What Use Is Poetry in a Ravaged World?

WhatUseIsPoetryWhat Use Is Poetry, The Poet Is Asking (Shearsman Books, $17) is both the title and the opening line of the latest collection from Rachel Tzvia Back, a slim volume of protest poetry written from the perspective of “the mother who sent her son to war, didn’t / Stop her son from going to war,” and “Was found to be / Guilty.” An American poet, scholar and translator, Back lives in Israel, where, as we learn in this collection’s opening poem,

in lieu of truth, expert and
ex-general of the demarcated
worlds, barbed-wire words

hurled across the room, the anchor
confidently moored with her earnest nod-nodding of head

stating stately readiness
for next round of certain warfare
around the news table.

In addition to four earlier collections of her own poetry, Back has translated the works of major Hebrew poets into English, among them Lea Goldberg, Tuvia Ruebner and Hamutal Bar Yosef. She also translated into English the anthology With An Iron Pen: Twenty Years of Hebrew Protest Poetry, published in 2009.

If Israel looms large in Back’s work, her poetry engages with issues of broader concern and her political commitments, while shaped by her experiences in Israel, extend far beyond its borders. “There should be nothing/left in the world/after his little body/ on the beach,” writes Back in a poem dedicated to the memory of Alan and Ghalib Kurdi, the Syrian refugee brothers whose tragic deaths in 2015 made news when a photographer captured Alan’s two-year-old body lying lifeless on a Turkish beach. The image of the tiny corpse was seared into our collective consciousness, and drew attention to the Syrian refugee crisis. Back’s poem takes on added urgency in light of a more recent image, this one shot at the U.S.- Mexico border, where a Salvadoran father and his two-year-old daughter drowned while seeking asylum in the United States. The image of the two, their bodies lying face down at the edge of the water, their arms eternally linked, sent shockwaves once more.

This poem, like many others in this collection, reflects on what it means to go on living in a world ravaged by poverty and violence, a world in which children’s corpses are washed ashore, or “Lost to the serious sea.” Later in the same poem Back writes, “If pain made a sound / the world would be/ a steady hum/ all the time.” But if pain is silent, Back’s poetry makes itself heard, filling in the aching void with its own sorrowful music.

In the cycle “Summer Variations,” Back reflects on how, in a country consumed by war, there is little variation: “Slowly summer will / scalding pass, autumn will / arrive unnoticed.” To write poetry in this political landscape is to be conscious, always, of the incommensurability of poetry to offer any resolution to the pressing issues of our time, as Back’s title makes clear. And yet, as these poems remind us, poetry’s worth lies not in its purported usefulness, but in the fact that it exists at all, that it persists, despite everything, much like life itself.

Shoshana Olidort is a writer and translator completing a Ph.D. at Stanford on Jewish women’s poetry. Her work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The Los Angeles Review of Books, the Paris Review and the Jewish Review of Books.