Lea Goldberg

Forgotten Foremother

My days are engraved in my poems/ like years in the rings of a tree writes Lea Goldberg (1911-1970), one of Israel’s classic poets and the author often collections of verse. Raised in Russia and Lithuania, Goldberg received a Ph.D. in Semitic studies in Germany before she emigrated to Palestine in 1935. She lived first in Tel Aviv, where she worked as an editor and theater consultant, and then in Jerusalem, where she established Hebrew University’s Department of Comparative Literature. But Goldberg never forgot her formative years in Europe, and she writes poignantly of the “heartache of two homelands” in verses that span not just two continents, but the full landscape of the human heart. Her recently released Selected Poetry and Drama (Toby Press, 2005, $14.95), poetry translated by Rachel Tzvia Black and prose by T. Carmi, offers many English-speaking readers their first chance to know this remarkable woman and writer.

Perhaps because she left her homeland and never returned, childhood for Goldberg is an enchanted fairy-tale world which she accesses primarily through her imagination: “Seven kid goats wait for their mother, / a queen pricks her finger on a needle, / seven dwarfs celebrate their day, / and the island is a palace, the mirror a lake / where a ship with a high mast sails — / and a girl—content Cinderella— / little girl on a white ship / sets sail for another land.” Even Jerusalem is a “pretend city,” not because it is enchanted but because it is both earthly and heavenly: its streets are trampled by poor children, but its sky is shadowed by the city’s lofty past.

In many of Goldberg’s poems, the images are primarily textual rather than visual; they appeal not to the eye that sees, but to the ear in which lines resound in verse. Her love poems echo the Song of Songs; her poems of loneliness and despair draw on Ecclesiastes. Many of these allusions are familiar even in translation: “And you know: every day is the last under the sun, / and you know: Every day is new under the sun.” For others, we are dependent on the editor’s thorough endnotes in order to appreciate the full resonance of Goldberg’s lines; the English word “how,” for instance, is far less resonant than “Eicha,” the Hebrew title of the book of Lamentations: “How can one lone bird / carry the entire sky / on fragile / wings / above the desolation?”

Unusual among Israeli poets of her generation, Goldberg’s poetry bears close ties to the western European literary tradition. She translated Shakespeare and Petrarch into Hebrew, as well as Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Gorky. And so, not surprisingly, her allusions are not just biblical and religious, but also mythological and European. “The Lament of Odysseus,” for instance, is a description of the hero’s descent into the underworld, in which each stanza closes with a refrain from David’s tragic lament for Jonathan: “How the mighty have fallen.”

Goldberg writes poignantly of her intimate acquaintance with loneliness and sorrow—spurred, presumably, by her own many early dislocations—but her most striking and powerful poems are those in which she nonetheless asserts her ability’ to carry herself forwards with stateliness and grace: “The paths I have trod / have straightened my stride— / tired and lovely steps.” She never loses her ability to find beauty in the natural world, even when she is in great pain: “The stars are very beautiful / even tonight / the night of my anguish.” In “Toward Myself,” one of the most breathtaking poems in this collection, she majestically asserts, “The years have made up my face / with memories of love / and have adorned my hair with light silver threads / making me most beautiful.” For Goldberg, who prays “O let me die with my eyes wide open,” life is always a blessing.

Although she is most famous as a poet. Lea Goldberg also wrote three plays. In Selected Poetry and Drama, the selection of Goldberg’s poetry is followed by the only one of her plays that was ever published and produced, “Lady of the Castle,” which is performed from time to time in America to original music composed by Mira Spektor. The plot is extraordinary both for its Gothic qualities and its convoluted compassion. Set in September 1947, it is the story of two emissaries from Palestine who spend a night in a castle in an unidentified country in Central Europe. In need of lodgings on a stormy night, Dora Ringel and Michael Sand find themselves imposing on the hospitality of the reluctant Count Zabrodsky, the caretaker of the castle. Dr. Ringel, a Youth Aliya worker on a mission to find children kept in hiding during the war and bring them to Palestine, and Sand, in search of valuable Jewish books abandoned by Jews forced to flee their homes, make a surprising discovery behind the castle’s bookcase-lined wall. Sand, the son of a watchmaker, is fascinated by the exotic cuckoo clock in his bedroom. He winds the clock, it strikes ten times, and then, to his utter astonishment, a beautiful girl in a long white gown emerges from behind a secret door. She is Lena, a Jew who has been kept in hiding by the Count for four years. Sand and Dora discover that the Count has held Lena captive not just during the war, but for two subsequent years of peacetime as well. He is unable to release her, even as she is torn apart by the excruciating difficulty of leaving the familiar for the terrifyingly unknown.

Goldberg’s drama often becomes melodrama, but we do not groan at these effects, because they are so deftly woven into the historical narrative. Yes, Lena threatens to kill herself by swallowing poison, but it is the poison she wears in an amulet around her neck, which many Jewish parents gave to their children during the war so that they might end their own lives rather than die at the hands of the Nazis. Yes, the captive girl leans out the castle window and utters a howling cry at catching her first glimpse of the moon (which bathes her in its light, making her appear like a vision); but it is because she has been confined indoors for years as one of those hidden Jewish children whose Christian benefactors had no intention of returning them to their people after the war.

This book is a gift to readers of Goldberg, who can sec more clearly the connections she draws between history and verse. Lena we now recognize as the Lea of the poems, the “little girl in a white ship” who “sets sail for another land.”

Toward Myself

The years have made up my face
with memories of love
and have adorned my hair with light silver threads
making me most beautiful.

In my eyes
landscapes are reflected.
And the paths I have trod
have straightened my stride—
tired and lovely steps.

If you should see me now
you would not recognize your yesterdays—
I am walking toward myself
bearing the face you searched for in vain
when I was walking toward you. 

To a Portrait of My Mother

Your portrait is so peaceful. You are other:
a bit proud and embarrassed at being—my mother.
Accompanying me with a yielding smile and a tear
and never asking: “Who?”

You never wondered, never raged, when I came
daily demanding: “Give me!”
With your own hands you brought me everything
only because I am—me.

And today you remember, more than I do,
my childhood sorrows, then you already understood:
when your grown daughter would come to you,
she would bring her grief that has grown too.

Yes. I’ll come broken and not ask how you are.
I’ll not cry in your arms, not whisper: “Mama!”
You’ll know:
He who left me was dearer to me than you are,
and you won’t ask: “Who?”

From My Mother’s House

My mother’s mother died
in the spring of her days. And her daughter
did not remember her face. Her image
engraved on my grandfather’s heart
was erased from the world of images
after his death.

Only her mirror remained in the house,
grown deeper with age in its silver frame.
And I, her pale granddaughter, who look nothing like her,
peer into it today as though into
a lake hiding its treasures
deep under the water.

Deep down, behind my eyes,
I sec a young woman
pink-cheeked and smiling.
A wig on her head.
She is hanging
a long earring on her ear-lobe. Threading it through
the slender crevice in the tender flesh
of her ear.

Deep down, behind my eyes, the light
golden flecks of her eyes shine.
And the mirror testifies to the family
that she was very beautiful.