Silence & Speech; Sacralism & Sexuality

Unopened Letters
Poems by Linda Zisquit
The Sheep Meadow Press, $12.95

Wild Light
by Yona Wallach, translated by Linda Zisquit
The Sheep Meadow Press, $12.95

Every spring the American-born poet Linda Zisquit teaches journal writing out of her home in the German Colony section of Jerusalem. Often she begins her classes with an anecdote relating to her own integration into Israeli society. As a new immigrant nearly two decades ago, Zisquit’s Hebrew was limited at best, and she was not inspired to become fluent. Her hesitation continued until she went through childbirth—without language—in a Jerusalem hospital. This experienced muteness drove her to learn and live in Hebrew.

In Unopened Letters, Zisquit’s second book of poetry, she continues to explore her silences and her borderless/bordered experience as a writer of English in a Hebrew-speaking world. Caught between countries, identities, and opportunities, she feels “halved”: “a woman/without borders belongs to anyone./I see myself in this brutal light:/halved, hugging yellow margins,/whoring after man and gods” (from “Unopened Letters”).

In “Amnon,” Zisquit modernizes the biblical rape of Tamar, setting the tone with a quote from singer Phil Ochs: “I’ve had her, she’s nothing.” The juxtaposition of folk song and biblical story speaks to Zisquit’s split existence: she is physically in Israel but she is spiritually caught between Israel and America, between Judaism and her secular life, between antiquity and modernity.

Overcoming her early problems with Hebrew, Zisquit began translating the elusive poetry of Yona Wallach in the early 1980s. Her new translation of these poems is entitled Wild Light: Selected Poems of Yona Wallach.

Wallach was an Israeli poet unlike any the country had yet experienced. She began publishing in the mid-1960s and died of breast cancer, at age 41, in 1985. In Zisquit’s long and loving translator’s note, we learn that Wallach’s is the voice of an Israel stripped bare of mythology—one in which the biblical tongue has turned to slang “as though the Hebrew purified by [poets Natan] Zach and [Yehuda] Amichai had to be dirtied and given wider range in order to reflect a society in conflict.”

The Hebrew Wallach wields is irreverent: meanings are twisted and traditions flaunted. Zisquit claims that Wallach is “credited with taking the feminist revolution in Hebrew poetry upon herself.” Her poetry is clearly a revolution—sexualized and explicit:

“English has all the possibilities for gender
every I—in effect
is every possibility of sex
and every you (feminine) is you (masculine)
and every I is sexless
and there is no difference between you (feminine) and you (masculine). . .

Hebrew is a sex maniac
she wants to know who’s speaking
almost a vision, almost an image
what’s forbidden in the whole Torah
at least to see the sex
Hebrew peeks through the keyhole
like me at your mother and you . . .”

Taking on the gender difference in Hebrew, Wallach criticizes and loves her native language in the same poem.

Sexuality is twisted inside out throughout Wallach’s poetry, at once suggesting illicit relationships, the sexualization of God (“When you come to sleep with me, come like my father”), and thwarted gender roles. Wallach refers to herself as both woman and man.

Zisquit’s translation faithfully preserves the irreverence of Wallach’s poetry, including in this compilation “Tefillin,” which caused an uproar among Israelis:

. . . you put tefillin on me too
bind them on my hands
play them on me
move them with delight on my body
rub them hard against me everywhere
stimulate me everywhere
make me swoon with sensation . . .

Zisquit reports that the Orthodox poet Zelda was so enraged by “Tefillin” that she “refused to ever be published again in the same journal as Wallach, and was heard to say ‘I wish I had died before seeing that poem.'” The translation retains all the intensity of the original, yet so much is Wild Light a linguistic acrostic that the absence of the original language is sorely felt—if only for the opportunity to compare the translation to the original.