Interview with poet Moshe and translator Barbara Goldberg, December 2012
Moshe Dor, born in Tel Aviv in 1932, is a major figure in contemporary Israeli literature. Author of some 40 books, he is also a prodigious translator of American poetry. He himself has been translated into Chinese, Arabic and 20 other languages. He received the Bialik Prize, Israel’s top literary award and twice received Israel’s Prime Minister’s Award. Former Counselor for Cultural Affairs at the Israeli Embassy in London, Dor also served as Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at American University, Washington, DC. His most recent book in English translation is Scorched by the Sun: Poems of Moshe Dor (The Word Works, 2012).
Barbara Goldberg has authored four prize-winning books of poetry, most recently, The Royal Baker’s Daughter, recipient of the Felix Pollak Poetry Prize (University of Wisconsin Press). The recipient of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, she also received an award from Columbia University’s Translation Center. For her work on Scorched by the Sun: Poems of Moshe Dor, she received a grant from the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature. A former speechwriter, she is currently Writer-in-Residence in the MFA program at American University, Washington, DC.
Dor and Goldberg have translated and edited The Fire Stays in Red: Poems by Ronny Someck (University of Wisconsin Press/Dryad Press) as well as three anthologies, one receiving the Witter Bynner Foundation Award, of contemporary Israeli poetry, including After the First Rain: Israeli Poems on War and Peace (Syracuse Press/Dryad Press)
You have a reputation of being a “nativist,” or someone born and bred in the Land of Israel. Since you were born in Tel Aviv, do you consider yourself the bard of Tel Aviv?
If I had to define myself, it would be as a sabra more so than as a poet. The sabra is a cactus native to the Land of Israel, thorny on the outside, sweet in the inside. Sabra is also slang for someone born and bred in the Land of Israel. As a sabra, my poetry is infused with the sights, smells and taste of Israel.
So I don’t consider myself the “Bard of Tel Aviv” though I did essentially grow up with the city itself. Tel Aviv is a thoroughly modern city today, with skyscrapers, shopping malls, luxury hotels facing the sea and a promenade which runs along the coast from Tel Aviv to Jaffa. But back in 1932, when I was born, golden dunes rolled down to the sea and wild spinach flourished in our yard. Caravans of camels loaded with bags of zifzif, a coarse sand used for construction, lumbered along the beach to Jaffa, their bells tinkling. And it isn’t just the city I saw change so much over time. My personal biography is entwined in the history of our country.
What was it like to grow up in Jewish Palestine under the British?
Great Britain signed the Balfour Declaration towards the end of World War I, establishing Palestine as the Jewish Homeland. During the war, they entered the Sinai through Egypt and drove the Turks out of Palestine, which later became a British mandate. The British were a power to struggle against. As a child in the 1930s, I lived through what we called the Riots, and the Arabs called the Arab Rebellion. Arabs and Jews fought each other and we both fought the British.
When I was 14, I became a member of the Hagana, the main underground movement against the British; I was 16 – not longer a child – at the time of the birth of the State of Israel.
What kind of child were you?
I was a difficult child and stuttered, especially under stress. Because I skipped a grade, I was younger than my classmates and struggled physically and emotionally to keep up. My great pleasure and consolation was reading. I was a bookworm, and already at a young age was smitten by poetry, particularly the great Hebrew translation of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. I also read translations of Jules Verne, the first two books of the Polish trilogy written by Henryk Szienkievitic. I gobbled up the British classics: Dickens, Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson. Some asked if it felt strange to read books written by our British occupiers. But that was just plain rubbish. I just loved the English language.
I had two hideaways where I used to read. One was our cellar, really a kind of pit dug in the sand under our porch. That’s where my family kept stuff they couldn’t use. There was a hole in one of the outer walls that let in sunlight. I used to sit there and read. The second was in the dense foliage of one of the two sycamore trees that grew in our backyard. Those trees were absolutely immense – they must have put down roots during the Turkish era. There I’d read, or pretend I was Tarzan.
Tell us something about your family.
