WITHOUT A SINGLE ANSWER: POEMS ON CONTEMPORARY ISRAEL edited by Elaine Marcus Starkman and Leah Schweitzer Berkeley, CA: Judah L. Magnes Museum, 1990 181 pp., $11.95
In her poem, “Maria Olt,” Ruth Whitman describes a tree-planting ceremony on a Jerusalem hillside. A woman “called Righteous, a Christian/who hid Jews in Hungary” bends to her task. “She straightens up. Her eyes are wet/Tears come to her easily/The small Jewish woman she saved/stands beside her, dry-eyed!’
If there were one word most apt for the voice and vision of these poems, it would be “dry-eyed!’ Seventy-eight poets are represented in this book, more than half of them women, young and old, emigrants, visitors and tourists to Israel, sabras, writing in English or translated from Hebrew, poets both well-known and obscure. I was struck at once though by a collective tone: spare, acerbic, understated. After centuries of sentiment and schmaltz, we have it would seem, become a dry-eyed people.
Here is a country pared to the bone by too much history “every slope a cemetery”), a place bereft of illusion (“I move … toward the kingdom always to come”), where, says Linda Ziquit, “I cannot pretend innocence!’ The only thing that is pure is contradiction. The promised land and the desert are one and the same. “No matter what you call this space/it’s still a desert!’ writes Michael Castro.
One searches among “broken mosaics” for connection, digs “in the hard soil for shards of history … confirming covenants!’ Linda Pastan’s “Mosaic” ends with these clipped lines:
Under the bright glazes
Esau watches Jacob,
Cain watches Abel.
With the same heavy eyes
the tilemaker’s Arab assistant
all of us wondering
why for every pair
there is just one
Images recur of the extreme opposites — the land that “exports oranges and griefs’,’ “spirit smoking/from a cleft” where “Stone is the architecture/of loss and promise!’ Everywhere in these poems is the unyielding presence of stone — rising to a crescendo in Dahlia Ravikovitch’s “Stones!’ with its obsessive repetition of the word as she addresses the children who have lived too long inside war: “Why did you say stones. /Why do you have only stones in your head/and in your hands?”
These moving poems are so well-selected and beautifully ordered into internally coherent sections, hardly a false note among them. They cling to the concrete, to dailiness, in a world that fears dreams. “In the land of Israel/Anything can happen… an unexpected cancellation order/like what happened to Abraham on Mount Moriah” Many of these poems record moments that outwit history, however briefly, by setting humane possibility against fatality.
In what is perhaps the most lyrical poem in the book, “Pause!’ the poet Zelda writes of a young terrorist who saved an Israeli prisoner from the hands of other terrorists who wanted to torture him. She describes how he “suddenly/set hate aside’,’ how “a river flowed from his inner Eden”:
Oh! Both of them knew —
this was not the whole truth
this was a pause
on a green island,
the island beyond all nations…
On this island, in one of the caves,
peace opened its eyes.
Eleanor Wilner’s latest book of poetry is Sarah’s Choice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989)