Israeli poet Navit Barel, 36, was born in Ashkelon on Israel’s southern coast to bereaved parents, immigrants from Libya, now deceased, who had lost a son in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. “I grew up in a home in mourning; it was a complicated existence,” she told the Haaretz newspaper when her second book, Real, appeared in 2011. “I have no family, I have no one,” she told correspondent Maya Sela. “It’s liberating and terrifying at the same time. At last I can do whatever I want. Perhaps that’s why I write poems, not prose. I have no stories, and no patience for stories.”
'Free Admission' is a poem in which Navit Barel reports a conversation with "Mira from Nepal" during the Jewish New Year holiday. The poem is attentive to the way that Mira has acclimated herself to the Israeli environment and culture. Using a surprising and apt metaphor of the solar water heaters ubiquitous in Israel – practical, but problematic for those living far from the source – Barel notes that the foreign worker's Hebrew moves "slowly like hot water descending to a shower on the first floor." At the same time, the poem exhibits weariness of the symbols of the poet's culture. Of the traditional New Year's dish of apples dipped in honey, she says, the "apples aren't sweet at all." And the "honey, insulted by the air, crystallizes like wet sand." Admission to Israel – physically or spiritually – isn't really free; it may come with the price of slowed speech, or having to accept symbols that don't deliver on their promise.
About the loss of a brother she never knew, Barel told Haaretz, "you're always dragging this black hole around with you. I'm preoccupied by it all the time [. . .] I love mourning narratives, I collect them. In the Mourning Diary Roland Barthes wrote about his mother that 'When I die it will sadden people, but it won't completely destroy anyone.' [. . .] On the other hand, together with existential loneliness, there is a sense of freedom. I have no obligations to anyone. It also feels like standing on the edge of an abyss, I can do whatever I want. Especially for me, someone who always defined herself in contrast to others."
A prose editor at the Yediot Aharanot publishing house in Israel, Barel is writing her doctoral dissertation on the passivity-activity dichotomy in the work of Israel's most famous contemporary woman poet, Dahlia Ravikovitch. The most recent novel to pass through her hands at work is Alive by Eyal Dotan (a lecturer in political thought at Tel Aviv University); it tells the story of a smug young Israeli financier who falls in love with a radical American artist and turns to a field he knows nothing about. Barel does not consider that own poetry belongs to the current wave of Mizrahi writing (by descendants of Jewish Israelis raised in the cultures of Moslem or Arab countries), the subject of renewed debate in the Israeli press these days. She told PI that her literary roots lie in her academic studies.
And despite her parents' Libyan background, Barel told Haaretz that the house she grew up in was a westernized Israeli one, "bleached white," she says. "My mother would make [Eastern European] matzo ball soup for the Passover seder and stewed fruit." When Navit brought her partner over, "it was the most Ashkenazi home he'd ever seen. It was a whiter than white house" [. . .]
"My mother happily changed her name when she came here [. . .] Before they Hebraized their name to Barel they were called Ben-Attiah. She accepted the DDT spraying [of new immigrants to Israel] with love, despite the fact that she'd embarked wearing her best clothes to come to the Holy Land. I never ever heard her utter a word against the country."
Barel's poems have been published in almost all the literary journals. "I have been very careful not to publish only in one place and not to become part of a literary group. In Hebrew literary history there have always been literary groups of a few poets promoted by a patron. I am careful not to sit at anyone's table. Everyone is my friend and has published my work [though] now I publish almost exclusively in Mitaam. [Editor Yitzhak] Laor has provided me with a platform in recent years; dialogue with him has always been fruitful."
Barel has also been active with the group Cultural Guerillas – Israeli artists who promote social and political struggle via poetry and music. For example, to protest the Cast Lead operation in Gaza in 2009 as well as its effects on the poorer southern part of Israel, members of the group staged a poetry sit-in in front of the Akirov Towers, a luxury housing project in Tel Aviv then the home of Defense Minister Ehud Barak. They have also joined workers from the Akerstein tile factory demonstrating in Yeroham.
Barel says that she wanted to find out what happens to poetry when it encounters reality. "I think that poetry derives from the real," she explained to Haaretz. "It sometimes makes sense to stand on a doorstep along with [poet and journalist Roy] Chicky [Arad] and read poetry to people in the street, but sometimes the ephemeral and remote nature of this disturbs me. By the same token, however, poetry readings sometimes strike me as too formal, and detached from reality."
With regard to protest poetry, she told the newspaper, "One must be careful that it doesn't become self-righteous. And protest poetry is about eight levels too difficult for me. I'm no Laor, [Meir] Wieseltier or Ravikovitch."
Barel also prefers not to situate herself as a member of a generation of women poets: "I can't speak of a group, they are all very individual. In my research too, I prefer to penetrate the depths of a poetics rather than to look at the development of a literary world historiographically. There's inevitably something superficial about that. You don't write poetry in a vacuum, you rely on tradition."
The possible paucity of readers of her poetry does not bother her: "Poetry has always been a marginal, remote, unrecognized genre. I'm not a poetry missionary. One has to make an effort to understand poetry. It's not nice, not pleasant. It's not beautiful sentences; it's not doing something beautiful with language. Sometimes it gives one a stomach ache; sometimes it is truly gut wrenching."
Why did she call her second book Real?
"I find all of existence absurd. What is there of substance in these poems; what have I accomplished in the world? It's absurd, it's a piece of paper. Will any one even read it? To think it's significant and substantial is absurd. It really is of no importance whatsoever. There are much more important things."
"People's suffering. People suffering injustice, cruelty, these are important. I'll be pleased if people read the book and if they get something out of it, not necessarily anything important. I don't care that the poems may give some people a stomachache. You want to be heard, but I don't feel that poets are prophets or that they have smarter things to say than other people."
Roshem (Impression), Gvanim, Tel Aviv, 2005.
Mamash (Real), Am Oved, Tel Aviv, 2011.
Barel's review of Aduma, an anthology of "class-conscious" Israeli poetry
About the Dar al-Bishi synagogue in the Tripoli, Libya, neighborhood where the poet's parents were raised.
An untitled poem ( 'I could have taken you') in Hebrew with interpretation by Ron Yagil
Interview: why poetry is neither nice nor important
A complete bibliography of the writer's work
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