We were poor. There were no jobs in Tel Aviv so my father lived and worked in Haifa, only returning home every fortnight or so. We took in a boarder to make ends meet. We’d also pluck leaves off the wild spinach which flourished in our backyard, stuff them into sacks and sell them to the green grocer. Ben Gurion – the first Prime Minister of Israel – and his busybody wife Paula lived nearby, but their house was considerably more spacious. Paula would shop at our local cooperative grocery where she, with unbridled curiosity, would peek into the baskets of the other women and express her opinion about the contents. This led to clashes with my mother, who unlike the other housewives, did not consider herself committed to any of Paula’s views. When she became too inquisitive, my mother reacted sharply and put her in her place. My mother was intelligent, but not a reader, not to be compared to father who was a master of the Hebrew language. She was a bitter woman, leaving Russia before she had a chance to go to university. Tensions ran high between my parents. All he wanted when he came home was peace and quiet.
When did you know you were a writer?
I started to write as a child. What pushed me? I don’t know. I’d fill up copy books with stories. I guess it was all garbage. My father was one of the young pioneers who escaped from Soviet Russia and made their way into Palestine. The group was headed by the poet Avraham Shlonsky. My father showed my stuff to Shlonsky and asked, ” What do you think, Avraham? Should my son go on writing? Or is it just futile?” As if it would have made a difference! But Shlonsky looked at my garbage and said, “The boy should go on writing.”
What kind of sacrifices were called for during the early of the State of Israel?
Winning our independence came at a terrible cost—our casualties during the War of Independence amounted to 1% of the Jewish population here – 6,000 out of 600,000. And the re-building of a national homeland taxed our strength and will to the limit. Those first years of the State were very hard. The least of it was the rationing of eggs and butter. It was the collective taking priority over the voice of the individual. Working in unison was what it took to make the desert bloom. I and other artists had to essentially choke our own voice unless it sang in a chorus.
For me, the agony of the fallen demanded a personal lamentation. And the continuation of a “state of siege” with its endless skirmishes, not to mention the in-between “little wars,” demanded the creation of a new poetry evoking the pains, hopes and yearnings of the Self, and to carve its place in the socio-cultural web. Hebrew was a unifying force.
What is like to write in such an ancient language?
The rejuvenation of the Hebrew language, long dormant except in religious writings, had been kept alive by linguistic zealots, poets and thinkers. But how it developed into a vibrant language of daily life, a language of the street and the kitchen, deserves a chapter of its own. Suffice it to say that its glorious awakening could not have been achieved without the heroic, at times tragic, campaign of Zionism to bridge the horrendous, paralyzing gap in Jewish history and recreate a statehood in the ancient motherland. My own poetry maintains an unbroken tie with the Hebrew Bible. The land of Israel is home to biblical landscapes –the rose of Sharon, or Megiddo, or the tamarisks under which Abraham sat– we walk over ancient stones. And though we may forget what took place here, the stones remember.
The ancient world is reincarnated in modern usages, similes and puns. The modernization of the language, which is short of miraculous, introduced a constant stream of innovations, but old and new manage to coexist, intertwine and feed each other.
They say you are one of Israel’s great love poets.
Love poetry is ingrained in the Bible. First and foremost, we have the Song of Songs. Then we have love affairs intertwined in stories of political machinations. David falls in love with Bathsheba, but the way to her heart is strewn with obstacles that should be removed—at times violently—before romance emerges triumphant.
As for me, I have two great loves: for my motherland – the Land of Israel – and for a particular woman. These are the two fountains that feed my creativity – the Land and the woman. But I’m in perpetual exile: I’m at home with both, though when I’m in my motherland, I’m exiled from my woman, and vice versa. Integration of woman into country and country into woman is a continuing struggle. And from this struggle poems emerge that express the freshness of love, its joys, fears, its little daily delights. I think my poem “Topography” says it best:
My motherland is
your breasts – the hills
your belly – the coastal plain,
and between your thighs sometimes
the saltiness of the Dead Sea
the sweet Kinneret.
INTERVIEW OF BARBARA GOLDBERG
By Poetry International
What is it like for you to translate from Hebrew, the language that is most modern and utterly traditional?
