a conversation on contemporary Hebrew poetics with Zali Gurevitch
This interview first appeared in the Full Stop Quarterly, Issue #6.
& what i was saying was i think there is something in common & the common
thing is a certain root in poetic modernism in the sense that there is a shift twd something around us or beside us or to language itself or to earth or to a certain social thing or but its all some kind of diversion from from centering or focusing on on expressing or understanding oneself even tho this is also you know you cannot without
it & maybe this is the first motive but but the poetic eh you know what you focus on what you you you in hebrew to pay attention which in english is pay attention you have to be in tension you have to be tense so you you pay -at- tension this is what you do you have to focus yrself & be tense but in hebrew it’s to put yr heart tasim lev where do you put yr heart? putting yr heart some where so the poetic shift is where you put yr heart
yr heart is yr heart but the question is it’s not that it’s not about yr heart its about yr heart! but you put yr heart some where else you cannot put yr heart in yr heart & the heart you know if this is what if this is what what’s coming up the heart as in english as in hebrew the heart is not just the center of emotion but the heart is the middle term like being in the middle you can say “the heart of the sea” in hebrew you can say “the heart of the matter” ha-ikar the heart of the matter yes I know you can say “the heart of the matter” lev ha inyan & you can say but you can say im im or “the shout was to the heart of the sky” ad lev ha shamayim so it’s the middle its not some point it’s just the middle of where the action is where things happen where you feel it where it aches where it comes from you know that’s the heart the heart as a as a as a a more as a more abstract notion but still very concrete right in terms of body sure corporeal but yet abstract yeah so even this the focus the self- focus is yeah already in the middle you cannot pinpoint it & i think this something that is common to some of us there is this plurality that there is diversion from self to that which is around it’s &- then the thing is not to express yrself even tho it’s a part of the game because you cannot without it this -it is the fuel but but with that fuel y’re trying to you are trying to make sense of all this put things together pull things a-part put yr heart put yr heart put yr heart here put yr heart there where is the heart? put yrself where the heart is or whatever you know but it’s it’s again it’s a play sure it’s a shift sure there’s no narrative no there’s no story no- no one-line story that begins here & goes there there’s no clear ech omrim how to say addressee yeah receiver yeah receiver’s end it’s not the beloved not the people not you know something sure yeah something that’s more the first book you read or the first poem yeah the first book was i think ar’ah so that’s seventy-nine yeah probably yes probably yeah but ar’ah was & you found it in a bookstore or you because he was in a different group than you of course
i mean you were with maya no no no that’s not the story first of all did you already know him? or did you meet him after? cause i never asked you that actually i’ve never known how you first inter- acted the fact is that I can’t remember when was the first time but already in the 80s in the early 80s i’m trying to sortof bring back the pieces & trying to see what what cd be how did it all begin? What i remember is i mean there was the the tel aviv thing i was living in Jerusalem at the time very much so that is tel aviv was a foreign place for me & in tel aviv there was achshav there was this group around a journal a literary journal achshav so maya was a part of that & at at a certain point four of the youngsters we were in our early-thirties late-twenties early-thirties so we we were given a a sortof a chance to to edit one one issue of achshav by ourselves that was some group there but we didn’t even know what exactly we had in common but something around achshav & around you know each one was starting to pave her way & but in Jerusalem the interesting meeting was with shabtai in the early 80’s & he was a part of the jerusalemite group not really one of them but very close to them to amichai & schimmel & dennis & sachs & what’s that group there wasn’t a name neither the jerusalem circle something like that but there was one there was one one piece of criticism & it was written by nissim calderon & it addressed all of them from amichai to aharon five of them it addressed i don’t remember exactly if he named all of them & it was titled all the business of this jerusalemite sweetness kol ha inyan ha-yerushalmi ha-matok ha-zeh zeh haya ha shem shel ha maamar ken this was the title of the essay so he was he was trying to make a a a sortof a distinction between poets in tel aviv & poets in jerusalem
& all this with other things you know thru that i i got to know schimmel cause
