Dahlia Ravikovitch, who died in 2005 at the age of 69, was one of Israel’s most beloved writers. No other Hebrew poet, Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld remark in their introduction to Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch, with the exception of the late Yehuda Amichai, has been so universally embraced by Israelis, whatever their ideological leanings.” Her fame was not only literary; she had “a kind of celebrity status,” so that even “the color of the coat and shoes she wore to some reception or other were considered worthy of notice in the gossip columns.” This fascination owed something to her “reclusiveness and striking beauty,” as Bloch and Kronfeld write, but much more to the powerful intimacy of her poetry, which deals with sexual passion and heartbreak, motherhood and aging. In a poem such as “Trying,” you can hear the suffering and menacing voice that makes Ravikovitch’s love poetry so convincingly unsentimental:
Remember you promised to come on the holiday
One hour after dark.
For my part, I won’t keep count of wraths
Or wrongs till you come.
And you: Don’t believe a word I say
Even when it’s wondrous or perverse.
I lie down to sleep like ordinary mortals
And I don’t practice magic.
I forgo the honors in advance,
I bear no resemblance to the daughter of the gods.
And you: Remember when and where.
The common comparison of Ravikovitch with American poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton is not really apt: Ravikovitch writes about herself more ironically than those confessional poets, and is more hardheadedly engaged with the world around her. Still, it is easy to see why the comparison gets made. Ravikovitch’s poem “Clockwork Doll,” from her first collection, published when she was 23, caused a sensation with its cold, ironic, feminist anger:
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.
Then once more I was a proper doll
And all my manner was nice and polite.
But I became damaged goods that night,
A fractured twig poised for a fall.
If you compare this poem with, say, Plath’s brilliant “The Applicant” (“A living doll, everywhere you look./It can sew, it can cook,/It can talk, talk, talk./It works, there is nothing wrong with it”), it is hard to feel that Ravikovitch’s poem has the same kind of power. Much of Ravikovitch’s early work, in fact, comes across in Bloch and Kronfeld’s translation as swaddled in literariness—it is too “poetic,” in the bad sense. This is not because the translation is inadequate, though I cannot know for sure; but I suspect it is because the translation faithfully attempts to preserve a quality that made Ravikovitch so exciting to Hebrew speakers—her continuous engagement with the vocabulary and conventions of the Bible and the modern Hebrew classics.
In “Clockwork Doll,” for instance, the translators note that Ravikovitch’s metaphor of the fractured twig, which is rather banal in English, would be clear to the Israeli reader as an allusion to Chaim Nachman Bialik’s “A Twig Fell.” In that poem, Bialik compares himself to a tree that cannot bear fruit, an image of disconnection and despair that Ravikovitch cleverly recast for her own purposes. This kind of allusion is, to continue the metaphor, the root system of any poetry, and the element that most resists transplantation into a new language. Nor does it necessarily help matters when Bloch and Kronfeld introduce what sound like allusions to well-known English-language poems into their translation. “Even for a Thousand Years” begins “I cannot bring a world quite round/and there’s no sense in trying”; but was Ravikovitch actually alluding quite so explicitly to Wallace Stevens’s “The Man With the Blue Guitar” (“I cannot bring a world quite round,/Although I patch it as I can”)?
But the allusion most important to Ravikovitch’s early work is Biblical, and here Bloch and Kronfeld offer indispensable guidance. Words that sound ordinary, or at best slightly formal, in English are often shown to be meaningfully peculiar in Hebrew. Ravikovitch makes excellent use of hapax legomena, words that appear only once in the Bible, and thus carry a very particular charge for the Hebrew reader. The first poem in her first book, “The Love of an Orange,” perhaps her most famous poem, is passionately carnal, in a way that would become Ravikovitch’s hallmark:
An orange did love
The man who ate it,
To its flayer it brought
Flesh for the teeth.
But the carnality takes on a whole new meaning when we learn, from the translators’ note, that the word here rendered as “flesh” is not the standard Hebrew basar, but barot. This word appears only once in the Bible, in Lamentations 4:10, a description of the siege of Jerusalem: “With their own hands, tenderhearted women have cooked their own children; such became their fare (barot), in the disaster of my poor people.” It is an open question how many of Ravikovitch’s original readers would have known their Bible well enough to understand this shocking allusion, but the translators make the poet’s intention clear, in this and many similar cases.
The allusiveness and the formality of Ravikovitch’s early poetry are largely cast off starting with her third collection, titled with meaningful plainness The Third Book. This appeared in 1969, at a time when poets across the world were in search of a more relaxed and plainspoken style. There is a new tone, sardonic and self-aware, in poems such as “Portrait”:
She sits in the house for days on end.
She reads the paper.
(Come on, don’t you?)
She doesn’t do what she’d like to do,
she’s got inhibitions….
In winter she’s cold, really cold,
colder than other people.
She bundles up but she’s still cold.
This informality does not mean, however, that Ravikovitch has given up her large subjects. When she writes about love in her own voice—rather than as “Tirzah” or “Shunra,” personae from her earlier poems—she is bitterly impressive:
with a quizzical look:
What else can happen to me
that hasn’t happened to me yet?
I dangle from a cloud
without wings, without a beak
but I don’t fall.
Once when I was in love
I could no longer feel
the cold or the heat.
As she gets older, we come to know Ravikovitch differently, and better. We see her loneliness and sadness, her worries about money and reputation, and—in a series of deeply moving poems—her troubled love for her son, Ido:
A tiny lizard on the wall of your house, Ido,
that’s what I want to be….
With no purpose,
enclosed in a space
where you inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale
We’re not talking about love, Ido.
Starting with the Lebanon War of 1982, Ravikovitch became an outspoken critic of Israeli treatment of the Palestianians. Though not all her protest poems transcend the subjects that provoked them, the provocations themselves—the burning alive of an Arab worker by Jewish arsonists, the killing of a pregnant woman’s fetus “under circumstances relating to state security”—are sufficiently terrible to make the verses powerful. And yet the Ravikovitch who lives on in the memory is less often the public conscience than the private sufferer, the poet who speaks in “The Window”:
So what did I manage to do?
Me—for years I did nothing.
Just looked out the window.
Raindrops soaked into the lawn,
year in, year out….
Winter and summer revolved among blades of grass.
I slept as much as possible.
That window was as big as it needed to be.
Whatever was needed
I saw in that window.
Adam Kirsch is a contributing editor to Tablet Magazine and the author of Benjamin Disraeli, a biography in the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters book series. This piece originally appeared in The New Republic.