Monday, November 12, 2012

Rachel Tzvia Back "what has anchored us"

In a world swarming with a species that always seems to be at war, somewhere at some level, poets have historically been writing about war, its glory, its gore, and its recovery. The Middle East, it seems, has been defined by warfare for millennia, and the hostilities never seems to be far from the edge of a poet’s pen. Today’s poem, by Israeli poet Rachel Tzvia Back, commemorates an incident at the town of Sakhnin during which 13 Israeli-Arabs were killed in October 2000. The incident sparks annual demonstrations and memorials. Ms. Back excellently crafts a metaphor for this incident, then induces readers to smell the grief of history.
--Tom Lombardo
Rachel Tzvia Back

(what has anchored us)

The ballast of their breathing
                  in the next room in the bed
beside in the darkened house
                    breath expanding

to the rhythm of our fantasy:
                     buffalo stars
stampeding through
          unblemished skies
above a sacred land we imagined
                            our own

The weight of the unwritten 
at well-bottom: rabid fear
          perched on the back of the absent

The certainty of migrating cormorants
        in massive flocks their flight
                         path and patterns
absolute: they return every year
    to rest here

in the Huleh valley around the reflooded
     swamp of the north   where
I walk     October 2001
     one year after
            the women of Sakhnin first

buried their faces
          in the rough wind-dried still
                   sweet smelling clothes of their
dead sons

From On Ruins and Return (Shearsman Books, 2007). Copyright 2007 by Rachel Tzvia Back. Reprinted by permission of the poet. Anthologized in After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life- Shattering Events (Sante Lucia Books, 2008).

How did you come to write this poem?

My poem "what has anchored us " – was written in the first years of the Second Intifadah (uprising) in Israel and Palestine. My family and I had just moved to the Galilee, after living for years in the Jerusalem area, and until the Intifadah erupted, there had been a feeling of hope, of the possibility of a new era in our very troubled region. In October 2000, the second round of violence began – fierce protest against the continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. I was then a mother to three very young children, and at every moment I viewed and lived the violence that ensued – in Palestinian and Israeli territories alike –through the prism of young motherhood. This was, of course, the prism of my children's overwhelming vulnerability – indeed, all children's vulnerability. As the death ledgers began filling up with the names of children literally caught in the cross-fire, my poetry and heart became obsessed with the little ones who were living, and too-often tragically dying, in this bloody land.

The poem emanated from very specific moments in those years of violence – moments reported in the news, moments of deaths that were practically on my doorstep, and moments of terrible clarity of how the violence had changed and hardened me too.

How did writing this poems affect your recovery?

The word "recovery" is a hard one for me to connect to, so I answer this question with some hesitation. "Recovery" – such as it is – resides for me in telling the truth, my truth, and of feeling that perhaps my poetry speaks also for those who cannot. Recovery is in daring to speak at all. Recovery has continued for me in reading these poems at various venues, in Israel and the US, in an effort to reach others, in an ongoing desire and commitment to being a voice of dissent. Moments of recovery have presented themselves when I have felt my poems impact on another, when my poems have moved another's heart toward reconciliation and compassion.

Can you tell us something about your process of writing that helped these poems come to life?

The poems start, almost inevitably, from a single image or single sentence. The single image or line simmers and simmers (to borrow from Whitman), until it boils over. As for the rest of the process, I'm afraid I can't say much – I have a type of black-out regarding the exact process of writing most of my poems. I can't really remember how it happens.

Who are your favorite poets or poets new to you whom you'd recommend to others?

Emily Dickinson is always my favorite, my poetic buoy in the vast sea. And she is always new to me… Another poet who is new to me and whose work I've been reading recently is Antonio Machado – I've been reading his poems in Border of a Dream: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado (Willis Barnstone, translator). And I've been reading a great deal of the Hebrew poet Tuvia Ruebner whose work I'm translating now – he's not new to me, but my current level of engagement with him is new. He's a wonder, well worth reading (new translations of his work can be found at Four Poems from Tuvia Ruebner).

What are you working on now?

My new collection A Messenger Comes, has just been published by Singing Horse Press (edited by the wonderful Paul Naylor). The title is lifted from a passage I read in Leon Weiseltier's seminal scholarly work Kaddish – on the history and evolution of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning. The extract – which is my new book's epigraph – goes as follows:

   A messenger comes to the mourner's house.
   "Come," says the messenger, "You are needed." 
   "I cannot come," says the mourner, 
   "My spirit is broken." 
   "That is why you are needed," says the messenger

The book is a collection of elegies for my sister and my father. It is very much a book of a broken spirit.

Rachel Tzvia Back – poet, translator and professor of literature – lives in the Galilee, where her great great great grandfather settled in the 1830s. Her poetry collections include Azimuth, The Buffalo Poems, On Ruins & Return: Poems 1999-2005, and A Messenger Comes. Back's translations of the poetry of pre-eminent Hebrew poet Lea Goldberg, published in Lea Goldberg: Selected Poetry and Drama (Toby Press 2005) represent the most extensive selection of Goldberg's poetry in English and were awarded a 2005 PEN Translation Award. Back has translated into English poetry and prose by other significant Hebrew writers, including Dahlia Ravikovitch, Tuvia Reubner, Hamutal Bar Yosef, and Haviva Pedaya. Back is the editor and primary translator of the English version of the anthology With an Iron Pen: Twenty Years of Hebrew Protest Poetry (SUNY Press, Excelsior Editions, 2009) – a collection named "haunting" and "historic" by American poet Adrienne Rich.

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