from the early-80s i mean when when did we move? we moved into this apartment in jerusalem in ‘83 i think ‘83 or so ‘83 or ‘84 when we just moved suddenly we had like five rooms even tho some of them were small & one of them we used to our own surprise as a dining room like a separate room for dining & the kitchen was like two rooms up & we enjoyed so much the idea that we had a dining room that we used to you know we enjoyed you know having people over & making & celebrating the dining room by using it this was in the greek colony in the greek colony in an old arab house with a round front you know built from stone very beautiful & special unique & for us for what we had at the time this was really like a break-thru for us & i remember that we had dinners that you know we prepared with shimmel & varda & aharon & colleen we wd sit around the table six of us which means that we were already befriended to a point where we cd you know so probably it’s like something like forty years almost forty years more no exactly forty years ago & what about gabi? gabi I remember more clearly cause gabi was a psychology student at the time he was doing this when i first met him he was doing his masters in psychology in clinical psychology in jerusalem & a good friend of mine knew him & talked about him & we were very young like twenty-five say & he introduced us & i understood gabi told me that he is doing poetry he is writing he is doing this & he is doing that & he is living in motza but not in motza in ein karem & in ein karem he lives in a house just outside ein karem no electricity out there with his wife maria & one day on saturday we got a car from yuti’s brother to use which was again something extraordinary for us that we had a car that we cd just go anywhere it was different times then you know so this car was a small used car like an old car called contessa & we took the contessa & i remember that we were sitting yuti & myself let’s say & saying like where are we going to go? & I brought the idea let’s go to ein karem let’s go & visit gabriel but no telephone they had no telephone so you had his address? no he told me probably where it was yeah it was not just out there in the middle of nowhere no it was on the edge of ein karem but it was like on a hill & it looked it overlooked a valley & so she said OK so we drove there & we just appeared at the door & gabi & maria they were they were i think we met them first at some party if i remember correctly thru these guys there was little roger & big roger & little roger big roger he’s still still he’s still some businessman in america he just visited gabi after all these years & little roger was some guy he was macrobiotic macrobiotic was the thing at that time the thing for those priests of health & those preachers of herbs but not the kind not our herbs & he prepared food he was a friend of maria & gabi who were also macrobiotics gabriel levin was also macrobiotic which you can understand because in some ways he’s macrobiotic to this day & maria was skinny as a thread & they were eating from little roger such wonderful food the first time i ate such food macrobiotic food seeds OK so we went there & gabi & maria prepared & we started it was in an old arab house i remember the living room was was arched & we were sitting there i don’t think there were chairs it was only mattresses & we were sitting on the mattresses
& they prepared macrobiotic food & this was the first time that I heard the names of olson & ashbery & i had no idea what wd i know? so that was from gabi & gabi started telling me at that time was telling me about these poets & what they are doing & this was this was let’s say ‘76 ‘77 something like this cause
he started telling me & I started reading i don’t remember how
I got the book maybe gabi got me the book or lent it to me i started & then i started translating self-portrait in a convex mirror & when i started doing that shimon sandbank & ruth nevo who was a professor of english of shakespeare at the university & robert friend & there was another one & they also heard that there is a guy this poet in new york called john ashbery & that he is writing & everybody is talking about him but they don’t understand what’s going on & & so & I was translating it & i was struggling with the english the english the english- my english at that time was not was much much poorer than it is today i mean as far as for sure as far
as translation of poetry goes so i needed i needed help in understanding the phrases especially ashbery phrases sometimes you know the way they waver & move any way so we formed a group of people who were interested in ashbery’s poetry & we started reading self-portrait in convex mirror & then i published this book in achshav not the whole thing but the poem self portrait in a convex mirror & some other individual poems from the book & then they did a volume & gabriel & myself we together wrote an intro so this came out in 1982 so you can see that the whole thing it’s a silver book almost a mirror exactly a mirror! ata roeh az yesh kan you see there is here at the beginning so they did it the magazine put out the book achshav & i think that i mean this was like you know when we were like from twenty-five to thirty-five something like this & I think that yeah then there was shirley kaufman was around if you want to go there yeah you know this is the this is sortof the the mostly american or english-speaking world in jerusalem & it was part it was a side-part but it was a part of my let’s say poetic upbringing & thru it thru gabi at the beginning gabi was my my introducer i mean he introduced to me that world that I knew little about & it’s interesting because if you go far far back yeah if we consider what we know is the hebrew literature that remained sure this is what we have in hebrew there are canaanite things but i mean hebrew is hebrew itself
