Some books of poetry make one want not to write anything about them, but simply to copy out the poems as they are. Not because talking about them destroys their ephemeral quality but because of the voice at their core.
Every collection of poetry has a core in which the speaker’s voice is revealed as truly embodied, directly addressing the reader. Intimate moments, the poet’s relation to self and to the world, gradually win a place in our lives. And from this moment on, it is difficult to part from the poet. On the other hand, readers won’t always hear a new voice. You have to be generous to connect with one. And now, having read Oreet Meital’s Optional Poems, how can I share her voice with others?
“The voyage began as all voyages begin,” declares Meital at the beginning of the book, inviting us into a limpid, precise world. She [ . . . ] sets up a chilling picture of a group of people on a sea voyage: “There was hoarse laughter but no smiles.” “The dancing sailor had gold teeth. The smoker wore a striped shirt.” “Work stopped only long enough to wipe sweat from a brow.” With their concrete language and matter-of-fact reportage, these sentences provide the reader with a basis for interpretation and speculation about what really happened on the voyage.
But while other poems that avoid interpretation are likely to anger the reader, Meital’s poetics turn hers into profound, turbulent experiences, to the point where one does not care at all about the plot. The language is no less than bewitching. On the one hand, it is cold and alienated (“A hole was pierced in the lifeboat. There was no land in sight”) and on the other an abundance of personifications (“the indifference of the windscreen,” “the blind bow [of the ship]”). There is also a tendency to generalise (“no one understood his mother tongue”). It is no coincidence that the first cycle ends with a shadowy, disturbing and terrifying figure: “Neither fish nor man / a cloud of scales rising like a pillar of fog around him / and he looks out to sea / which in all its expanse / works on the gap between his gaze and his will.”
This shadowy figure is not human but a pillar of cloud. “There is no sickness like hatred of your own flesh and blood,” claims the poet, adding: “You are destined to call him by name [ . . . ] you arise to kill the monster, or at least to tear him apart, and in the morning, in the mirror, see a face.” This monster, a disturbing part of the self, makes the speaker, a woman, do extraordinary things: shaving a night’s growth of beard in order to highlight the “cunning face of the man I could have been”; to quarrel with her name and her shadow and to declare that “my first name is God.”
[ . . . ]
Sometimes two deceptive tones occupy one poem. For example, the poet may cry bitterly over her mother’s grave that “my mother does not make coffee or ask me if I’m hungry” and then immediately afterwards smells the fragrant jasmine, declaring that “the cemetery is a rural location in the heart of the city”. Despite the fact that all her poetry is defiant, a weak, scared and confused self lies at its heart. “There are days when it’s even hard to go out,” admits one speaker.
In the cycle ‘Poems of the bad mother’, she points out a mother’s weakness relative to her son in the chilling line, “A seven-year-old boy is lying in the next room with a mountain on his belly . . . I have to believe that he is stronger than I” [ . . . ] The poet is liable to be disappointed by the “moon [being] thrown into the water like a stone meant to promise: nothing will rise up”. She wonders too why “wild flowers wither faster. No one equipped them with the talent for longevity in jars”; tells the Finnish poet Sirkka Turkka that “in a few years my eyes and yours will be chimneys of ash. Are there worms in the snow?” and admits “I bought flowers for Saturday. Since then I’ve been sitting watching them wither and thinking about death every minute, despite my promise to do it only once an hour.”
[ . . . ]
The title of Optional Poems is carefully chosen to highlight the literary potential of writing poems as a personal choice. To be joyful or sad, to write or not to write – either way, behind the words the soul remains the same shadowy figure leaning on the rail of the ship.
Yakir Ben Moshe is a poet and director of literary programs at Bialik House in Tel Aviv.