Dahlia Ravikovitch (1936-2005), one of the great Hebrew poets of our time -- indeed, many believe, the greatest Hebrew woman poet of all time -- was widely honored for her artistry and admired for her courage as a peace activist. Power and powerlessness is her defining subject: the devastating consequences of unequal power relations for the individual and for society, the self in a state of crisis refracting the state of the nation. Her early work articulates the asymmetries of power in poems about fathers and daughters, men and women, kings and their subjects. The later work focusses more intently on the precarious position of women and, with increasing directness, the plight of Palestinians under the Occupation. A raw openness to pain, her own pain and that of others, hurts her into poetry, as Auden famously said of Yeats.
The last twenty-five years of her life mark the crowning achievement of Ravikovitch’s poetic project—the period when the private and the public merge with extraordinary expressive force in her work. Now she is haunted by the inseparability of concerns with war, woman, and child. She explores the parallels between the plight of the Palestinians, the suffering of Jews in the diaspora, and the constraints on women in patriarchal society. Her heightened focus on abuse is accompanied by a keen awareness of the moral responsibility of the writer. It is notoriously difficult to write political poetry without lapsing into harangue. Ravikovitch meets this challenge head-on by situating the protest in the crosscurrents of her own conflicted life, expressing her own sense of guilt and complicity—a strategy that enables the wary reader to hear her out.
Her fragile health and reclusiveness did not deter Ravikovitch from becoming deeply involved in the cause of Palestinian human rights. She often joined demonstrations against forced evacuations, land confiscation and the mistreatment of women and children in the West Bank. She frequently spoke out on television and in print, condemning the messianic nationalist settlers, and didn’t hesitate to confront Israel’s leaders directly. One of her targets was the abuse of language in the political realm. Such activism required no small measure of courage. “Like deep-sea divers,” she wrote, “most poets lead a high-risk life because they are compelled to listen with such scrupulous attention to the very essence of words.” Her standing as a beloved poet laureate of sorts allowed her protest to carry some weight with the Israeli public. Still, she was frank about the reception of her political poems in Israel: “There has been a lot of protest,” she told us, “because those poems seem to some readers like an admission of guilt, but I’m happy with them. I want to do something. I can't stand my impotence.” In a 2004 television interview she elaborated: “Because I hold an Israeli passport, I have a share in all the wrongs that are done to the Palestinians. . . . I want to be able to say that I did all I could to prevent the bloodshed.”
Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld
The Fruit of the Land
a farewell song to the good old days
You asked if we've got enough cannons
They laughed and said: More than enough
and we've got new improved anti-tank missiles
and bunker busters to penetrate
double-slab reinforced concrete
and we've got crates of napalm and crates of explosives
unlimited quantities, cornucopias,
a feast for the soul, like some finely seasoned delicacy
and above all, that secret weapon,
the one we can't talk about.
Calm down, man,
the Intell Officer and the CO
and the Chief of Police
who's also a colonel in that hush-hush commando unit
are all primed for the order: Go!
and everything shined-up like the skin of a snake
and we've got chocolate wafers on every base
and grape juice and Tempo soda
and that's why we won't give in to terror
we will not fold in the face of violence
we will never fold, no matter what
with our heavy-duty billy clubs.
God who has chosen us from all the nations
comforteth with apples
the fighting arm of the IDF
and the iron boxes and the crates of fresh explosives
and we've got cluster bombs too,
though of course that's off the record.
Serve us bourekas and cake, O woman of the house
for we were slaves in the land of Egypt
but never again
and blot out the remembrance of Amalek
if you can track him down, and if you seek him in vain,
Blessed be the tiny match
that a soldier in some crack unit will suddenly strike
and set off the whole bloody mess.
Hovering at a Low Altitude
I am not here.
I am on those craggy eastern hills
streaked with ice
where grass doesn ’t grow
and a sweeping shadow overruns the slope.
A little shepherd girl
with a herd of goats,
from an unseen tent.
She won’t live out the day, that girl,
in the pasture.
I am not here.
Inside the gaping mouth of the mountain
a red globe flares,
not yet a sun.
A lesion of frost, flushed and sickly,
revolves in that maw.
And the little one rose so early
to go to the pasture.
She doesn’t walk with neck outstretched
and wanton glances.
She doesn’t paint her eyes with kohl.
She doesn’t ask, Whence cometh my help.
I am not here.
I’ve been in the mountains many days now.
The light will not scorch me.
The frost cannot touch me.
Nothing can amaze me now.
I’ve seen worse things in my life.
I tuck my dress tight around my legs and hover
very close to the ground.
