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Burning Air and a Clear Mind

The poems in this collection of contemporary Israeli women poets are hard gems of crystal rock flickering madly in the dark. Nothing in them is easy. Written by 18 women who range in age from their 20’s to their 80’s, who were born in such diverse places as Russia, Cyprus, Ramat Gan, Seattle, and Jerusalem, the poems nonetheless bear witness to a remarkably similar vision. The quintessential woman of these poems is a solitary figure in a desolate landscape, the visionary who warns, recreates, even redeems—but whom no one heeds. She is an outsider to the common culture of men and the daytime world:

A solitary woman in a nylon scarf.
What is she,
against thunder and lightning?
Raquel Chalfi
(“Tel Aviv Beach, Winter 74”)

These poets do not share cozy, contented human relationships. Rather, they are outsiders, bewildered, joyous: looking in or looking at. The sense of isolation extends even to other women. Esther Raab (born in Petach Tikva in 1899) sustains an image of

My poor raging sisters
floating on turbulent waves
to your end—your hands
are raised to me, your
fingers search for a hold
on the surface of the sea
.

Your open eyes fasten
me: help! help!
But fate has already
cut the life-lines. Only spider webs
are left in my
hands.
(“My Poor Raging Sisters”)

Not even sisterhood seems possible, except indirectly. The narrator of the poem is “the woman who sits / on cliffs of rock” dragging “a perplexed finger / along crumbling tendons of sand.” Women appear out of reach—even to each other.

Isolated from the apparent center, these women make their own. Staking claim to their terrain in their own way, their voices sing in the darkness. Rivka Miriam (a native Jerusalemite) writes:

I am a woman made of fragments
living in a land full of prophets
and playing my flute
.
I am a woman crumpled in a land of prophets
sucking on the nectar of flowers
,
gathering people to me who stay
a few hours, leave
,
who come at night and at dawn disappear.
(“Flute”)

Imagery of the moon is especially dominant: “It was gentle, Far away, the moon crumbled into the sea,” Chedva Harakavy (“It Was Gentle”); “The moon is teaching Bible,” Zelda (“The Moon Is Teaching Bible”); “And the moon ran like crazy in his wide crater not knowing which girl to choose,” Rivka Miriam (“In That Green * Field”); “A moon gnaws the window, hangs itself on a * wall,” Shlomit Cohen (“So Abruptly”).

In the surreal poem “Lunatics” by Raquel Chalfi, we £ are led to imagine the moon attempting to straddle two J worlds—once moving out of its sphere, paying a price for I its folly.

Imagine a moon
walking in pallor
falling off his bed, walking
the world moonstruck
climbing a wall
wishing to take off
dreaming he’s the sun in its glory
little stars chase him
calling him
mad mad

Although the moon is masculine here (in Hebrew the word for moon may be either masculine or feminine), the effect may still suggest the image of women as transparent and vulnerable, in a dimension different from the “norm.”

The constant in these poems is the land. The poets identify, almost merge, with nature. There is no dominion over nature; women are a part of nature; they are nature. Raquel Chalfi writes:

I am like a field waiting.
Thistles swarm in my flesh and an olive tree
thick with generations feeds
off me.
At the field’s edge little animals lie
in ambush for my end
.
(“Like a Field Waiting”)

Zelda shows us:

At midnight, on the grief
of my face,
a strange plant’s celebration
streamed like gold
.
(“Strange Plant”)

And Leah Goldberg (who died over eight years ago) envisions herself:

I lie like a stone on the hill,
Indifferent and silent
in the withered, sun-seared grass
.

A stone among stones, I do not know
the ancientness of my life
or who will yet come
and with a kick
send me rolling down the slope
.
(“In the Jerusalem Hills”)

There is a clear but surface quality of passivity to many of these nature images. One must realize, too, that waiting can be a sure sign of lasting strength. Patience abounds.

One of the most charming poems is “First Tooth,” by Molly Myerowitz Levine (born in the United States, now teaching at Bar Ilan University). Mother and infant breakfast together:

Two companions.
I with my poems and coffee,
you with your work
a twist of bread.

A sense of motion:

Your feet
flat little oars
paddle the air
.

Of togetherness:

Sometimes we pause
to plait smiles
understanding each other’s business
.

The child, after sobs in the night, shows signs in the morning of “the first picket,” further unifying the two of them because:

Now you have an
edge on the world.
So may it be
with me
.

As the poems themselves suggest a collective identity —the individual women’s voices blending into a hard but true Israeli song—so, too, was the effort to bring these poems to light a collective response. Editor Myra Glazer, senior lecturer in foreign literature at Ben Gurion University, is a writer living in the United States and Israel. Two of her poems are included in this collection. But more important than her poems—or even her fine and subtle introduction—was her role as leader of the Beersheba Poetry Workshop, with six of her former students, which met for two years, studying and translating the poetry of Israeli women. Without the translations from the Hebrew by Myra Glazer, Tova Weizman, Marcia Falk and others, this collection would not have appeared in the United States. Perhaps it was the collective consciousness of the Poetry Workshop that made the poetry selections seem all of a piece, parts fitting into a whole. Anthologies do not usually blend so well. Even the fleshy, overripe contours of the women in the drawings by Jerusalem artist Shirley Faktor seem precisely right for this collection.

Faktor’s drawing of “Lot’s Wife”—suggesting both forward motion and that irrevocable pull back—is particularly marvelous. It accompanies the poem by Shirley Kaufman, “His Wife.” This gem of a poem appropriates legend and makes it new. It answers all the spoken and unspoken criticism of Lot’s wife (what an identity to carry around forever!):

But it was right that she
looked back. Not to be
curious, some lumpy
reaching of the mind
that turns all shapes to pillars.
But to be only who she was
apart from them, the place
exploding, and herself
defined. Seeing them melt
to slag heaps and the flames
slide into their mouths.
Testing her own lips then,
the coolness, till
she could taste the salt
.

A total affirmation of what she was and what she did. The zest, the imagination of these Israeli women moved me immediately and powerfully from the realm of daily routine, from frequent walks on the surface. The poems are raw, powerful, immediate, and necessary.

Dr. Sharon Weinstein is an Associate Professor of English at Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia. She is taking a year’s leave of absence to complete work on a novel.