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"Placing the Voice:" poet Rachel Tzvia Back

This evening poet Rachel Tzvia Back gave a lecture entitled "Placing the Voice: The Personal and Political, Israel 2006" at Williams College. Though born in Buffalo, NY, she "is the seventh generation of her family in Palestine," according to this bio at The Drunken Boat. Her grandfather left there in the 1920s, seeking his fortune in America; in the 1980s she returned to Israel, completing the cycle, and lives there still.

On her faculty page at the Bar-Ilan University Creative Writing Program, Back writes:

In so many ways, poetry is a first language, one we know before we even speak -- a language of soul and of spirit, of desire and of dreams. To best nurture that language, to hone it and test it and demand of it honesty, one must return to first places -- places of primary belonging, primal images and understandings. As Jews, that place is figurative and literal -- it is the place of shared traditions, sources, sacred texts, and it is the place of Israel, how she figures into our personal and communal histories, and into our poems' landscapes.

Being myself a Jewish poet fascinated by the language of poetry and the language of tradition, the places both figurative and literal that we and our words inhabit, I was delighted to see that Rachel was coming to the Berkshires...and even more delighted when the Williams professors hosting her invited me to join them for dinner before her talk.

I had the pleasure of dining with Steve Gerrard, who teaches philosophy; with Rachel; and with three faculty members from the Jewish Studies concentration, Edan Dekel (Classics), Sarah Hammerschlag (Religion) and Ali Garbarini (History). We talked about Biblical translations, poetry, Williams students, language and translation, the religion department and how it has (and hasn't) changed in the decade since I was an undergrad there -- all kinds of fun things. Though I was the only non-professor at the table, I felt welcomed by the general love of poetry and of things Judaic; it was a very congenial gathering.

And then Rachel gave her talk, a combination lecture and poetry reading. "I begin with a triptych of introductions: place, politics, and poetry." Let me introduce myself to you, she said, beginning with a map, as she always does, explaining that she lives in the north of Israel, in the Galilee, in a small Jewish village, 120 Jewish families on the side of a hill. She showed a slide of the  open hills and wide vistas, and talked about the natural beauty and tight-knit community, the same reasons many of us live here in northern Berkshire. But what she didn't know when she moved there, because she didn't bother to know it then, was that on that same place, there used to be a Palestinian village.

In 1948 the people of Niyar, that village, were evacuated from their homes in the Naqba, the "catastrophe" (in Palestinian parlance) of Israeli independence, and the village was destroyed. What stands on that hill now is the "congregation of stones" where the homes were dynamited in 1951. On the edges of the former village, and the edges of the new village -- the space between them -- there is the old cemetary, and there is the well at what must have been the village center. Today the new generations who never knew Niyar still come to the cemetary to tend it, and gather there on anniversaries or significant events, brewing coffee and spending time at the graves. "That's one piece of the story," she said, returning to a slide of the view from her livingroom.

In 1830 her great-great-great grandfather, Yisrael Back, a Jew from Berditchev, moved his family to Palestine. "One imagines it must have been for religious freedom, the hope of a better life." On the slope of Meron, he founded the first modern Jewish farm. That was the village of Jermak. "If you walk that hillside, as we do, you will see the congregation of stones where the houses once stood, and you will stumble across the well at what must have been the village center," she said, echoing her own words. "My family and the other people of Jermak were evacuated from their homes in the Druze revolt of 1850. And the village was destroyed."

Looking north from her house, she can just make out the ruins of Jermak; looking south she can just make out the ruins of Niyar.

I don't mean to say that these ruins are the same. I don't mean to say that their stories should be conflated. I recognize that there are significant differences and the differences are important to acknowledge. The most important difference is that the people of Jermak -- rather, the descendants of those people, and I count myself one of them -- have returned home. And we have a homeland. The people of Niyar, who are my neighbors, have not. And they live the pain and the tragedy of dispossession every day. I situate myself and my poetry between the ruins of two villages.

That was take one; here's take two. "Let me introduce myself to you," she said, again. Rachel was born in Buffalo to a half-Israeli family, and moved to Israel in 1986. She left her immediate family and her parents to go there, and her Arab friends are astonished by that -- "they tell me how similar we are, in the pull of the land." For many years, she said, she was of the impression that the landscape of Israel and Palestine was the most beautiful on the planet. "Anyone who knows those landscapes knows how objectively not-beautiful they are!" But she sees beauty there. Perhaps because of the sense of sacredness that we imbue the land with: Jew, Christian, Muslim, all of us.

"Over the years I've come to understand how very dangerous that sacredness is." What is done in the name of that sacredness.

