The Innisfree Poetry Journal
by Jean Nordhaus on Moshe Dor and Barbara Goldberg
Moshe Dor, Scorched by the Sun. The Word Works,
translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Goldberg and Moshe Dor
The power to hold and accommodate contradiction is a signal characteristic of irony, as of metaphor—and, for that matter, of all good poetry. By that measure, the Israeli poet Moshe Dor, whose new collection of poems, Scorched by the Sun has appeared in a splendid English translation by Dor and his wife Barbara Goldberg, is a supreme ironist—and also a supreme romantic. A recipient of just about every literary prize the state of Israel awards to writers (the Bialek Prize and—twice—the Prime Minister's prize), Dor is the consummate man of letters, a leading figure in Israeli letters who deserves to be equally well-known here. He has published over 40 books. This book of poems is his fourth in English translation.
Dor's poems are at once straightforward and canny, complex and simple, wry and lyrical, bitter and joyous. They are steeped in the colors and smells, the language and history of his troubled homeland, where past and present, beauty and turmoil are all tumbled together:
Spring hasn't arrived, but in my dream my nostrils fill
with your smell, lost motherland, the smell of eucalypti
on the banks of the Yarkon on a sunny day,
the smell of oil from gas stations along the coastal plain,
falafel browning in frying pans
History is embedded in his language and walks beside him on his way to the grocery store. Political reality and personal experience are intimately entwined. Exile and longing are persistent states of mind, and the threat of war is never far away.
Every day faces blush anew, not
from shame, but from blood spilling
on both sides of the invisible border;
staining olive leaves and the flesh
of man because he is
the tree of the field.
Dor belongs to a "generation praised for holding back," raised to be dry-eyed and furious in the face of the daily death tolls. We "created ourselves out of fury," he writes, "severing/ our umbilical cords with our own teeth."
and if my eyes seem moist to you today—it's the north
wind scorching them with icy fingers. Indeed, let the wind
be blamed for that sound coming from my direction, that
howling like a wounded beast, tired unto death.
This mental toughness and restraint provide the sinew of his poems. Yet for all this toughness, Dor is, above all, a lyricist. Even poems of lament and anger, like "Heaviness" and "In Praise of Hate," are essentially love poems. His double muse, the objects of eros and longing, are two-fold, a country and a woman, and sometimes (in echo of the Song of Songs) the two images merge into one:
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.
Despite their biblical landscape and sometimes grim scenarios, Dor's poems are full of humor and sharp observation, metaphorical richness and ease, the landscape of myth brought down to the realm of reality by a wealth of daily detail. The beloved, whose body is likened to the hills of Jerusalem, goes for massages and is torn between "debating the importance of Jewish traditions" and her appointment with the hairdresser. A squirrel hunches on a finial like "a Roman senator/ brooding on the Empire's decline." Friends meet for hummus and Turkish coffee or watch soccer games while cracking sunflower seeds between their teeth.
Landscape, weather, the sheer joy of being alive in this world provide moments of pleasure and sudden radiance in defiance of the indignity of aging, the grief of exile, physical pain, political turmoil and loss. There are meaty poems of myth and legend reimagined. Adam and Eve walk about Eden "innocent / of sex, slums, literary theory," ignorant of history, the destroyer, anchored on the other side of the island. The patriarch Abraham explains that he didn't intend to break the idols. It was an accident, He complains bitterly of God's yoke, wishing he had rejected a harsh One in favor
of a bickering family of gods, all of them lusting
for power, easy to play one against the other.
Other poems, like "In My Dream My Life," are brief and mysterious as a breath, a lyric sigh:
In my dream my life was a stretch of deserted
railroad tracks, grass growing between the crossties,
tracks rusty because of the weather.
And in my dream I walked along those tracks
and after awhile I stopped and sat down
and buried my face in my arms.
In her introduction to The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and The Artists They Inspired, Francine Prose cites as one of the essential attributes of a muse "the ability to make the artist feel that he (or she) is in the presence of the perfect audience" and points to Lou Andreas-Salomé, "whom Freud described as 'the great understander.'" In this regard, a good translator, like a good psychiatrist, can be said to share some of the qualities of a good muse. Everyone knows, by now, that translating poetry is impossible: "traduttore-traditore," Poetry is "that which gets lost in translation," etc. "I ask for the impossible," writes Dor (in "Distance") "that you hear my heart through / the din of the world."
To be truly
heard—beyond the question of translation, isn't this what we all want? Most of
us who will read Scorched by the Sun cannot
know how Dor's poems sound and feel in their original Hebrew, but in Goldberg,
Dor has found a sensitive and astute co-translator, an attuned listener, who
has helped transform his words into the music of tough and resonant English
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