I once saw a poster that read, “A woman who reads is a dangerous creature.” It made me smile. Truth is often as simple as that. I had an addendum- Beware the woman who dares. I stop that statement there because, while there are writings and writings- the sort that grabs you by the collar and drags through the mire requires courage. It is that sort of writing that bleeds out of you after you howl at the moon and slice your eyeball with a paper-thin razor.
When I first read Tali Cohen Shabtai, I thought of Frida Kahlo. The wilderness of colours that pervaded Kahlo’s art, the way her body was an ambassador of her art and how the person in totality was art. And when I went through Tali’s collected works- I found I was not far off the mark.
Inebriated/ Also a poet
That with him we looked like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo….
These are the opening lines of one of her poems from her bi-lingual collection, Protest. The more I read her, the more I began associating her with the sort of lineage that gave us poets such as Eavan Boland and Hollie McNish. The sort that carry the ghosts of Plath, Sexton, Rich, Angelou. Those that disrupt the conventional lines of what poetry by ‘women’ must sound like.
As an Israeli who has lived in many places, the memories of her heritage and legacy lie heavy on her hands as she interrogates the meaning of her nationality, her identity and what it signifies to the world. Rarely does one see a poet ask
I sought an immersion of my bones
From a different nation
I left the bounds of Isssrael.
This time free, shouting, enjoying myself.
How did you know to have intercourse with me for years, Israel?
(I offered myself to Tourists)
But Tali does more than to interrogate the effect that nations and histories have on the minds and bodies of people. She draws maps to her bodies and invites worlds to come reside in her. And has an uncanny knowledge of the ways minds work.
If I behave
The way I live
(From the collection Protest)
This wonderful awareness brings to mind the beautiful abandon that is so much the part of the philosophy of Lady Gaga, that icon of personal liberty in the twenty-first century. In the world of suits and power dressing, Tali shimmers in Samba attires. And that is welcome.
There is a wonderful, vibrant poetic culture that stems from Israel, that goes beyond the immeasurable expressions of Yehuda Amichai, Dan Pagis, Dahlia Ravikovitch and Michal Govrin- some of Israel’s biggest names.
At poetry festivals in Israel, some of them organized by the poets themselves, thousands gather to reminisce in verse the history of violence, wanderings, displacement, pain, love and other gratifications. These narratives are powerful and evocative and carry their geographies and interrogations. There is something distinctive about poetry from and about Israel. The questions seem tinged with red, love is written with an iron nib, the smell of earth permeates everything. There is a primal feel to the way the poets sing of everything from God to land to food.
In the beginning God created
the heavens that really are not
and the earth that wants to touch them.
In the beginning God created
threads stretched between them
between the heavens that really are not
and the earth crying out.
And the man he created
the man who is a prayer and a thread
touches that which is not
with a touch of softness and light.
Rivka Miriam (In the Beginning)
Or this that comes from one of the forces to reckon with
It’s August. The only thing to breathe is everybody’s stains
Sometimes when I board a train
Or just stand along the empty platform—
Sometimes when I'm thirsty, I mean really dying of thirst
Jessica Greenbaum (The Yellow Star that Goes with Me)
The modern writers in a sense bridge the gap Israel and the world as they write of violence and unrest across the world that speaks the same language across continents.
Once in a village that is burning
because a village is always somewhere burning
And if you do not look because it is not your village
it is still your village
Elana Bell (Your Village)
These are some of the noteworthy female poets of Israeli origin. I thought it would be better to concentrate on the female-identifying voices for this post. By no means is this account exhaustive, but it offers an insight into the cadences of verse from the region. The ways that displacement is interwoven into lines about love or moonlight are a testimonial to the unhomed, who are never at peace. Their quest, their journeys still continue across deserts and mountains and oceans. There is the realization that much of these will have to part to bring the departed and living to their homes.
To love is to tell the story of the world. There was
an ocean with a boat mountains a meadow too painful to stare
at directly. Haven’t I been here before? Yes. No: not quite here.
Nomi Stone (On World making)
I have wondered if poetry truly speaks a universal language and if the ideas in one language are perfectly comprehensible in another and if poems written in one language, translated into another and read by the light of a third can make sense. These poems made me realise that it is not about the language at all- it is about the intensity of experience, the sensibilities that waken to pain, love, envy- words that stir in the soil composed of hopes, dreams, ambitions and lives trampled underfoot- the memory of rot, decay and flowers – all of which coalesce into spaces where it is rocks that bloom on the branches of plants and memories are irrigated with tears and blood. These are human experiences. These are lines of poetry growing in fields that are littered with laughs, rainbows and rib cages. What’s not to identify and understand when a woman/ poet says,
In your world I’m in fifth place
after the one in power
after the generation that is sorta new
after the Mizrahi who enters the fucking pantheon
after the radicals who come after.
You sit in circles
and never shut up.
Fifth place my ass,
Mizrahi women will write a million poems.
Tehila Hakimi (Fifth Place)
Or when Agi Mishol, writes of those insidious cycles that govern life on earth:
On the kitchen
carries a blue-feathered
the beak still
in a pincer grip
on a pomegranate twig
each of us holds
in our mouths.
And while talking about the politics of language and comprehending cultures in translation, the opening lines of the winner of this year’s Man Booker International comes to mind. I was ten and stopped taking off my coat. That morning, Mum had covered us one by one in udder ointment. It came out of a yellow Bogena tin and was normally used to prevent dairy cows’ teats from getting cracks, calluses and cauliflower-like lumps. This was the first I was hearing of udder ointment on faces! But sitting vigilant near the corpse of a loved one- in case it was all a mistake and they decide to wake up, won’t be something I encountered for the first time in The Discomfort of Evening. I came with that knowledge ingrained.