She offered a Melville quote about Israel: perhaps the desolation of the land is a sign of the "sure embrace of the deity" -- "too much holiness in earth, and too little holiness in life." And this brought us to the politics. We are entering the sixth year of the Al-Aqsa intifada, and the 38th year of the occupation of the West Bank. In this round of violence alone, over a thousand Israelis are dead and six times that many wounded. Somewhere in the region of 3500 Palestinians are dead, and somewhere in the unfathomable number of 35,000 Palestinians are wounded. The majority on both sides, of dead and wounded alike, were non-combatants. "In this litany of statistics the one thing that keeps me awake at night is that the death ledgers are filled with the names of children."

We Israelis feel very little at the pain of the Palestinians. We give it very little space in our newspapers and we give it even less space in our hearts. What the average Palestinian feels when an Israeli is blown up on a bus, or at a Friday night discotheque, or at a Friday afternoon market, I cannot say. But I imagine it is not sorrow. In a fashion, in our blunted response to the inhuman, we all have become less than human.

"I also know that as an Israeli, the primary responsibility for the situation and the primary responsibility to change the situation rests with us." Hatred, she said, begets more hatred; violence begets more violence.

"Take three. Let me introduce myself to you," she said, for the third and final time. "I am a poet, and I have some faith in the power of words. Even though we live in a time when words are so consistently and maliciously and willfully misused and abused in order to serve the ends of those in power. We live in a time when language has become a tool of deception." The American "war on terror" and the Israeli "targeted liquidations" are similar misuses of language. "It is clear to me that the way in which language is used today, primarily by politicians, is in order to keep us afraid. In order to stoke the flames of fear and keep them burning high. I know how effective that is in Israel. And when we are afraid, we respond from our own weakest, most vulnerable, and least compassionate place." And so she turns to poetry. "Poetry is a verbal art form that aspires to truth."

She quoted Susan Sontag, who said, in accepting the controversial Jerusalem prize, that now, more than ever, we need poetry because it is poetry and not political statements and not the theoretical -- it is poetry that "will open up avenues of compassion and remind us that we might aspire to be better than we had ever imagined ourselves to be."

And then she read her poems, which are dazzlingly good. From Azimuth, two poems which blew me away: one showing a bombed-out house in Gaza, the wrecked kitchen still smelling of zatar; the other about broken hands, and how tenderness can be broken, and the vengeance that ensues. Then she read a poem from a chapbook by a Palestinian poet, Taha Muhammad Ali. His English-language collection is called Never Mind: Twenty Poems and a Story, put out by Ibis Editions.

Her new book, forthcoming, is On Ruins and Returns: the Buffalo Poems. She talked about seeing the wildfires some years back, about the landscape changing, about pulling over one day sick with pregnancy and seeing what appeared to be a buffalo. (There have never been buffalo there; the Hebrew word for buffalo is uncertain and keeps changing.) Not long after, the Al-Aqsa intifada started, and then she remembered her vision of a buffalo. "It could carry something I could not, and could allow me to write poems that I otherwise could not," she said. (It's a fascinating way of exploring the sufferings of one place through the painful history of another.)

Scroll past that bio I linked to at the top of this post, and you'll reach an excerpt from The Buffalo Poems, the chapbook version of her forthcoming book, "which records the heart-breaking cycle of violence and loss defining Israeli and Palestinian lives these last years," published by Duration Press.  There's another excerpt from the Buffalo Poems in Golden Handcuffs Review. These are amazing and powerful poems which I recommend really, really highly. Here is one of them:


I live on the ruins of Palestine

Slow to speech thick
               of tongue quick
           in anger  ancient

                 In the ruins on a land
through a night

          By a single
                   singed vision
and another
          single spark

Cradled close in a charred palm
          chiseled in a stonedream
                         carried across history

Through the dark beneath our bare

Strangers all

On the ruins of Palestine


Poems which arise out of conflict are often powerfully fragmentary, mirroring the brokenness of tragedy with syntax and with a visual prosody that leaps across the page. These are no exception. Reading Back's work, I am reminded of Anna Rabinowitz's Darkling (excerpt here), and of Shirley Kaufman's Threshold (excerpt here.) But mostly these poems remind me of themselves. Sometimes prose is inadequate to convey the humanity and inhumanity of human existence, of war, of what we do to one another. Poems can tell stories prose can't. Read these.

She closed with a poem by Lea Goldberg, who she said was chided in her day for not writing patriotic poetry, for writing love and nature poetry instead. I found some hope in Goldberg's lines, so am reprising two stanzas here:

And will they ever come, days of forgiveness and grace
When you'll walk in the fields, simple wanderer,
And your bare soles will be caressed by the clover,
Or the wheat-stubble will sting your feet, and the sting will be sweet?

...You'll walk in the field. Alone, unscorched by the blaze
Of the fires, along roads stiffened with blood abnd terror,
And true to your heart you'll be again humbled and softened
As one of the grass, as one of humankind.

-- Lea Goldberg, from On the Flowering, 1948

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