In Dalia Ravikovitch’s poem ‘Making a Living’ she writes, “To hell with the poem, I need 120 shekels.” I assume that the writers among us often identify with this line. Nevertheless, this week I found myself thinking, “To hell with the money, I need a poem.”
It was last Friday afternoon. I was looking for a gift for a friend's birthday and the first thing that came to mind was a volume of poetry. I went into the chain bookstore and asked for a particular book but it was out of print. So I started rummaging around in the poetry section, and my eyes alighted on Anat Levin's Revolving Anna. The first poem to captivate me was called 'Letter to a Beloved.' Reading it, I could visualize the scene in my mind's eye:
Sometimes I am gripped with longing for you and it is so transparent and elusive
that I think I imagined you from my heart and in my heart you sit and stand
and lie in the little bed in the little room with the embroidered curtains
and work in offices and tap lightly on the innermost partitions when
it's sad you remember – we gathered pinecones in the field behind my old
house (where I was such a beautiful bride so as a child I was there too) we played
in the backyards our parents built to make us into normal people when your
father drove the Subaru the road to the sea suddenly seemed short and the waves
sweets making our magic mouths water and we didn't then know many
things and I didn't borrow tears of the movie we saw in the mall now a man turns around
in my night in my room within my womb the noon sun stands still where are you I
conjure you up often wish you well, and that you are not
this is cotton paper and it reminds me of you
('come' you wrote in pencil on a small post card)
I hope we'll meet one day and we'll laugh.
I wanted to quote part of the poem here so that you too could see the scene in your minds' eye, but there is something about the density of this poem, with its lack of punctuation, lack of limit and borderline which defy cutting it off the middle, so I have quoted it in its entirety. Moreover, I felt that quoting only a passage of it would do the poem a disservice.
I read this poem, and bought the book as a gift for my girlfriend, then sat in the Azrieli Mall in Tel Aviv – which was packed as always, especially on Friday lunchtimes. I shut out the noisy crowds, the shops, the train timetables, and read. In my mind's eye I imagined the addressee of this poem in Anna's heart like Goldilocks in the baby bear's bed "Lying in the little bed in the little room with the embroidered curtains." A little Goldilocks winning a place for herself in the speaker's home, in her bedroom, in her dining room, in her heart. And I thought of two little girls playing in the yard behind the house, and pinecones, and all of a sudden the word "normal" cuts across this pastoral. And what's worse, "to make us into normal people", a phrase conveying a growing-up forced on one too soon and too strictly. The mouthwatering sweets make me think of the gingerbread house in "Hansel and Gretel," the temptation of the sweets and the childish joy they arouse which comes before knowledge. "Sweets making our magic mouths water and we didn't then know / many things."
The not-knowing troubles me because of the witch lying in wait in the gingerbread house, and because the not-knowing with all its innocence and charm and fantasy, is usually followed by knowing, all at once, imposed on us. And there's a sense that the speaker is trying to stave off knowledge, to avoid it: "and we didn't then know / many things and I didn't borrow tears from the movie we saw in the mall." The speaker refuses to borrow tears from the movie in the mall in order to express everything for which the child in the back yard has no words, persists in her refusal to borrow them in order to express what is as yet unknown, what one doesn't ask about – as though simply by not asking, by remaining silent, one can stave off the knowledge, the loss. And then the knowledge and the loss arrive: "where are you." Like Hansel and Gretel, the addressee is lost in the forest and Anna gets lost together with her: "The noon sun stands still where are you I" – the absence of a full stop and the signing off of the poem are not arbitrary, since losing the addressee the speaker also loses "I." Its boundaries blur, blending and losing itself in her addressee until I wonder if they are not one and the same, within the transparency and elusiveness in the speaker's heart, in which they both live. They keep losing each other until it is unclear which is the "you" and where the "I" in "where are you I".
Leafing further through the book, I come across the birthday poems, and read the third poem in the series 'Birthday 2005':
We were lonely
We dressed in our deeds and went out
to the street embalmed
constrained by the concerns of the everyday
we signed here and here and there
Likewise, practical tasks:
hanging stars, buying cups
we raced in loneliness as if on a road
that ends in applause, water dividing
From words we built a house, a door
a double bed, a gas oven.
I particularly like the lines "The everyday shackled us to our business / we signed here and here and there." I think nothing could reflect the shackles of the everyday better. I sit on a bench in the Azrieli center and people hurry past – to buy and to get there in time and to hand in for mending – people shackled to the everyday. And indeed, how much loneliness and strangeness there is in action sometimes, when we hurriedly put it on in the morning without giving it a second thought, without stopping, to delay a moment, to wonder, to hang stars. There in the midst of the Friday afternoon throng, I think to myself that reading this book now is liberating me from the shackles of the everyday; it is a practical task like hanging out stars. I think how an entire world is being constructed for me out of the words of this book. And my eye lights upon the next poem, the fourth in 'Birthday Poem 2005':
The gods were willing to love us
The sun powdered our skin with its sparkles
the rain did what rain does: prevailed
We waited for trains to pass by.
Each day a train passed
We stood essential to time
if not for our aging bodies it would have disappeared
We hid in large cities
their structures blocking our nakedness
as we ate from a single dish.
And I think about the number of people entering and leaving the Azrieli complex every day and about this great city, and how easy it is to hide in it. And the rain does what rain does, and maybe there's comfort in that, an escape from the shackles of the everyday, and eating from a single plate is also perhaps comforting.
Each day a train passes by. And I sit in Azrieli opposite the overhead board with the train timetable, waiting. And reading. The last train leaves in 10 minutes. And I hold Anat Levin's book that I bought for my girlfriend in my hand and stave off the everyday. Suddenly I say to myself: To hell with the money. I need a poem. And I rush back to the bookstore so I won't miss the train. The saleswoman is surprised to see me again. Do you have another copy of Revolving Anna? No they don't. She asks if I'd like to order it. No. I need this book now. And I run to another bookstore across the way and buy a copy for myself.
And on the train (which I managed to catch) I read 'Time':
And there was a time that our dreams
were wrapped in rustling gold paper
and the shining gold shed on us
day and night, in the forms of sun
of clouds, of black asphalt,
of the wall
against which you were kissed for the first time
and he who touched you felt your body swell
in his hands. It was the time
that rain fell
but in the heart's core
the curtains stirred
as though a light breeze was stroking our
heartstrings with a feather touch of wings.
Then time passed,
now our bodies poke out of the nutshell
or our childhood wild weeds
in the cracks of the walls
and in the windows strange cities
snatches of smoke, shreds of light.
And what I want to take away from this poem is the rustling gold paper, the attention to all the details which make up the heart's core: the forms of the sun and the clouds. And I want to take with me the wonder, far from the shackles of the everyday, the wonder of a first kiss, of the body's growth and the expansion of the heart within it. And the stirring of the curtains and the light breeze, worlds away from signatures "here and here and there." In the last Friday afternoon train I want to shut my eyes to the wild weeds in the cracks in the walls and the snatches of smoke, I want to take flight beyond them as the book Revolving Anna enables me to do in the heart of the Azrieli center on a Friday afternoon, despite and together with the pain and terror of existence expressed in it. And I take from this reading the "feather touch" of the heartstrings. The wings.
Excerpts from 'Birthday Poems' translated by Becka McKay