Twenty Girls to Envy Me Selected Poems of Orit Gidali
Edited and translated from the Hebrew
by Marcela Sulak
The University of Texas at Austin
2016, pp. 102, $16
Beauty in the Mundane
by Barbara Goldberg
Until the 1980s, women were a small minority among Hebrew writers. There was Russian-born Rahel Bluwstein (1890–1931), considered the “founding mother” of modern Hebrew poetry by women. Esther Raab (1894–1981) was the first native-born Israeli woman poet, principally known for her rich use of modern Hebrew. Leah Goldberg (1911–1970), born in East Prussia, was the only major female poet in Israel in the 1930s and 1940s. Russian-born Zelda Schneersohn-Mishkovsky (1914–1984), known simply as Zelda, was an ultra-Orthodox Jew who drew from the world of Jewish mysticism, fable and Russian folklore. And there was Yona Wallach (1944–1985), whose work was bold, provocative and sexually explicit. When Dalia Ravikovitch’s (1936–2005) poems began to appear in the late 1950s, she became an instant success. Later in life she became an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies and an ardent advocate for the Palestinian population in the occupied territories.
Israel’s heavily male-dominated literary establishment relegated these writers to the fringes. Male publishers and critics often dismissed their writing as too domestic and, as was said about Zelda’s early work, too focused on the torments of unrequited love. Their voices, however, resonated with Israeli audiences precisely because of their evocative expression of and preoccupation with emotion. They protested the macho spirit of Israeli culture, with its glorification of both war and the warrior, in which women are consigned to the role of helpmate or guardian of home and hearth. It was women who could write about the price of war and reveal the pain of the bereaved.
Like the women who came before her, Orit Gidali’s themes are distinct from those of Israel’s male writers. At 42, she is among the top-selling poets in Israel, and the window she opens onto women’s life is rarely glimpsed in Israeli literature. Details of daily life, such as reading the newspaper or preparing a Sabbath meal, populate the poems in her new collection, Twenty Girls to Envy Me. There is the freshness and pain of love, its anxieties, its little daily delights, as in “Child,” in which she tells of the pleasure of putting a child to bed, affirming that something does lie beyond outer space, and for its sake “I am reaching for the light about your head, / turning it on, then off, then on again, winking at the stars from inside the house.” With Gidali, the mundane can be lyrical. In “Hard Morning,” she speaks plainly and directly. “It was a difficult morning for us, the light wasn’t kind. / all at once I looked fat, I preferred to shower alone.” This is one of the pleasures of reading Gidali—the frequent changes in tone, in voice and in rhythm.
Orit Gidali is among the top-selling poets in Israel, and the window she opens onto women’s life is rarely glimpsed in Israeli literature.
Her translator, Marcela Sulak, explains that for Gidali, “The domestic sphere is the stage on which the drama of the geopolitical is revealed on an individual scale.” Even the joys of motherhood, a common thread in the collection, are complicated for Gidali by the ongoing violence in Israel. Mothers cannot help but know that their children will grow to be fodder for the next war. In “Heir to the Curfew,” she writes: “Do not drink, my heir to the curfew, from the waters / of conflict, from the waters of Meribah… Do not take part, my heir to the curfew, in the shelling.”
Some of Gidali’s poems are stamped with the awareness that the past is ever-present. She makes the Hebrew Bible relevant by retrieving biblical narratives and reimagining figures such as Isaac, Rachel and Jacob in the present day. Some of these characters dwell inside the poet herself; others literally inhabit her bed. In “Kohelet,” Gidali envisions King Solomon and his wives in bed: “my silk rubbing against their silk, my flesh would choose among / them, and my flesh was already sweet in their flesh.” Gidali humanizes Solomon and explores his vulnerabilities—in particular, the great king’s deep loneliness. Despite possessing 100 wives, he didn’t know “a single one / [he] could recognize by smell / or by her skin or her feet.” In other poems, Gidali interweaves her personal biography into those of biblical characters. Gidali’s husband’s first wife took her own life and Gidali adopted their child. In “Curse of the Dead Woman,” Gidali anxiously ponders whether, as her husband’s second wife, she is more like Leah or Rachel: “Curse of Rachel and Leah burning in me, / this curse of she who does not know which of them is she.”
As Sulak writes in her elegant introduction to the volume, these poems emphasize relationships and openness. A further word about Sulak, herself a poet with three published collections. She is no stranger to the particular rigors of translation, and her work here gives truth to the dictum that it takes a poet to translate a poet. Sulak rises to the translator’s challenge of preserving the poem’s underlying core. By conveying the freshness, spirit and musicality of the originals, she makes Gidali’s poems sing.
These are necessary poems, universal in their call for honesty and compassion. Twenty Girls to Envy Me is on the longlist for the prestigious 2017 PEN Award for poetry in translation. We are fortunate indeed to have these poems—both in Hebrew and English—singing in unison.
Barbara Goldberg, a recipient of the Felix Pollak Poetry Prize, has written five prize-winning poetry books and has translated and edited numerous anthologies of contemporary Israeli poetry, including poet Moshe Dor’s Scorched by the Sun.