In Loosen the Fetters of Thy Tongue, Woman: The Poetry and Poetics of Yona Wallach (Hebrew Union College Press, $39.95), Zafrira Lidovsky Cohen wrestles with some of the most intricate and provocative poetry crafted in modern Hebrew. Yona Wallach (1944-1985) came of age as poetic revolutionaries of the 1950s and 1960s sought to create a more personal, informal poetry that utilized vernacular Hebrew and resonated with reality. In Cohen’s account, Wallach was both part of that trend and not, departing from it by dipping into the visions, dreams, and fantasies of her own mind. This recognition of the unconscious both as a component of the self and an inspiration for poetry resulted in ground-breaking confessional poetry.
Characterized by “a blend of mysticism and madness,” Wallach’s poetry resists easy interpretation. Cohen takes a rigorous formalist approach to the oeuvre, meticulously decoding the symbols and references dotting her poetic landscapes. Her attention to linguistic nuance reveals the ways in which Wallach subverts the structure of the Hebrew language. In a well-known poem entitled “Hebrew,” for instance, Wallach declares that “Hebrew is a sex-maniac” because the gender distinction in the language reflects and reinforces the perceived sexist bias of Jewish society. Cohen, an associate professor of Hebrew at Stern College for Women, argues that Wallach’s feminist project is to deconstruct male/female dichotomies and reconsider human identity.
Indeed, one of Wallach’s crucial contributions is the uncompromising honesty with which she renders sexual power dynamics in such poems as her “When you come to sleep with me” series and “Tefilin.” More daringly than any female Hebrew writer before her, Cohen suggests, “Wallach employs the erotic imagination as an explosive poetic tool not merely to confront women’s realities but primarily to examine the ways in which the world can be truly different.”
Hannah Pressman is working on her Ph.D. in Modern Hebrew Literature at New York University.