itself is among the semitic languages semitic languages & among the semitic languages it is a new language for us it’s ancient & it’s ancient yeah i mean in our terms but but it’s actually a young it’s actually a young ` a young one which means it evolved from basically from canaanite language which means that it is a canaanite language it’s one of the branches of canaanite languages which also ech omrim how to say adopted or imported or absorbed other languages around absorbed or fused with but fused with it’s not fused with because it’s fused into it’s like a human being like a human being self absorbed is a good word something that absorbs something that infiltrates whether you like it or not but do we have poetry in those proto-hebrew languages? it’s also you know what we have what do we know what’s poetry or not? & also in the bible as far as the bible goes there’s a question you know even tho we can intuitively say what they considered poetry & what they did not consider poetry & what we now consider poetry but there are in the bible the first that we know the earliest poems which are evidently poems because they have a very specific beat & they sometimes rhyme & they use poetic parlance like for example the song of deborah
considered to be the oldest hebrew text & how far does it go? how far back does it go? i mean there are there is if you want to take a much clearer example for example there is a psalm a specific psalm which is exactly an old hymn to ra to the egyptian sun god but exactly like almost one-to-one & this is also the song of songs for instance there the amazing thing is i mean if y’re looking for if y’re looking for like pre-hebrew hebrew like where does it come from? so there is there is a magnificent example where in the history of the song of songs shir ha shirim which means at what point in time before the poem was written is there some some thing that the poem echoes or uses which is antecedent to it until today like how the song of songs has gone thru different versions of interpretation or the earliest thing is this writing a hieroglyphic writing which was which was found in egypt in a pyramid from i think if i’m right the 27th or 28th century bc meaning that if the poem if song of songs is believed to have been written in the 3rd century bce so we are talking something like 2000 years before song of songs something an echo is found & the thing is they found on the inner wall of the pyramid behind where the the mummy of pharaoh was placed a writing in hieroglyphic letters signs which had no meaning in egyptian & they looked for many years for someone who cd solve the riddle & the latest i heard there was a an article an essay written both in hebrew & in english by a professor an egyptologist & philologist etc from jts or yeshiva university & he interprets this as an ancient gevalian text from the city of gebal which was a city now at the northern shore where lebanon is it’s somewhere between tyre & sarafand there there was a people called gebal & this gebal people their language was proto-canaanite & the way he he interprets it is that there was commerce going on between egypt & gebal & gebal the gebalians wd go in caravans of camels or who knows & they wd carry with them things that were found in lebanon lebanon of today that is of course which was glass that is they produced glass from the sand by the sea & also they cd produce from snails they wd produce color especially the color we call today either purple or light-blue tchelet & actually this purple or light-blue
is the meaning of the word canaanite & also phoenician they are named by the colors they created by their production of color so their tribe was called tchelet because they produced tchelet what we later use in tzitzit but it’s that color it’s that color or maybe it’s a range between that color & purple & it’s directly related to hebrew it passes in yeah but the story here is that when they moved the caravans that made the commerce the merchants who wd go they had a shaman with them they had a holy man with them & the egyptians in order to have magic spells that worked they believed as we also believe today it’s like all the israelis who are are are saying god forbid but god doesn’t forbid! when they are saying kaddish so they are using they are using aramaic & the aramaic of the kaddish makes it much more mysterious & because it’s mysterious & because it’s foreign maybe it is made powerful there is a magic thru it so they used the magician the egyptians the shaman to write but in hieroglyphic
