Israeli poet Agi Mishol’s first collection in English, Look There, (Graywolf Press, $14) offers a vision of Israel that both speaks to and resists the images that appear regularly on the news. In her poem “Olive Tree,” Mishol writes of a road junction with a planted tree that is likely uprooted from a Palestinian farm bordering on an Israeli settlement. The original Hebrew verb kheesoof used to describe the tree’s removal, as translator Lisa Katz explains in her introduction, calls to mind a verb from Israeli military speak often used on the news to mean “cleared away.” In the English version, Katz makes do with the word “shafted,” but the potency of the original comes through, as it does throughout Katz’s translation in this luminous collection.
Mishol’s poetry is full of unexpected wit, and even in the darker poems, there are moments of humor and delight. In the long poem “Nocturne,” Mishol writes “Not for nothing I stand here in the evening bent over the sink manning my station singing to the distance: row your boatl because everything that can leaves the earth: chimney smoke prayer jumps for joy.” That singing over the sink, that mix of delight and thoughtful meditation, makes Mishol’s book a welcome antidote to the relentless news of bloodshed and destruction, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere.
Trees and songs figure into the work of Israeli poet Yona Wallach as well, but not as much as lovers, floods, and women with nothing on under their dresses. Brilliantly translated by Linda Stern Zisquit, Let the Words (Sheep Meadow Press, $17.95) includes poems from Wallach’s six books published during her lifetime and a collection that appeared after her death from breast cancer in 1985. The poet’s lingustic experiments with gender and sexual convention make for startling reading in 2006—one can only imagine the impact they made when Wallach first began publishing in the male-dominated literary world of the early 1960s.
Wallach plays with personae both male and female, often with riveting results, as in the poem “Strawberries.” The gender of the speaker in the poem is not revealed until the last line. First, Wallach lists a number of requests for a lover to “sell me strawberries tell me in a sweet light voices strawberries strawberries who wants strawberries…” and ends with the unexpected request for the “you” of the poem to lower herself “directly on my prick.” Wallach is fearless in the range of voices and tones she assumes in her poems, and the risks she takes make for rewarding, startling reading. In the poem, “When You Come,” Wallach writes, “bring me out in an ambulance to the future.” In these lyrical translations of her work, her voice comes through like a siren.
The poetry of Linda Stern Zisquit is tamer than the poems she translates by Wallach. Zisquit’s most recent book. The Face in the Window (Sheep Meadow Press, $12.95), explores her relationships with her family in the United States, where she was born, and with the family life she has made in Israel. The central section of Zisquit’s book is a moving series of poems about her aging mother and the period of mourning that follows her mother’s death. The series ends with an unexpected poem on sex and secrecy that recalls Wallach’s work. “I’ve invited them all in here,” Zisquit writes, addressing her mother, “the ones you suspected I slept with and a few I kept out of view.”
Other careful moments of confession recur throughout Zisquit’s new collection and make her book a fascinating companion to Wallach’s unchecked poems of transgression. Compared to Wallach, Zisquit’s own poems are less wedded to risk taking than to the daily reality of family life. However, within that daily reality, Zisquit searches for that which is quietly suggestive though unseen—like the rounded back she describes in the poem “Calcium” under which “a whole life’s hidden.”
Idra Novey’s chapbook The Next Country was published by the Poetry Society of America. Tier translations of Brazilian poet Paulo Henriques Britto received a PEN Translation Fund Award.