Opening the Letters: English Cadences In Israeli Poetry
Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi
Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi teaches comparative Jewish literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her most recent publication, Booking Passage (University of California Press, 2000), is a study of exile and homecoming in the modern Jewish imagination.
Wild Light by Yona Wallach, tr. Linda Zisquit. The Sheep Meadow Press, 1997.
Unopened Letters by Linda Zisquit. The Sheep Meadow Press, 1996.
English in Israel has always been somewhat beside the point. Not a combatant in the "language wars" where Yiddish was the sparring partner. Not a participant in the territorial wars, where Arabic continues to be the contender. Not even part of the Eurocentric culture wars where German, Russian, and French have been the heavyweight challengers. English has only a bit part to play in the drama of ingathering those "Lost Tribes" who, by their own admission, speak Kurdish, Yemenite, Amharic, and, most anciently and recently, the Bantu of the Lemba. Of course there was the Mandate--with its legacy of legal and judicial discourse. And it's true that, long after the Bard disappeared from the Israeli high school matriculation exam, a proper modicum of respect endures for his literary heritage. But the more ubiquitous it is, the more English--and in particular its American stepchild--have been regarded not as a contender for but as a pollutant of whatever enterprise you happen to subscribe to. In socialist eyes, Coca-Cola and Microsoft are the icons of capitalism, engraved on every signpost and storefront. In the ears of religious puritanism, English rings discordantly as the language of liturgical compromise. Even postzionists, post-colonialists, and expatriates guard Hebrew zealously as the bedrock of their identity when all the other idols have been smashed.
It seems, however, that while few people were paying much attention, English did become part of the poetic landscape in Israel. The poets of Yehuda Amichai's generation incorporated into their own struggle the elitist seductions and religious echoes of the Anglo-American modernisms of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens along with the antimodernist cadences of W.H. Auden and Philip Larkin. The democratic and natural speech of William Carlos Williams and Robert Creeley and the anxious, autobiographical shadows of Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath lurk more or less unobtrusively behind a whole generation of confessional poets including Dahlia Ravikovitch and Meir Wieseltier and the younger, more experimental poets such as Zali Gurevitch, Maya Bejerano, and Leah Ayalon.
At the same time, in a kind of reciprocal gesture, a group of immigrant poets and translators have been turning English into a language of cultural production in Israel. Linda Zisquit is one of those who writes her American self into the culture while coaxing its Hebrew voices into English. During the decades that borders were being contested and jealously watched, Israel's claustrophobia was reflected in the paucity of translations from the Hebrew, which safeguarded its literature within the precincts of an internal domestic conversation. Zisquit can be counted among those who mark the new era of open borders, a translator who is also an English poet of the place. Along with Harold Schimmel, Dennis Silk, Robert Friend, Shirley Kaufman, Gabriel Levin, and Peter Cole, she has helped to create a new acoustic space in Israel. The publication of the two books under review represent the kind of dialogue that can emerge within that space.
Zisquit's translations of the Hebrew poetry of Yona Wallach give the English reader a glimpse into the extraordinary achievement of both poets and, at the same time, attest to the struggle of the English language to accommodate itself to such unyielding terrain. In addition to translating some of Wallach's most challenging poems, Zisquit has written an introduction which contextualizes both the poetry and her own encounter with it. …