transliteration a canaanite or gebalian spell in this there is the hymn now he gives the whole hymn he translates the hymn whether it’s the true translation or not but it’s a hymn there is a continuity & there the story that unfolds is that the speaker the one that utters the hymn is a mother snake & her name in gebalian is oom-reer-reer oom is like em is like mother & reer is in hebrew saliva or you know spit but it’s also it comes down spittle like a dog spit saliva in mouth so it’s reer oom reer but it also means the poison of the snake of the snake’s venom the venom of the snake so it means both the saliva & the venom or you say now you have reer when y’re very hungry & you see see food so you merayer to salivate in hebrew yeah right it has an animalistic tone yeah so it’s oom-reer-reer the mother of & the mother is actually talking to her two lovers who are the guardians of the tomb & they are called dodim which are the lovers in the song of songs & she is calling her sons
the young snakes to come back to her that she will swallow them up so that they will not sting the corpse of the pharaoh so she defends the pharaoh the mother defends the father against the bitings of the little children the little snakes & she invites them into her & somehow & the whole hymn is an unfolding of this now in this thing in this thing it says yet dodi which yet means also in modern hebrew divert yr way or or to come to come to me yet y’dodi is come visit me so it’s the same verb nata & yet & yet is another way of saying it it’s like it’s an invitation yet in shir ha-shirim it says brach dodim its the same expression different meaning but same expression so the idiom comes from 2000 years before song of songs from gebal it’s a gebalian spell interestingly gebal it’s another connection a whole other connection which is not associative it’s historical
geval was a port where they the egyptians wd & from which the egyptians wd wd import how do you say ech omrim in english papyrus papyri so the egyptians wd export the papers the leaves the papyrus leaves export them to gebal & from gebal the greeks wd import them to greece now they gave the name the greek name for gebal is byblos & this was the name that was given to the bible
which is written on the paper which is the papyrus which came thru egypt thru
gebal now i know that you know that i know that you know where it comes from so there is a lot about breaking up the surface like creating a surface & breaking it up & the surface is I’ll give you another example a metaphor that bialik uses even tho he was not yet conscious of the modernist thinking in the western context not the kind that we begin with but he says what is the difference between prose & poetry? in gilui v’khisui b’lashon revealment & concealment in language exactly the glacier & the ice flow so when he is talking about the flow it’s breakage of the surface which is totally modernist & by breaking enjambment breaking the line & making a kind of jazz beat that is not ordered & it’s like do do do di do & it gives a sense of arbitrariness & break-dance or the dance of the break but in bialik the thing is that it is in the language in bialik when you leap from one flow to another the basic thing is that the chasm is flickering from below & that flickering from below has to be felt even when the surface is the main thing that’s the heart now when you use that y’re on the surface when you don’t use that it flickers & that that tap dance that crawling ache there is an arm’s length you see that to write selflessly in a way like an anti-lyric or as olson called it that lyrical disruption of poetry but this is also its a way also to understand
the running to see what the running is isn’t that the question is whether you are running because the selfless poetics makes you reject or despise even the self or the nefesh soul but when it’s there you can have a poetics against it but when it’s there what do you do with it? when it flickers what do you do? with the flickering do you say nahhhh that’s not in my vein or do you use it as fuel & acknowledge it & that’s the code of the poem maybe because when y’re doing jews & anti-semites & i’m saying do in an american vein do as in doing poetry doing drugs all pragmatics but in the pragmatics in the doing of it has to be only & in yr poem maybe when a prophet writes it’s different but but when you write a modernist poem or post-modernist say it has to be a-part of some
thing that justifies it & that something has to come from a & flicker all the time
snippets like one snippet after the other & whatever you mean by it it’s running now run thru it this is the most difficult thing because usually what we want to do when we want to pass from one thing to another we want to grow up we want to change we want to i don’t know you know improve so we think we can make a a crossing of the river let’s call it by moving from one bank to the other so that actually we overlook by building a bridge or even by going by boat we are actually resisting the river if we are doing a bridge it’s like OK now we walk as if there is no rivier but if you cross the river along the river from source to source the delta the mouth where the river pours into the sea kol henechalim holchim el a hayam vehayam eneinu maleh all the streams go to the sea & the sea is not full that means to cross life along to cross time along you cannot go from bank to bank cause time has no banks & in that matter you have to run thru along the running & not saying no I’m getting the running