What ever was she thinking, that girl?
Wild to look at, unwashed.
For a moment she crouches down.
Her cheeks soft silk,
frostbite on the back of her hand.
She seems distracted, but no,
in fact she’s alert.
She still has a few hours left.
But that’s hardly the object of my meditations.
My thoughts, soft as down, cushion me comfortably.
I’ve found a very simple method,
not so much as a foot-breadth on land
and not flying, either—
hovering at a low altitude.
But as day tends toward noon,
that man makes his way up the mountain.
He looks innocent enough.
The girl is right there, near him,
not another soul around.
And if she runs for cover, or cries out—
there’s no place to hide in the mountains.
I am not here.
I’m above those savage mountain ranges
in the farthest reaches of the East.
No need to elaborate.
With a single hurling thrust one can hover
and whirl about with the speed of the wind.
Can make a getaway and persuade myself:
I haven’t seen a thing.
And the little one, her eyes start from their sockets,
her palate is dry as a potsherd,
when a hard hand grasps her hair, gripping her
without a shred of pity.
Title, Hovering at a Low Altitude. Israeli army language to describe helicopter patrols. “To hover” (le-rachef) is also slang for “to stay cool, dissociated from the political situation.”
Lines 21-3, neck outstretched . . . wanton glances . . . paint her eyes. Negating Isa. 3:16 ff., Jer. 4:30, Ezek. 23:40, the prophets' denunciations of Zion as a whoring woman.
Line 24, Whence cometh my help. Negating Psalm 121:1-2, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. From whence cometh my help? My help cometh from the Lord.”
Line 43, foot-breadth (Heb. midrakh kaf-regel). Deut. 2:4-5, God enjoining the people of Israel: “You are crossing into the territory of your brothers the sons of Esau, who dwell in Seir. . . . Do not provoke them, for I shall not give you of their land, not so much as a foot-breadth” (literal translation).
Line 59, hurling. Isa. 22:17-18, lit. “Behold, the Lord will hurl you away. . . ; there you will die.”
The Poetics of Applying “Moderate Physical Pressure”
dedicated to those who labor in the cause
Not to take any of it by force
one should never take anything by force.
One must always come carefully from behind
quickly cover the eyes of the man
and ask: Don’t you recognize my voice?
How can it be you don’t know my name?
Surely you must be jesting now,
what a subtle sense of humor you have
(the sweat begins to bead on his brow).
You’re the father of my daughter, isn’t that so?
She just turned seven years old this spring
(here I begin to tread on his toes).
Perhaps by now you’ve recalled my name
(with a blade to the nape, I part his skin).
The man cries and falls on all fours
but I don’t release my hold on his eyes.
With his eyes blinded, he’s got to guess
my name and learn about his daughter’s birth
that I made up just as I opened my mouth.
The man writhes in the dust and cries,
blood runs down his neck, his eyes are inflamed.
Genteel as I am, and oh so well-bred,
I do not injure his testicles.
His mouth contorts in the effort to guess
my name in a flash of illumination.
Sigalit, he tells me in a phony voice,
I have never forgotten you, Sigalit.
Now's when I bash his head to the ground;
there’s no doubt the man deliberately lies,
his only wish is to save his own skin.
With a builder’s spike I’ll chisel on his skin:
“Keep thee ever far from a lie.”
Then I’ll lay him down on the sand to bleed;
by now my rage exceeds every bound.
How debased and despised was that man in my eyes
when he kept trying to guess my name.
But I did not take anything by force
one should never take anything by force.
Title, “moderate physical pressure” (Heb. lachatz fizi matun). The language of the Israeli Supreme Court, establishing what is permissible in interrogating Palestinian detainees. The expression is generally used as a euphemism for “torture.”
Line 32, Keep thee ever far. Exod. 23:7.
A Mother Walks Around
A mother walks around with a child dead in her belly.
This child hasn't been born yet.
When his time comes the dead child will be born
head first, then belly and buttocks
and he won't wave his arms about or cry his first cry
and they won't slap his bottom
won't put drops in his eyes
won't swaddle him
after washing the body.
He will not resemble a living child.
His mother will not be calm and proud after giving birth
and she won't be troubled about his future,
won't worry how in the world to support him
and does she have enough milk
and how will she fit a cradle into the room.
The child is a perfect tsaddik already,
unmade ere he was ever made.
And he'll have his own little grave at the edge of the cemetery
and a little memorial day
and there won't be much to remember him by.
These are the chronicles of the child
who was killed in his mother's belly
in the month of January, in the year 1988,
"under circumstances relating to state security."