly called upon - by the inexorable pressure of their peer groups first of all - to possess a completely new linguistic competence, their primary associations were with the spoken language. Of the three, Pagis and Amichai make the most frequent efforts to incorporate elements of classical Hebrew in their predominantly colloquial diction, but in opposite ways - Amichai quite often imbedding allusive and ironically pointed bits of traditional texts in his own language, Pagis more unobtrusively modulating into locutions that recall in the Hebrew a higher literary decorum or, occasionally and somewhat distantly, a specific biblical or rabbinic text. As a poet, Pagis generally prefers contemporary vehicles and a contemporary sound, but it is also worth keeping in mind that the sixteen-year-old immigrant ignorant of Hebrew so thoroughly assimilated the rich classical tradition of the language that in his scholarly work he became the foremost living authority on the poetics of Hebrew literature in the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

The experience of displacement that I have proposed as a key to Pagis's poetry is felt most pervasively in the brilliant obliquity of the stances he typically assumes. Again, the contrast with Amichai, who is so often confessional, autobiographical, vividly personal, is striking. There is a submerged freight of horror in a good deal of Pagis's work, but precisely because the historical occasion for it is so enormous, the way he finds to give it compelling expression without the shrillness of hysteria or the bathos of pseudoprophetic pronouncement is to cultivate a variety of distanced, ventriloquistic voices that become authentic surrogates for his own voice. When he writes a poem called "Autobiography," it is the autobiography of an archetype, Abel, the first victim; Abel is also, among many other avatars, Dan Pagis, 1939-45:

you can die once, twice, even seven times, but you can't die a thousand times. …

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