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Hebrew Poems, in English

Individual voices break through the collective.

Poets on the Edge: An Anthology of Contemporary Hebrew Poetry selected and translated by Tsipi Keller (SUNY Press, $24.95) takes its readers on a journey to a far away land, an Israel that is at once familiar and foreign. As a whole, the poems presented in this anthology reveal their 27 writers’ aspirations, conflicts and nightmares: from Holocaust memories, which haunt both those who physically experienced it and those who did not, to questions of sexuality and gender, to Middle East politics

The book allows English readers to view Israel through the Hebrew poets’ lens. Keller’s short biographical introductions to each poet are also informative and collectively give an idea of the varied backgrounds of people who write poetry in Israel. But the title itself is too broad: according to Keller, the word “contemporary” refers to five decades. There is no clear demarcation of when an individual poem was written or from what collection it was taken. Additionally, the logic behind the translator’s selections is ambiguous. Keller’s goal is to showcase “those poets who best represent the variety and richness of contemporary Hebrew Poetry,” but some of the selections seem arbitrary. Although Yehuda Amichai, Nathan Zach and Dahlia Ravikovitz, the pillars of Israeli poetry, are present, Keller offers us none of their formative works, the poems that revolutionized Hebrew literature in the 1950s. It was Zach and Amichai who introduced understatement to Hebrew poetry. Favoring the voice of the individual, they rejected their predecessors’ high diction and focus on the collective. Neither Aminadav Dykman’s introduction nor the translator’s short preface address this issue.

Other canonic poets like David Avidan, Dan Pagis, Meir Wieseltier and Yona Wallach are represented, as well as eminent figures such as Nurit Zarhi, Agi Mishol, Maya Bejerano and Roni Someck, who together weave the Israeli literary fabric. Only a handful of Keller’s anthologized poets could be dubbed “marginal.”

As for the translations themselves, Keller succeeded in transmitting many poems artfully. Agi Mishol’s “Nocturnal I,” for example, preserves its melancholic rhythms in English:

In the house / all is contained: / the sugar in the jar / the bread in the bread-box/ the knife in the drawer / the food in the pot / the evil spirits / in the folds of the drapes.

This accuracy and lightness of sound, however, are absent in some of the translations, where Keller favors rare synonyms and renders the elegant Hebrew a clumsy or even incorrect equivalent. Someck’s simple “underpants” become “lingerie,” and Keller turns “circumstances” (nessibot) into “reasons” in the closing of a political poem by Ravikovitch.

Finally, as poetry is never really translatable, I prefer bilingual editions that allow readers with some knowledge of Hebrew to wrestle with the text while being aided by translations. The Defiant Muse: Hebrew Feminist Poems from Antiquity (1999) and The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse (2006) give models to be emulated. Keller’s decision (or her editor’s) to present the translations alone might be economical, but it might also reflect a philosophy according to which a translated poem ought to become a poem in its own right. To a certain extent, Keller succeeded in creating a mass of English poems, which cumulatively may be appreciated on their own, carrying their readers to distant landscapes of the mind.

Nili Gold is associate professor at University of Pennsylvania. Her new book is Yehuda Amichai: The Making of Israel’s National Poet.