The pain was shared.
The poetic oeuvre from Israel must be discussed widely in terms of the vast landscapes it covers and the diaspora that sends in its writing from the world over. Notable names such as Navit Barel, Tal Nitzan, Hagit Grossman have a significant impact on the way verses have highlighted the fragmented lives of this country.
Tali Cohen Shabtai, produces a potent cocktail of narratives and a shamanic energy that permeates everything she touches. Her words seem incapable of standing still on the page. They flicker, sizzle and throw bizarre shadows on the walls. Words seem incidental to this poet as she seems to be able to communicate through energy.
I build tactics
While you sleep
On how to admit
To my crime
We make love
And my War
It is here that I leave you to shoot up on the inimitable poetry of Tali Cohen Shabtai, a persona who is at once everywhere and nowhere. And it is fitting- as she comes from a land that since the beginning of some concepts of time has been a dream that was dreamt of so ardently that people parted oceans, crossed deserts and yet haven’t arrived at. Like all those promises.
Ideology as a way of life
Women like me, yes
have been added over the years to overshadow
what preceded us
that is mostly
not in line
with our agenda.
The accepted wording is
will satisfy our desires –
Desires? Ours? Well then, I write
in the female first person plural
so as not to sound
as one who sins with pretension
as an individual woman,
I do not have many female friends for this journey
and those who have already passed
through a station or two
A woman like me
to stay free
and at the same time
to be in it
with boycotts in double-digit ages
until the arrival
of the adolescence age
I bear this bitter
So! Spare judging
that “Cohen Shabtai
of her own…”
as Amos Levitan* wrote about me.
with the goal of
I collect poems of the margins of humankind,
they have a greater potential
to waver from
the conventions –
just like me!
With 50 cents
in my wallet
live my own actions
my inarticulate mouth
will be passed over and my eyes?
My eyes are blinded.
Women like me, particularly
at the beginning of
the fifteenth century
were persecuted and burned
for being independent and strong
at the Catholic church’s instruction
Nowadays? You can petition
the High Court of Justice.
So it is for a woman like me
*A well-known Israeli poet and editor.
Sunset before sunrise
‘The sunset is preparation for the strengthening sunrise the next day’
This sounds to me sloganistic if nice to write, yet
not patently accurate and can even be interpreted
as lowering the value of
that knows a thing or two about ‘rising.’
By the way,
I checked this statement at twighlight
the sunset was even observed
in “Cogan Marina” in Oslo.
And the sunrise the following morning amounted to an incline that I trod and rose from a flat, slightly elevated footpath that can be climbed by foot and reach a level
slightly higher by a few centimeters between each stair.
Secondly, there is no necessity for the sunset I
feel it covering itself every evening between my breasts
beyond the western horizon
watching from within the earth while I am
in the east.
So it is true
some phenomena occur with the rising of the sun
as we rise higher, the atmosphere is thinner at a height of a few hundred meters and then it dissipates into space
and there are also those who believe that the sun’s red color at sunset is explained by the sun passing in the evening over hell and in the morning at sunrise over the roses of
and this is indeed a nice allegory.
– but –
In order to remain sane
immediately after sunset I adopt the time between the suns – time between day
that ends with the stars’ coming out
When I rise for the shacharit morning prayer and recite the blessing “I thank you in front of you,” opposite a hazy
Observing every wheel of the sun under the line
of view is a creation that many
have knowledge of
It is known that in the Jewish halacha (ritual law) that the time of the sunset determines the timeline for various commandments, such as the mincha afternoon prayer,
or when the Sabbath
For me? It’s just sunset
I am Tali
I read prose only in the third person,
and only translated prose,
poetry, I also read in Hebrew.
I love Wislawa Szymborska, she copies in written word
in a brilliant fashion, and was recognized during her lifetime and was not among
the female poets who danced the ‘dance of death in life’
for that I lowered her credit.
I think it’s impossible to tag in one breath! A contemporary poetess with
characters that preserved the myth of the ‘cursed poetesses’. For they are
found only in the underground or tomb
There is no negotiation with this judgement
Mainstreamism repels me.
Bestsellers I do not touch.
I love nonfiction books.
Newspapers do not count at all as the writing and reading genre.
And my therapist I address in the second person singular
while omitting the third degree: “doctor”, it’s ok, it’s acceptable –
many poetesses have sat in my chair in front of him
Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath,
and those who ended up as their own hangman.
I often write in the first person singular and also to talk
my way to circumvent
myself from afar.
And do not ask what I often write about! I do not like rhetorical questions that belittle
Such a therapist
I play games in my mind – behind papers never
Written about the tired person I am –
She’s trying to praise my grief
On papers gone to early retirement
On shelves of book stores
Where the bourgeois are the first clients to borrow
The fairy tale that’s posted in Friday’s edition of a
She’s trying to decorate me with
A lower analogy of R.I.P. poets
Who produced the best comedies
Of their life
By blank papers and faked orgasm
As their own hangmen
But She, She must be warned! It’s a static position!
« A woman who gets lost,
In translation »
Will never be tested twice
Not in this scenario
Tali Cohen Shabtai was born in Jerusalem and has lived in places like Norway and the USA. She has three collections of poems to her name, of which Purple Diluted in a Black’s Thick and Protest are bilingual. The third is Nine Years From You. Her fourth book is slated for release in 2020.