tn_gurevitch(4)a conversation on contemporary Hebrew poetics with Zali Gurevitch[1]

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[2]  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[3]                          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[4]    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[5]         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[6]     & 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[7]      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?[8]   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[9]     & 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[10]                & 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[11]             & when i started doing that   shimon sandbank & ruth nevo            who was a professor of english          of shakespeare at the university         & robert friend[12]             & 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[13] 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[14]       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[15]   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[16] 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[17] 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[18]     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.


[1] Based on a recording made in Gurevitch’s home on June 12, 2017.

[2] Hebrew poet Harold Schimmel’s (b. 1935) collection, Ar’ah (sections 1-8), 1979.

[3] Hebrew poet Maya Bejerano (b.1949).

[4] Hebrew, meaning “now”.

[5] Hebrew poet Aharon Shabtai (b.1939).

[6] Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000); Anglo-Jerusalem poet Dennis Silk (1928-1998); Hebrew poet Arieh Sachs (1932-1992).

[7] In Siman Kri’a magazine #5 (1976)

[8] Anglo-Jerusalem poet Gabriel Levin (b. 1948)

[9] Hebrew, meaning “spring of the vineyard”; ancient village southwest of Jerusalem; now a neighborhood in Greater Jerusalem.

[10] American poet Charles Olson (1910-1970); American poet John Ashbery (b. 1927)

[11] John Ashbery’s Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975).

[12] Hebrew literary scholar & translator Shimon Sandbank (b.1933); Anglo-Jerusalem scholar Ruth Nevo (b.1924); Anglo-Jerusalem poet & translator Robert Friend (1941-1988).

[13] American-Israeli poet & translator Shirley Kaufman (1923-2016).

[14] Jewish ritual fringes.

[15]Traditional Jewish hymn.

[16] Hebrew modernist poet Hayim Nachman Bialik (1873-1943).

[17] Bialik’s seminal 1915 essay on modernist Hebrew poetics.

[18] French philosopher Maurice Blanchot (1907-2003).