Hovering at a Low Altitude
The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch
Translated from the Hebrew
by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld
W. W. Norton & Co., 2009
Reviewed by Tsipi Keller
If Israel had a Mount Rushmore-type memorial for poets, the late Dahlia Ravikovitch would be part of the monument. Although little known to American readers, she is admired in Israel as much, if not more, than Yehuda Amichai and viewed as a canon unto herself. Born in Ramat Gan in 1936, she published her first poem at eighteen and was a constant voice and presence in Israeli poetry and politics until her death in 2005, achieving, for many, the status of a fifth matriarch. When she received the Israel Prize in 1998, the country's highest literary honor, she was cited as "a central pillar of Hebrew poetry during the fifty years of statehood."
Ravikovitch's subject matter ranges from the private and personal to the public and political. As Bloch and Kronfeld rightly note in their introduction, she shifts "from savage sarcasm, pointed irony, and restrained pathos to prickly ambivalence, ebullient playfulness, and self-deprecating humor" while exploring "questions of ethics, aesthetics, and social justice with analytical precision." The same precision of thought informs her precision of expression, requiring a translator to remain meticulously loyal to the text while also breathing life into the poems in their new language and home. Thankfully, Bloch and Kronfeld succeed at both tasks. In addition, their inclusion of a note on the translation and many footnotes provide necessary insight into Ravikovitch's poetics and into the art of translation.
With a poet like Ravikovitch, one is compelled to quote at least one poem in full. Here is one of her early poems, from A Hard Winter (1964):
The Roar of Waters
A bird twittered like a madwoman
Until it was spent
And then it wept.
I sank in a cloud of tenderness,
But no, I was drowned in the ocean,
There a man loved me
Didn't leave me a fingernail.
His hand grasped my hair,
In the hammering ocean
I was set to be wrecked.
His hand pulled at my hair
In the swarms of the ocean
I no longer remember a thing.
From the early poems to the late ones, Ravikovitch's work is grounded in the physical and the emotional here and now, and the impact on the reader is just as immediate. There are no adjectives or adverbs in the poem, and the focus on the concrete details and verbs pull the reader in to drown with the poet in her turmoil. Whatever is happening to the poet is happening to the reader—twofold, threefold, or as many times as the reader reads and rereads the poem; there is no escape. Yes, the poet may want to imagine herself sinking "in a cloud of tenderness," she may want to believe that "There a man loved me," but the love is violent, and he leaves her nothing, not even a fingernail, not even a memory she can hold on to.
Ravikovitch was a beautiful woman. There was a pale softness about her, a vulnerability that made you think of her beauty as sad and soulful. Perhaps because of this, and perhaps because she was venturing into the mostly male world of Hebrew poetry in the '50s, many of her early poems—like "The Roar of Waters"—were seen as "love poems." But this simplistic and naïve view doesn't do her poems justice. "Hope and disillusionment" would be more appropriate as the defining themes of Ravikovitch's work as a whole. Many of her poems express the eternal clash between what a human ideal could be and what actually is. In a much later poem, "A Beetle's Life" (from Mother and Child, 1992) a poem I wish were included in this collection (the translators explain that a few poems were left out for various reasons), an ugly black beetle from Pakistan is the subject:
She came here to work, to aspire
for a bright short future—
a beetle's highest joy.
Don't harm her,
she beseeches your mercy
and creeps onward.
Deep in her silly heart
every beetle knows
you won't spare her,
you won't listen
This short and poignant poem captures both Ravikovitch's brand of irony and her deep and complete identification with the voiceless and oppressed. In her poems, the meek are silenced and ignored, always in danger of being crushed by the boot; they do not inherit the earth. In the title poem, "Hovering at a Low Altitude," the poet's impotence is felt most acutely, as she, and by extension other ordinary citizens, float passively and watch atrocities take place below. In the poem, an Arab shepherd girl, about to be raped, "won't live out the day," while the poet "Can make a getaway and persuade myself:/I haven't seen a thing." Here again Ravikovitch quietly stresses not only the personal responsibility of each ordinary person to act, but also the undeniable reality of these ordinary people cowering numbly when faced with organized brutality; they, as well as more direct victims, become dehumanized.
With the birth of her son Ido in 1978 and escalating political turbulence, many of Ravikovitch's poems became imbued with the mournful tone of Rachel, a tragic and romantic figure in the Israeli psyche. The poem "Child Boy Man" is from Ravikovitch's posthumous collection, Many Waters (2006):
What will become of you in the end, my child,
and what will become of me?
For seven years we lived in the mouth of a volcano
It's your mother (that's me) telling you this:
Sheep and oxen nibble the grass
but the fiery sons of Reshef soar
as the sparks fly upward.
Only one songbird is missing there
without wings without a beak.
The mother may be Israeli, she may be Palestinian, but their pain is biblical:
Mama and Grandma
will sing you a song,
your shining white mothers
will sing you a song,
Mama's shawl brushes
your bed with its wing.
Mama and Grandma
a mournful old tune
will sing in Jabalya's cordon of gloom.
Mama and Grandma
will sing you a song
so you, sweet child,
may sleep without harm.
Rachel is weeping aloud for her sons.
Lullaby (from Mother and Child)
As Bloch and Kronfeld explain in a footnote, the poem's title evokes the Yiddish cradle lullaby, which "has traditionally been a vehicle for expressions of national lament." Throughout the poem, Ravikovitch interweaves well-known, even clichéd, folkloric, biblical, and Zionist references, while the Mama and Grandma of the poem are Palestinian. Not everyone in Israel has appreciated such appropriations of national emblems, and Ravikovitch - accused of being "unpatriotic" - received her share of threats and insults, which she took in her stride. In her poem "Free Associating," she speaks with the voice of her accusers: "She's got a perverted desire for suffering. Well, in our country we have such lovely landscapes."
Ravikovitch is often compared to Anna Akhmatova, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. While these are apt comparisons, her work reminds me most of Elizabeth Bishop's; they shared the same clarity and precision of thought, the same sharp intelligence, and both retained a willful, childlike innocence. Both lost their fathers at a young age, and a sense of loss and displacement, as well as a kind of resigned acceptance, are evident in their work. Robert Lowell said there was a "beautiful comple-teness" to all of Bishop's poetry. The same, I believe, is true of Ravikovitch's.
On the back cover of Hovering at a Low Altitude , Alicia Ostriker predicts that "the translations of Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld will create a new audience for this great poet." And I say: Amen.
Novelist and translator Tsipi Keller is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Award, and of CAPS and NYFA awards in fiction. Her most recent translation publications are Poets on the Edge: An Anthology of Contemporary Hebrew Poetry (SUNY Press, 2008); and The Hymns of Job & Other Poems, by Maya Bejerano (A Lannan Translation Selection, BOA Editions, 2008).