out of my thing it’s how to run how to run yr business like a matter of manners there is also another aspect if we are in the direction of crossing the river along the river because when you cross the river a-long the river you are going fwd & always the power of the stream is created anew & you also & this is the way our minds work i think y’re going fwd & sometimes you forget yrself but usually yre also going backward twd the source in order to understand or even to run yr business the right way you’ve got to understand where you come from & where y’re going meayn ata ba ul’an ata holech that’s the running but the thing is the running is also the notion of trance the notion of trance is for me critical to understanding any creation any kind of poetics because nevermind now what I am connecting is i think what happens in poetry or music is some form of transfiguration so there is the notion of transfiguration something that happens now in the kitchen cooking you can almost hear a free beat to it the notion of transfiguration where we have figure that’s the frame we have the figure & we have the trance now the figure is a form that’s already molded it has boundaries it’s structured somehow it has features but the trance has nothing trance is a state without figure it’s formless it’s movement & the trance comes thru the figure & the figure without trance is dead so the whole notion is how to transfigure language how to transfigure the thing into words how to transfigure the word from everyday speech where it’s just functional into something that trances you that you have a trance when uttering the word & the root of trance which is sanskrit for crossing the river the sound of the rudder whatever the thing is that the running is effective when it’s descriptive of the process of transfiguration & the question is where is the source at every line & especially along the poem the source is that which flickers it can be hinted at for example in orpheus’s gaze if you’ve read blanchot orpheus the poet the archetype of poet who keeps on singing after his head is severed from his body & his head floats on the river & keeps on singing what is orpheus famous for? for looking back that looking back that gaze back & the absurdity of it & the fact that he loses everything by looking back he loses the dearest love his whole mission which was actually to save & salvage from the depth of death etc but he cannot not look back & the looking back is exactly twd the source it’s the heart of it that’s the heart of it & it doesn’t matter which source & it’s not one source but sources because the source is the other because y’re born & whatever you hear & yr language is from the other & who cares for you is the other is yr mother & father who are the other
but the thing is at that moment when you absorb that other & you are because the source is also a fountain the source is also the source of the river spring ma zeh maayan kval in yiddish like gebal but keval bidiyuk bidiyuk exactly this is the spring so you drink from the spring but in order to drink from the spring you must yrself be a spring because the drinker is also a spring a spring of drinking not a spring of issuing water of emitting water or speech or music or whatever so it means in the context of what we are saying now that you can have a trance in one word it can be erotic it can be funny it can be serious it can be a comment about hebrew it can be a comment about desire it can be anything in one word you can have a trance if it works it can be just a sound it can be a sound but it has to have the flicker if it doesn’t have the flicker it doesn’t have the shake the transfiguration the shiver.
Ariel Resnikoff is a poet & translator, whose most recent works include Ten-Four: Poems, Translations, Variations (Operating System, 2015) with Jerome Rothenberg, & Between Shades (Materialist Press, 2014). He teaches creative w/reading at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing (UPenn) & curates the “Multilingual Poetics” reading/talk series at Kelly Writers House.
 Based on a recording made in Gurevitch’s home on June 12, 2017.
 Hebrew poet Harold Schimmel’s (b. 1935) collection, Ar’ah (sections 1-8), 1979.
 Hebrew poet Maya Bejerano (b.1949).
 Hebrew, meaning “now”.
 Hebrew poet Aharon Shabtai (b.1939).
 Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000); Anglo-Jerusalem poet Dennis Silk (1928-1998); Hebrew poet Arieh Sachs (1932-1992).
 In Siman Kri’a magazine #5 (1976)
 Anglo-Jerusalem poet Gabriel Levin (b. 1948)
 Hebrew, meaning “spring of the vineyard”; ancient village southwest of Jerusalem; now a neighborhood in Greater Jerusalem.
 American poet Charles Olson (1910-1970); American poet John Ashbery (b. 1927)
 John Ashbery’s Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975).
 Hebrew literary scholar & translator Shimon Sandbank (b.1933); Anglo-Jerusalem scholar Ruth Nevo (b.1924); Anglo-Jerusalem poet & translator Robert Friend (1941-1988).
 American-Israeli poet & translator Shirley Kaufman (1923-2016).
 Jewish ritual fringes.
Traditional Jewish hymn.
 Hebrew modernist poet Hayim Nachman Bialik (1873-1943).
 Bialik’s seminal 1915 essay on modernist Hebrew poetics.
 French philosopher Maurice Blanchot (1907-2003).