City of David
The appropriateness of Messianic hopes in an era pronounced as violent and bleak can seem to touch the nadir of madness or near the course to insanity. Nevertheless, it is precisely at these times that the appeal to the Messianic seems more intense, real and credible.
Michael Heller in his new collection of poetry, Eschaton writes: ‘Impossible for me to write of other topics, mathematics and language or / mathematics and Zion’ (Letter and Dream of Walter Benjamin). He takes heart in a new hope of ‘after-selves’ or the co-ordinate — ‘reliev[ing,] the self-awareness of non-self’ — which he alludes to in A Terror of Tonality.
Throughout a collection which immerses itself in the devastation of September 11th and in the ruined landscapes of Sarajevo and Somalia — to name just a few of the massacre sites included — the word that occasions mention most frequently is ‘surcease’, a word that suggests overarching disaster but that also foreshadows some relief.
The Age of The Poet considers both the decline of the poet but also of the age in which he breeds. There sounds one possible note of relief: ‘but for surcease, for stillness / for not thinking.’ ‘Not thinking,’ can mean two things in Heller’s symbology: the relief from ‘garrulousness’ (Finding the Mode), and the reliable possibility of metaphysical end-points — ‘Wasn’t this how looking out was to become looking in, one’s ghosts no / longer blocking reflection?’(In the Studio).
What bespeaks the heartfelt nature of this collection is only apparent in its deliberate organisation. By placing the most epiphanic material in the first two sections of the book, the effect is one of high to low tension rather than ascending arc. The descent into the nether-reaches of sepulchral thanatos and eschaton are tinged still in this framework with embraces and remembrances of those ‘small ceremonies of life,’ left behind; ultimately I think affirming life and the will to live, while facing harbingers of death. In the midst of devastation, Heller exhorts an unorthodox vision; of life the way it would be after the facts of history, of a rejoining spirit of play after death and catastrophes: [hidepost]
Often, I am swamped by incredible pleasure
by the wild connection a thing makes between
my thumb and finger, as though desperately alive
in some galvanic dance.
(A Dialogue of Some Importance)
The image has the function of ‘primitive’ importance, of man grasping at the very marrow of life in the wild leap that the creation of tools or craft specialisation meant in the history of humankind. It is this kind of hope and faith in a better future in life or in death that Heller leaves us with. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, human progress is still alive.
Hovering at Low Altitude, a translation of the collected poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch brings us a full account of one of the most truly inspired Israeli poets of the last century. Poems like Clockwork Doll should be read akin to the poetry of the confessional poets, such as Sylvia Plath:
I was a clockwork doll, but then
That night I turned round and round
And fell on my face, cracked on the ground
And they tried to piece me together again.
Like Plath, Ravikovitch started her career precociously young writing in form and gradually moving into free verse and anything heretical, similar to Plath’s ouija boards. But Ravikovitch’s ‘gods’ are those of Biblical Hebrew legend. When she is at her best she is not using Hebrew legend but working from it. The seduction for us as readers is complete in the magical wisdom she affords:
Today I’m a hill.
Tomorrow a sea.
Wandering all day
Like Miriam’s well,
A bubble astray
In a crannied wall
At night in my bed
I dreamt horses red,
Purple and green,
In the morning I heard
A babble of water,
The parrots’ yatter.
Today I’m a snail,
Tomorrow a tree
Tall as a palm.
A nook yesterday,
A seashell today.
Tomorrow I’m tomorrow.
Ravikovitch is perhaps best known and loved in her own country as a political advocate. She has said that rather than fuel the Messianic agency of military campaigns, her poetry has forced a leading Israeli general —Yehoshafat Harkabi — to learn from Lear that to conquer another people could prove suicidal for the conqueror. For me, her most moving statement on political conflict is The End of the War:
He came at midnight, both legs lopped off,
Though his old wounds had long since healed.
He came through the third-story window—
I was struck with wonder at how he got in.
We’d lived through an age of calamity;
Many had lost their closest kin.
In streets sown with shredded papers
The orphan survivors were skipping about.
I was frozen as crystal when he came.
He thawed me like pliant wax,
Altered me even as the pall of night
Turns into the feather of dawn.
His bold spirit translucent as mist
That streams from the morning clouds.
The jewel of this compendium of translation of Ravikovitch’s poems is the malleability of utterance Bloch and Kronfeld command, together with their fidelity to certain Biblical effects, notably the device leitmotiv. Bloch and Kronfeld manage to handle the conjunction and vicissitude of emotion that is the staple of spoken Hebrew — where it resides most readily, always functioning at extremes.
The Messianic mission is one that Ravikovitch interprets uniquely, as one best considered as it relates to the real individuals involved, to be registered through metaphor by reference to the body, as in The Hurling:
Jerusalem the City of David was hurled away
Like a finger lopped from the body.
Ravikovitch lends herself to readers, much like Plath did, the vision of a martyred creator a deeply personal narrator, uniquely invested in each conflict.