The Hebrew language is spare, rough and guttural, without frills, sounding much like how we might imagine the Old Testament God to speak. By spare, I mean that it is about one third more compact than English. It can take English an entire phrase to say what in Hebrew is just a few words. And the words most likely derive from the 8,000 words in the Hebrew Bible. Dor’s work is so rich in allusions to the Hebrew Bible that many of the resonances may be lost on the American reader. For instance, “Vagaries of Time” opens this way: “Hour clutches hour like Jacob/ his brother’s heel.” How to understand this image without knowing the Biblical reference to the struggle between Jacob and his twin brother Esau over which twin would be born first, and thus be sole inheritor of their father Isaac’s estate? This struggle while still in the womb foreshadows the great rift between the brothers later on over birthright. And how to understand the poem “Earthquake” without knowing about Jacob’s struggle with the angel? Jacob nearly vanquishes the angel, but before departing, the angel touches him on the thigh, permanently crippling him. Wherever possible I try to stick to the biblical language verbatim, thus Jacob “halts on his thigh” instead of “limps.” Another example would be Dor’s poem “By the Rivers of Babylon.” One could (badly) translate this as “At” or “Near.” The rivers of Babylon: refer to Psalm 137, which laments the fall of Jerusalem, which stands for the whole Motherland. The psalm exhorts the Judeans to remember this loss above all. The native speaker, in this case the poet himself, can enlighten the translator about the original reference. But often if references are cited in a footnote, or inserted into the translated text, the poem becomes clumsy and overwrought. Our loss. And yet, Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and Dante’s “Inferno” can be appreciated, even loved, without knowing all the allusions, loved because of the music and mystery. This is how I hope to solve this dilemma.
Do you feel, as Dor does in his poem “Earthly Thoughts on Hazohar Street at the Threshold of the Millennium” that “history walks beside you/ on your way/ to the grocery store?”
I do, especially when I learn that hazohar (the name of the street where the grocery store is located) means “splendor” or “radiance”, and that the Book of Zohar is considered the most important work of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism).
Even if the references were understood, Hebrew is still a language of resonance and associations. This is because it is based on root words, each with a whole family of words branching out from it. Meanings and connections emerge from a single root. For the Hebrew speaker, the sound of a word can be recognized as deriving from a particular root. One cannot even say “gate” (sha’ar) without conjuring up to the Hebrew speaker the holy gates to heaven in the Psalms, or the gates of the city. The verb, lishpoch, to pour, say a glass of water or wine, also means to spill, like blood. Today’s spoken Hebrew is a vital language, its slang richly peppered with Arab and Americanized words. Israelis speak of the “layers” of their language. It can be low and scruffy, or elevated. Poets from Dor’s generation can incorporate many of these layers into their speech as well as their writing. As he says, “I can adopt the speech patterns and accents of any cab driver. We are the best of friends by the end of the ride.”
Tell us something about your own background.
My parents were diaspora Jews, my father was from German, and my mother from Czechoslovakia. They escaped from Europe with my sister and grandmother via France, Spain, Portugal and Brazil. German was spoken at home. I am first generation American, thus, I grew up with one foot in America, and the other in the dark forests of the Brothers Grimm. Most of my family died in the holocaust. It was the uninvited guest in our house. I was raised, like Dor, totally secular, feeling a strong identity with the Jewish people, but no special affinity for the Jewish religion. I knew the biblical stories and Jewish holidays, but that was about it.
What I’ve learned from translating Moshe’s poetry has enriched my life both personally and as a poet. But I suspect that’s true for anyone seriously engaged in the art of translation. It’s a way of slipping into another skin and breathing a foreign air. And for any poet, who by definition is a lover of language, understanding the structure and subtleties of another language just makes one more at home in this multilingual and diverse world. As Robert Pinsky, former U.S. Poet Laureate, says about the poems in Scorched by the Sun, “Ardent, compressed, pungent and lyrical, these poems have a glorious force that recalls the roots of all poetry.”
Reprinted with permission from Poetry International, a world-class literary magazine based on the campus of San Diego State University, which caters to an international community of poets.